In the first month of the Trump presidency, Washington insiders started circulating Stephen Bannon's reading list for anyone who might want to understand the apocalyptic lens through which the president's key adviser appears to see the world. This year's shortlist of Lionel Gelber prize books is a better view of the world as it actually is, in all its messiness and potential.
The five finalists in this year's contest for the world's best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs also happen to focus on two themes that preoccupy the White House: Islamism as a disruptive political force and the coexistence of an authoritarian Russia with an increasingly militarized U.S. government. But this work is deeply researched by journalists, scholars and in, one case, a journalist-scholar. They've sweated the details and embedded them in one compelling story after another, earning the power to change the way we think about the global dynamics Donald Trump aims to reshape.
Lionel Gelber would have been proud of this year's final five. He was one of Canada's leading Cold War diplomats, a friend of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and -- as a top authority on Anglo-American relations -- was briefly a special adviser to Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Lionel Gelber wrote eight books himself. He loathed "judgments out of context."
The Lionel Gelber Prize is awarded jointly by the Lionel Gelber Foundation, Foreign Policy magazine, and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Recent winners include The New York Times' Scott Shane, for Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone (2016); Hon. Chrystia Freeland, now Canada's foreign minister for Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2013); and Harvard Professor Ezra F. Vogel, one of the world's leading authorities on Chinese politics, for Deng Xiaoping and The Transformation of China (2012). Every year, we interview shortlisted authors for a podcast you can find here, with support from Focus Asset Management.
Three of this year's books dive deeply into Islamism -- the political movement (not Islam, the religion.)
It is impossible to paint Arab political movements with a single brush.
Robert Worth'sA Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS takes readers deep inside the Arab Spring and moves beyond those events to a perspective that's only becoming possible now. In Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World, Shadi Hamid explores the same events as a boots-on-the-ground scholar, integrating the messiness of North African street protests with the modern political theories that define democracy.
Both books underscore a key point: It is impossible to paint Arab political movements with a single brush. Even the single term "Arab Spring" is misleading. Each country that experienced uprisings against long-standing dictators did so in different ways and, notes Worth, broke apart in different ways as well. Those vastly different fault lines -- which simultaneously yielded a fragile democracy in Tunisia, a civil war next door in Libya, and a new military strongman one border over in Egypt -- are the basis for politics in the Middle East today.
Likewise, there is no single Islamist movement. The biggest and most deeply rooted Islamist groups - "mainstream Islamists" as Hamid calls them -- don't reject democracy at all. Instead, they're trying to reconcile the modern state with Islam. Hamid's exploration of that project yields constant surprises. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, he notes, was and remains deeply divided over whether it should ever have sought political power at all; the effort resulted in a brief government followed by a massacre in which at least 800 members died in Cairo's Rabaa Square.
Tunisia's Ennahda, a mainstream Islamist party, avoided that debacle by helping a secular government to take power; a secret process that Worth reports in powerful detail and that Hamid analyzes in the context of modern political philosophy. Some of the most poignant stories come in Worth's accounts of Yemen -- a country some say has more guns than people, and whose civil wars have become a bloodbath, but whose "Arab Spring" began with an almost Gandhian commitment to nonviolence.
Laura Secor takes up the story in the one Muslim power that, because it is neither Arab nor Sunni, stands outside Worth and Hamid's exploration: Iran. Her book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, is a remarkable visit deep inside the world of Iranian reformers and politics hidden from our normal view. Most of us see Iran through its foreign policy. But Iran's fights with other countries, Secor writes, misses "the soul of the matter."
The "soul of the matter," which Secor describes through the intimate lives of dozens of intellectuals and activists, is the rupture embedded in Iran's own name. As an "Islamic Republic," the Iranian state is built to serve "Islam," as defined by the will of its highest religious leaders. But it's also built to be a "republic" led by popular will and with surprisingly deep roots in Western political theory. Secor introduces us to a succession of Iranian politicians who invoke Western political thinkers like Karl Popper and Martin Heidegger the way American politicians invoke "the Founding Fathers."
The caricature of Iran as a monolithic terrorist machine dissolves in Secor's gutsy and unusual reporting.
Iran is forged in that fight between Islamists and reformers. Islamists inevitably seem to win; they have torture, massive prison complexes, and political corruption on their side. But somehow Iran's reformers remain a force. The caricature of Iran as a monolithic terrorist machine dissolves in Secor's gutsy and unusual reporting.
The Russia that Arkady Ostrovsky describes in The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's War is also a country of ideas -- and his book tells the story of how Russia changed the way it thinks about itself in the past 30 years. The line from Gorbachev to Putin, it turns out, runs right alongside the revolution in Russian media -- from Soviet censorship, through the opening of media during Glasnost, into the eruption of warring media empires under Yeltsin and the eventual coagulation of Russian media into a single set of voices around Putin, though not quite under his direct control.
Ostrovsky describes a decade of serious liberal thinking as Soviet identity morphed into Russian identity during the fall of Communism. But most Russians became cynical about individual rights as they felt control of the state slipping into the hands of criminal gangs, and as the war against Chechnya seemed to spiral out of control. Russian media both followed the shift and accelerated it.
Now Russia's post-communist idea of itself as a liberal, entrepreneurial country has dissolved largely into nationalism fed by a nationalist media that remains firmly based in TV. That shift has even changed the nature of war, Ostrovsky explains. Russia won Crimea with nary a shot, because Russian TV had spread blood libels about Ukrainian nationalists that drove Crimean Russians into the arms of Russian soldiers.
Indeed, the United States has also seen an unprecedented intersection between the military and everything else -- a huge change that Rosa Brooks profiles in her book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. If you wandered down Main Street USA in 1945, you might come across a dozen men and women in uniform over the course of a few blocks. Today, you'd struggle to meet a few who even know someone serving the military. But the U.S. military is, in fact, a larger part of American government than ever -- and that mission creep is bringing the Pentagon into everything from agricultural policy in Africa to health care in Colorado.
The stakes are high, too. "If we can't figure out whether or not there is a war, we have no way of deciding whether, where or to whom the law of war applies," she writes, "And that means we can no longer decide who lives and who dies."
The winner of the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize will be announced on February 28.
Brooks has had a powerful window on the growing military influence over American foreign policy. She helped run policy in the Pentagon during the Obama administration and had served in the State department during the Clinton Administration. She's also a law professor, a journalist and the wife of a former U.S. army special forces officer.
In her telling, the military's expansion seems not to be a bad thing in and of itself. The U.S. armed forces are filled with professionals who take rule of law, economic development and democratic reform very seriously. But America places itself at risk by walking through these changes blindly. Brooks urges an open and blunt discussion about how to align the expansion of America's military with the principles of American law.
The winner of the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize will be announced on February 28 at the Gelber Prize website.
The winner will receive the award and give a lecture at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, Canada on March 29, 2017.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
Also on HuffPost: