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The Lionel Gelber Shortlist: Five Books Every Foreign Minister Should Have in Her Carry-On Luggage

03/17/2015 04:20 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT
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Every February, the Lionel Gelber Prize jury hones in on five titles that any good foreign minister should be packing in her carry-on bags. Then in March, they pick one title as the world's top book in global affairs. Not surprisingly, the books often tackle great themes: the dynamics of the Cold War, the role of Germany in Europe, the impact of a genocide on superpower politics have all featured in past lists.

But this year's authors draw their canvas closer on the individuals who create geopolitics.

There are great figures, of course. Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September is an intimate portrait of Carter, Begin and Sadat wrestling with themselves as they try to find peace at Camp David. The Last Empire by Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy hones in on Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Ukraine's Kravchuk as they tear the Soviet Union apart.

Other books tell us the stories of quiet citizens and public servants who, together, shape geopolitics just as much. In My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit portrays his country through a hodgepodge of compatriots. Evan Osnos describes China by showing us daily life in transition, like how one ambitious engineer tries to date girls. And Jack Fairweather uses the experience of people like a young Australian diplomat stranded in remote villages to explain why the West lost Afghanistan in The Good War.

Each of these books bring us geopolitics as a "grey" zone filled with individuals who are wrestling with their own demons and reshaping whole states as a result. And like great novels--or good psychotherapy--their focus on individuals yields unlikely truths about the larger world. Here are five:

1. Camp David Was Theatre

Lawrence Wright, the author of Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, isn't just a reporter for The New Yorker and author of The Looming Tower--which won the Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of Al Qaeda. He is also a playwright who began researching Camp David for a play that the Carter Center commissioned him to write. His playwright's eye makes this an intimate psychological portrait of three leaders facing their own demons, in each others' presence, for two weeks--while the rest of the world holds its breath.

Certainly his cast seemed unlikely to craft a lasting peace: A grandiose Arab dictator, an extreme hawk running Israel and a Democrat facing re-election with a failing foreign policy. Wright peels back each individual's daily struggles, from failure to failure until the final moment when they succeeded. I closed the book thinking that today's very similar cast could, possibly, do the same.

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2. The Bottom-Up View Of China Is Different

The shelves in the non-fiction section of my favourite bookshop groan under the weight of books about a rising China. Most of them take a top-down view, of the country's booming economy or its plans for the world.

Fewer books focus on China from the bottom: The woman running a dating website, the English language guru who teaches night school, the auction house owner who has learned by trial and error how best to bribe a judge. Evan Osnos gives us that unusual view of China in Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune Truth And Faith In The New China. These are the stories he witnessed over years in the country reporting for The Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker. It's an intimate portrait of what he calls the "dark and the light" of a country that is trying to control the nearly 1.4 billion ambitions it has unleashed.

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3. America Didn't Kill The Soviet Union

I thought I knew how the Cold War ended: America beat the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union collapsed. But Serhii Plokhy, who runs Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute, reminded me that the two events were very different. His book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union is a blow-by-blow account based on recently released documents.

The West clearly won the Cold War when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the USSR lingered on for two more years. Its ultimate collapse had a lot more to do with the Ukraine's very dramatic divorce from Russia, than it had to do with Washington. Indeed, then-President Bush barely understood what was going on as competing bands of Russian, Soviet and Ukrainian politicians raced each other around the county by plane and train, each trying to build a power base. But the myth of American victory that year infused Washington with a hubris that led directly to the next Bush's disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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4. We Could Have Won Afghanistan

Remember when Afghanistan was the "Good War" -- the war that we had a right to be fighting, for all sorts of different reasons? The problem was that we had too many different reasons: We were there to fight Al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Pakistan. We were fighting for women's rights, or to kill the heroin trade. We were over there to rebuild a broken society in some provinces; in others we just wanted to rebuild dams. Every country and organization that descended on Afghanistan had its own reasons for being there. The only people not calling the shots in Afghanistan were the Afghans.

Jack Fairweather reported on the chaotic playground of western intentions of The Daily Telegraph and the Washington Post and he wove a remarkable amount of on-the-ground reporting into The Good War: Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan. That reporting led him to see things other accounts of the war miss altogether: Like the three or four key moments early on when we might have won, had we simply brought Afghans into the planning. And the dozens of moments after NATO's arrival, when our own disorganization tore our efforts--and Afghanistan apart.

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5. No One Speaks For Israel.

Usually when we think of Israel, we focus instinctively on its relationships with others. But Israeli journalist Ari Shavit turns the lens inward in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel--a psychological portrait of his own country.

Shavit's Israel is riven with different tribes. From the gay-inspired club scene in Tel Aviv to the West Bank settlers only a few miles away and the atrophied Peace movement. Israel is so polarized that few observers can give equal credit to all of them. Shavit does. He insists that each of them has a point, and that each has huge blind spots. He pushes them on both and, unusually, lets them speak for themselves.

I've always known Israel was tribal. I used to think Israel gave those tribes a single voice. Not quite. Israel's path through the world--at times inspiring, and at other times troubling--reflects the tensions between each tribe's own insights and its own blind spots.

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