02/13/2014 12:16 EST | Updated 04/15/2014 05:59 EDT

The Books That Will Transform Your Worldview

If the National Security Council has a book club, it's probably reading the Gelber Prize shortlist.

The prize, named for a Cold War diplomat who was also a leading scholar in U.S.-British relations, goes each March to the world's best English-language book on International Affairs. The shortlist comes out a month earlier. Every winter, I make a ritual of reading it in one go. And it changes the way I understand the ensuing year's news.

Of course, the big names pop up regularly - Ezra Vogel won in 2012 for his biography of Deng Xiaoping, Lawrence Wright's Looming Tower won in 2007 and Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll, won in 2004. But the shortlist always includes less widely known experts whose views are inevitably fresh to me: Last year's list included David Crist, the Pentagon's Iran man, whose Twilight War described 30 years of shooting war between the U.S. and Iran, and Sarah Paine's Wars of Asia which recasts World War Two around the fulcrum of China's civil war.

Taken together, each year's Gelber shortlist pries open a surprising set of big themes.

Two of this year's five books put the old Cold War back front-and-centre in my world view. Another two focus on the brawling between Allies at the start and end of World War Two, which, it turns out, shaped our current world at least as much as did their united front. And the fifth book pulled my head away from the China-U.S. dynamic long enough to realize that the world may actually revolve around Germany.

I spoke with the five authors of those books -- you can listen to the podcasts after each blurb -- and here's what I learned:

- It's Germany, stupid. While all his colleagues rush to Asia, Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms' book Europe places the "old world" at the centre of global dynamics -- and Germany as the pivot of Europe. Countries as far away as Asia can trace their relations with one another back, in part, to the German "problem": the fact that Europe's heartland wants desperately to be united even though no one else, anywhere, wants the resulting bloc to be very strong.

- America's nuclear arsenal was a lot like the Obamacare website. Once every two and a half days between 1950 and 1968, someone in the U.S. military did something incredibly dumb or dangerous with a nuclear weapon -- including dropping an A-bomb on the Gregg-family driveway in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. That's one of the chilling discoveries in Eric Schlosser's Command and Control. Weapon handlers themselves were seriously brave, and usually very skilled. But they were tooling around with the most complex weapons ever built, bolted to the most complex rockets ever built, all tied together by rotary-dial phones in the days before voice mail. And after all -- to quote the line in Apollo 13 when one more thing goes wrong -- it was a "government operation."

- Kissinger and Nixon did something worse in Bangladesh than they did in Chile -- and it's still messing up American foreign policy. Back in 1971, Pakistan killed and exiled millions of Bangladeshis. Princeton professor Gary Bass has poured through a hoard of unknown White House tapes, tracing every step in America's support for the genocide which happened at the very moment that Pakistan's president was opening Kissinger's secret channel to Mao. The Blood Telegram is named for Archer Blood, the U.S. consul in Dacca, whose staff begged Washington to stop the slaughter... and were ignored. Americans forget about this; Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis don't.

- America wasn't full of isolationists before Pearl Harbour, and FDR wasn't leading the charge to save Britain (quite). Few Americans wanted to fight Hitler in 1939, when FDR started pushing aid to Britain. But within two years the mood had shifted almost completely: Most Americans wanted to do the right thing. FDR, whose Democrats had been skewered in a series of congressional elections, was paralysed. If you lived through the tensions in America before the Iraq War, Lynn Olson paints a familiar scene in Those Angry Days. Complete with surprising heroes -- like Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie -- and unwitting villains, like Charles Lindbergh. (There's also a weird picture of a German general and a Japanese colonel, both in full battle dress, enjoying U.S. Army maneuvers near Buffalo in 1939.)

- Bretton Woods. Just that... After many efforts, I think I finally get it now. Of course, I've been throwing the term around for years, without knowing quite what I've been talking about. (And if you were to ask, I'd mumble something about the IMF, a New Hampshire ski resort and currency wars, before trying to change the topic.) Benn Steil takes us inside the 1944 meeting that defined the global regime of floating currencies and more-or-less open trade that we now take for granted. It wasn't an end-of-war "kumbaya" moment either. America set out to grab worldwide economic leadership from bankrupt Britain -- and won, thanks to a scrappy Treasury official who also happened to be a Communist spy. Yes, The Battle of Bretton Woods (as Steil calls his book) was that weird.

The Lionel Gelber Prize is sponsored by the Lionel Gelber Foundation and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

The winner will be announced on March 31.


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