This list provides some suggestions for readers interested in getting into the field of International Relations (IR). Our list was drawn up with three criteria in mind: readability, non-paradigmatic texts, and breadth. First and foremost, we have given pride of place to books that are readable, seeking to avoid the Scylla of narrow academic concerns and the Charybdis of over-popification. Second, we believe that the conventional (American) view of IR as a set of debates between the paradigms of Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism is stultifying. We have therefore set aside many of the supposed “classics” of IR in favor of books that rarely appear on syllabi because they don’t easily fit into neat boxes but really deserve to be read more broadly. Third, we have emphasized breadth, with coverage of a wide range of topics across the subfields of IR.

Hopefully some of the books on this list will help you see global politics in a new light!

(in no particular order)

  1. While technically more a work of sociology or anthropology than one of IR, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is a solid effort to document the long-term downwards trends in our species’ use of violence. Pinker links the decline in warfare to several of IR’s key ideas: the rise of the modern nation-state, the pacifying effects of trade, the rise of global civil society, and the increasing attention paid to human rights. While some of its claims continue to elicit controversy, Better Angels provides the important macro-historical background for all the other books below.
  1. Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation makes the statement that markets don’t exist in a vacuum, but are embedded in social and cultural structures. Polanyi argues that we should not understand the rise of market societies and the creation of the nation-state as separate events but as inextricably bound together. As powerful central governments rose, they brought with them markets that had not previously intruded into lives marked more by local reciprocity. What we understand as “the free market” was planned. As the market brings labor and money under its auspices, it must also create a reaction from those who seek to protect themselves against massive social dislocations. In a world where global financial flows seem overwhelming and beyond our power to change, Polyani reminds us that man made this world and can also change it again. Elizabeth Warren and those who seek to subject economic power to popular law would approve.
  1. Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes became compulsory reading after the Great Recession. A comprehensive history of financial bubbles and their aftermath, Kindleberger argues that common processes underpin the recurring speculation over elusive profits. A “literary economist” of the old school, Kindleberger provides a salutary guide to human folly and its disastrous economic consequences.
  1. What do international organizations actually do? And why in the world would sovereign governments ever listen to them? Martha Finnemore and Michael Barnett do an excellent job of answering these questions in Rules for the World, focusing on both the pros and cons of IOs’ bureaucratic authority. The cons include the risk that IOs will succumb to “bureaucratic pathologies”, as was the case of the UN’s startling inaction during the Rwandan genocide. Given that Barnett was part of the US delegation to the UN at the time and was so shaken up by what he witnessed that he began a scholarly career to help process it all, he is well-positioned to write a case study on the dangers of contemporary international bureaucracy.
  1. It is rare for academics to have both the keenness of insight to revolutionize a field as well as a gift for beautiful prose that makes you eager to finish reading their books (for examples of the former without the latter, cf. Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt). Cynthia Enloe has both. As one of the pioneering feminist IR scholars, she forced the discipline in the 1990s to confront its total myopia towards gender by asking empirically, “Where are the women in IR?” (Bananas, Beaches and Bases). Over twenty years later, she is still at it. In Nimo’s War, Emma’s War, she critically examines the 2004 Iraq War, analyzing both its causes and consequences in an evenhanded and empathetic way.
  1. It is incredibly rare for a work of political analysis to be praised to high heaven in The Daily Telegraph and The London Review of Books, The National Review and New Left Project, but such a work is the late Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void. What started off as a journal article in New Left Review became a widely shared book-length critique for those who have long suspected that the political malaise that affects discourse in their country might be part of a wider phenomenon. In essence, Mair’s argument is that there is something wrong (even) in the state of Denmark: membership of political parties is collapsing, participation in elections are on a propitious decline, and political elites are drawn from smaller and shallower pools of ambitious party types. We live in a time of zombie politics, ruled over by a cartel of too similar parties and politicians, while citizens are increasingly content to withdraw from politics rather than fight for it ourselves.
  1. Do governments act rationally? And can the actual substance of global politics–the officials, the secretaries, the paperwork, the bureaucratic procedures–be abstracted away such that we can unproblematically talk about “states” doing this or that? Graham Allison decisively answers no to both these questions in Essence of Decision. On one level, the book is a well-done case study of the Cuban Missile Crisis, relying on declassified archives to explain both Soviet and American actions during October 1962. On another level, it is a broadside against the proliferation of rational actor models in IR. Allison convincingly shows that so much of what occurred during the crisis is better explained by bureaucratic over-reliance on standard operating procedures and intra-governmental political jockeying than by pretending actors rank-ordered their preferences as the crisis unfolded.
  1. Scottish independence, the “Kurdish question,” and whether Ukraine will hang together or fall apart: the study of nationalism is as important a lens in understanding the world as ever. Ernst Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism serves as the indispensible primer in understanding where nationalism came from and how it retains its mystique. Nationalism emerges from the processes of industrialization and popular education and may become muted as we move to post-industrial modes of production. Should nationalism be re-engineered to counter the political grammar of religious identity? Or should identity be reconstituted in a more pluralistic fashion to mirror the complex nature of 21st century societies? Gellner is as good a starting point as any.
  1. Does international development ever work? Discerning readers will bypass the histrionics of the perennial Sachs-Easterly debate in favor of the fantastic ethnographic studies of how international development actually operates, with the host of intended and unintended consequences it invariably engenders. James Ferguson spent over a year observing USAID projects in Lesotho in the late 1980s in order to write The Anti-Politics Machine, and the relevance of his observations has not faded in the slightest over time. Ferguson will convince you that “expert” is a dirty word, and that the only way any community can ever make things better is by having open, honest discussions about the politics that underlay every aspect of social life.
  1. In recent years, IR has grown self-reflexive and has begun thinking seriously about its own role as an academic discipline that contributes to the shaping of global politics. What elites say and don’t say about the world, what academics write and don’t write about international relations can have impacts (viz. G.W. Bush’s embrace of democratic peace theory; the spread of the Clash of Civilizations narrative). Several great books provide a historical analysis of IR’s political impacts, but perhaps the most readable is Ido Oren’s Our Enemies and US, which radically challenges IR’s understanding of itself as an objective, progressive social science. Oren’s well-chosen historical cases highlight American political scientists willfully embracing the wrong side of history (like the reviewer who praised Mein Kampf in the pages of the American Political Science Review), only to have to furiously whitewash the entire discipline a decade or so later.

Image Credit:  Wonderlane via flickr

About the Authors

Avatar photo
PhD International Relations

Simon Radford is Hippo’s Academic Correspondent in International Relations and a Provost’s Fellow in USC’s Political Science and International Relations program. He was a candidate in the 2005 General Election in the U.K. and has worked as a political consultant in the United States and with democratic groups throughout the world.

Avatar photo

Nicolas de Zamaróczy, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, Haryana. His work compares processes of regional integration in different parts of the world.