What to Read in International Affairs

I just left my old job, which was to read endless open-source articles online in the mainstream, on blogs, on Twitter, in discussion forums, whatever.

One thing that was awesome about the job was learning how the news cycle works.  You’re able to see how stories develop and how they take hold on the public.  You’re able to see how the news is manipulated.  You can see who finds stuff first, who curates the news best, who is always late to the party, who gets things wrong consistently over time.  Most excitingly, you see how much crowdsourcing is contributing to the news cycle now.

Being an international relations (IR) wonk, then, what I crave when I’m looking for news is an inside scoop from people who are close to those who affect events.  By the time it reaches the major newspapers, it’s not much of a story anymore.  Although the New York Times is still the absolute best when it comes to learning about why a story is important.  Some people like to read stuff like Before It’s News but they have too much user-submitted garbage.  I’ve found that 4chan and reddit catch stuff the fastest most often these days.  Huffington Post usually almost always has the most discussion about a topic but can have some pretty stupid comments.

So for those of you who love IR, especially for incoming students to Georgetown’s Master’s of Science in Foreign Service program, here’s what I recommend reading:

Major News Sites:

NYTimes’ The Lede Blog (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/)

This is where the NYT develops on-going stories.  They have a ton of blogs for different topics but this one deals with whatever the big stories are, along with added social media, discussion, and NYT’s superior curated commenting system.

Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report (http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/)

Just found this one.  Provides some very good contextualized news on what’s going on in China, which usually exists in the news world behind a black see-through veneer of American stereotypes.

AOLNews (http://www.aolnews.com/)

AOL apparently hired a lot of freelancers to write up news, and I have to say they’re a pretty reliable crew at finding more context at reporting under-rated news stories that are being talked about a lot but don’t respond to specific news events.

ABCNews’ The Blotter (http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/)

Brian Ross’s project used to break a lot of details for terrorism-related incidents.

Foreign Policy Passport (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/)

The editors of Foreign Policy cover pretty thoroughly just about any IR story.


Borderland Beat (http://www.borderlandbeat.com/)

This blog is supposedly made up of a group of anonymous folks reporting from Mexico — while Mexican newspapers usually get the initial stories out quick, Borderland Beat usually follows up later with (very gruesome) photos and more context into what’s actually going on in the massive gun battles and violence between drug cartels in Mexico and the Mexican security forces.  This is probably the #1 story not being represented well enough in the US.  Borderland Beat makes sure it’s right in your face.

Also see Border Reporter (http://borderreporter.com/).

Thomas Ricks’ The Best Defense (http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/)

Author of two of the best Iraq books out there, Ricks writes for Foreign Policy and has recently been posting soldiers’ and soldiers’ families letters from the disaster in Wanat.

The Jawa Report (http://mypetjawa.mu.nu/)

Tracks jihadis in the news and in social networking/media.  Finds a surprising number of wannabe jihadist hacks within the US!

Social Media/Other

STRATFOR (http://www.stratfor.com/)

Austin-based open source intel outfit with a strong leaning towards the importance of geostrategy and geopolitics in understanding the motivations behind different countries.  Consistently awesome.

NYkrinDC (https://twitter.com/NYkrinDC/)

Follow this dude on Twitter.  He posts a ton of news links daily related to international relations and security.

Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet (http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheat-sheet/)

Sign up for the newsletter.  FP’s has gotten too long.  This one gives you the key headlines and important blurbs for the top 5 stories their editor has chosen (which I often concur with).  Love reading this right as I get up every morning.  Always feel prepared for the whole news day after quickly scanning this.


George Friedman, “The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century”

Looks at demographics and geopolitics to determine outcomes.  Sees Japan, Turkey, and Mexico as the US’s looming IR challenges.  Sees immigration and Mexico border as key US priorities.  What I like best, but most people think is silly, is his extrapolating of future warfare:  American battle stars, robot swarms, control of space and communications.

Sebastian Mallaby, “The World’s Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations”

A biography of James Wolfensohn’s time as president at the World Bank and also an important primer on how the World Bank affects the world.

Samuel Huntington, “The Third Wave:  Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”

Huntington is a mensch in IR.  This book argues that democratization has occurred in 3 waves so far, and even hints that we may be in a retrenching right now (each wave has an anti-wave).  I read this book for my comparative democratization class, which was awesome.

Robert Baer, “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower”

Baer argues that Iran has been building up its regional power and, after the US unleashed the Shi’ites within Iraq, now has growing influence over the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the Gulf states, Iraq, and its borders with Afghanistan.  Which, as we fight Sunni extremists, makes one wonder, why aren’t we working WITH Iran?

Walter Russell Mead, “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World”

Mead counters the idea that America has had a very immature history in its foreign relations.  One of the best books I never had to read for any class (but others had it assigned), it helps you see American IR in terms of American schools of thought:  Jeffersonians (limited govt, more isolationist), Hamiltonians (free trade), Wilsonians (activist, progressive involvement abroad for high ideals), and Jacksonians (war hawks, fiercely nationalistic).  I swear you won’t see the US the same after this book.

Andrew Bacevich, “The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism”

Bacevich addresses three concerns:  American fiscal profligacy (massive budget deficits), the “voluntary” military that detaches the public from civic responsibility, and weak leadership where each President has decided not to tackle the hard issues and instead continues our spending binge (Carter being the closest to address it, but being smacked down hard, as Reagan’s election showed).  Depressing book.  Is the fable of American leadership just a myth?

Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”

Klein argues that the west has used the shock doctrine as a new form of exploiting weaker countries by privatizing public institutions and starving funding, and by using Washington Consensus monetary policies as bailouts in economies under attack, so that privatized systems can be put in their place afterwards.

Michael Mandelbaum, “The Case for Goliath:  How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century”

Mandelbaum argues that the US offers the world a public good — international defense — and so therefore complaints about its military spending and presence worldwide are overlooking the benefits gained from having the US control most international waters, global trade, and currency.

Ray Takeyh, “Hidden Iran:  Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic”

This book helped me understand Iran’s political structure far better.

Mark Leonard, “What Does China Think?”

Same as Takeyh’s book, but for China.  Quotes many of China’s top IR thinkers to see how they view the world from their perspective.

Parag Khanna, “The Second World:  How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century”

Khanna graduated from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.  I think some of his analyses are breezy, but I like that he gives a quick glimpse at all the bigger second-world countries that most people overlook but have the potential to affect regional behaviors.


WizardRSS (http://www.wizardrss.com/)

Know how some RSS feeds only display a blurb from their updates?  WizardRSS gives you a feed URL with the full bodies of updates.  Thank God.  And you are using Google Reader, right?  Please say yes.

Have Additions?

A lot of the above is influenced (if not published) by the Council on Foreign Relations.  That may introduce significant bias but they are also heavyweights of serious (and in my opinion, balanced) IR thought.

I will add more stuff to this post as I find it, and I’m of course curious to hear what you’d recommend!