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Winning the War on War by Joshua Goldstein (thoughts)

November 28, 2011


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)!

Suggested Companions

  • 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.)
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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2011 9:51 am

    This sounds like a really compelling book. I’ve had a few conversations with my faculty (one of whom teaches critical thinking), about how we are not living in one of the bloodiest eras, though it may feel like it is at times. This book falls right in line with my interests and sounds fab!

  2. November 28, 2011 11:59 am

    This book is right up my alley. I would highly recommend The Looming Tower for anyone who wants a better explanation of the forces and factors leading to the 9-11 attacks.

  3. November 28, 2011 12:20 pm

    I sure hope he’s right about the world becoming more peaceful. It doesn’t seem that way most of the time.

    • December 15, 2011 11:46 pm

      He actually addresses why it feels that way! So this might be a good book for you to pick up. :)

  4. November 28, 2011 5:56 pm

    I feel like I’ve suddenly been reading about tons of books that go out of their way to explain why things are Not That Bad and in fact Better Than Ever in terms of us becoming nicer, less warlike people. Have you noticed this? Am I nuts? It’s one of those concepts that seems so tempting I am suspicious of it.

    • December 15, 2011 11:46 pm

      Oh really? This is actually the first I’ve read, lol. I was pretty suspicious, and I don’t agree with everything Goldstein says, but I think he made a good case.

  5. December 2, 2011 11:31 am

    Hmmm this sounds really interesting! I may just have to add it to my list, as it sounds good in spite of his weakness regarding gender.

    • December 15, 2011 11:47 pm

      You know, I was glad to see he does at least address gender and war, there were just a couple paragraphs that annoyed/disappointed me. But it’s still well worth a read!

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