Winning the War on War by Joshua Goldstein (thoughts)
I read a lot of popular nonfiction in other topics, but when it comes to international relations, I sometimes go for the more academic titles, which I then can never quite figure out how to blog about. Fortunately, Winning the War on War by Joshua Goldstein is firmly aimed at a popular audience, which means I can share my love for for international politics with all of you! I almost didn’t request this from Netgalley, because the title felt a bit neocon for my tastes, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only is Goldstein quite middle-of-the-road, politically speaking, but also that this book is actually about peacekeeping, with many chapters devoted to the UN and other international governmental organisations!
Goldstein didn’t lack for ambition, and the book opens with a (very) general overview of war statistics throughout history. That makes it sound dry, but it’s actually all very readable, as he slowly builds his evidence to show that a) the twentieth century was not actually the bloodiest one in history and b) the world is growing more and more peaceful. He then goes on to evaluate whether modern international community attempts at peacekeeping have been successful, through a variety of interesting case studies and a bit of UN history, during which he liberally quotes from the memoirs of various players and articles by other academics. So about the first half is a wonderful synthesis of war and peace around the globe, particularly in the Cold War and post-Cold War era. Of course, since he’s tackling so much information, there is not a ton of detail, but I think that’s actually better for popular nonfiction, and a reader can always go find more narrowly focused books on whatever topics interest her the most. So far, so good.
And then, the book suddenly veers off course into an awkward summing up of the US peace movement, from the nineteenth century through to today. This was by far the weakest chapter of the book: it felt a lot more ‘biased’ and extraneous to Goldstein’s primary focus. I began to get a bit cranky. Fortunately, after that chapter, he returns to firmer ground with a few more case studies and wraps everything up with conclusions on what kind of policy change could help us get to a more peaceful world even more quickly. Throughout, he’s careful to acknowledge that even a more generally peaceful world doesn’t mean much to those stuck in active war zones, and he occasionally looks specifically at women’s issues, although I do not think they’re his strongest suit.
All in all, I think this was a great book (an excellent one if you ignore the aberrant chapter), smart and engaging and willing to challenge general assumptions about war, peace, and those who involved in both. I can happily recommend it to everyone who enjoys popular nonfiction, particularly of the international relations variety, or those who just want to know more about what’s going on in conflicts around the world and get behind the headlines. While a book with such a broad focus obviously can’t get too in depth, he also kept this international relations nerd quite happy (as one might expect from an international relations professor at Columbia), for the most part, so I’d recommend it to those with a more academic background in the topic as well. I definitely want to read more of his backlist (ironically, one of his books is entitled War and Gender! I’m not sure I’ll start there)!
- Chasing the Flame by Samantha Power (A wonderfully thorough biography of UN official Sergio Vieira de Mello, which covers many of the same conflicts Goldstein mentions, but from a refugee perspective.)
- The Heart that Bleeds by Alma Guillermoprieto (One of my very favourite popular international relations books, this is a collection of essays Mexican journalist Guillermoprieto originally published in The New Yorker, all dealing with various Latin American politics.)
- The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (Another well-written, popular nonfiction book that delves into the truth behind the headlines, in this case the people and factors leading up to 9/11. I’m annoyed I didn’t blog this, but I loved it!)
- Wars, Guns, and Votes by Paul Collier (Another one I loved and didn’t blog; Winning the War on War actually references this one a few times. Collier looks at the assumption that democracies are more peaceful, and that therefore to help poor countries, the international community should bring about democracy.)
- Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures by Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain, and Andrew Thomson (Unlike the rest of the list, this is a memoir by three UN peacekeepers. I think it would provide an interesting counterpoint; as I’m sure you can guess from the title, it’s quite honest and raw.)