The best geopolitics books

6 authors have picked their favorite books about geopolitics and why they recommend each book.

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The Napoleonic Wars

By Alexander Mikaberidze,

Book cover of The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History

Although the Napoleonic Wars are most commonly discussed from a French perspective, with their roots in ideology and the Wars of the French Revolution, they are increasingly being understood as the climax of conflicts over power and colonial possessions that had raged between the major European powers across the long eighteenth century. In this hugely ambitious and highly readable book, Alex Mikaberidze considers the Napoleonic Wars as part of a wider global conflict in which France and Britain struggled for dominance, a conflict that extended to the Americas, Egypt, Iran, the Indian Ocean, even to China and Japan, and assesses their role in defining the post-war world.


Who am I?

Now an emeritus professor of history at the University of York, I have long been fascinated by France, by its history and identity, and by its innumerable tensions and contradictions. In the course of my career I have published more than a dozen books on different aspects of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, ranging from a biography of Napoleon in 2011 to more specialized works on the experience and memory of war – on the soldiers of the Revolution, on the letters and memoirs they wrote, and on the legacy of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars for nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. My current research focuses on France’s place in the wider Atlantic world and on the significance of the Revolution and Empire in world history.


I wrote...

The Death of the French Atlantic: Trade, War, and Slavery in the Age of Revolution

By Alan Forrest,

Book cover of The Death of the French Atlantic: Trade, War, and Slavery in the Age of Revolution

What is my book about?

The Death of the French Atlantic examines the dramatic decline of France’s Atlantic empire in the Age of Revolution, showing how three major forces – war, revolution and anti-slavery – created instability and led to the loss of her richest Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue, to insurrection and revolution. The book underlines the importance of slaving to the prosperity of France’s west-coast ports and relies heavily on individual testimony as it follows merchants, planters and ships’ captains as they criss-crossed the Atlantic world.  It concludes by examining the uneasy memory of these years in port cities such as Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, a memory that has left an indelible mark on race relations in France today.

Prisoners of Geography, 1

By Tim Marshall,

Book cover of Prisoners of Geography, 1: Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World

Tim Marshall has had a long and illustrious career in journalism as a foreign correspondent and Prisoners of Geography absolutely sparkles with his fascinating insights and clarity of thought. How have the development and fate of modern nations been defined by their locale? This is Big History lapping right up to the newspaper headlines of today.


Who am I?

I’m a science researcher and writer living in London. My research field is astrobiology and the possibility of life on other planets – it brings together lots of different areas of science with engineering and space exploration and so is deeply ‘interdisciplinary’. And as a science writer, I try to bring this same broad perspective and unifying approach to other profound questions. My fascination with understanding our own origins was sparked by my childhood growing up in East Africa, the cradle of humanity. In Origins I explored different ways that planet Earth has influenced our human story across the millennia - it’s an example of ‘Big History’.


I wrote...

Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

By Lewis Dartnell,

Book cover of Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

What is my book about?

When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, revolutions, and technological advances. But how has the Earth itself determined our destiny? How has our planet made us? Geological forces drove our evolution in East Africa; mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece; and today voting behaviour in the United States follows the bed of an ancient sea. The human story is the story of these forces, from plate tectonics and climate change, to atmospheric circulation and ocean currents.

Explore through millennia of human history, and billions of years into our planet’s past, to see the vast web of connections that underwrites our modern world - the ultimate origin story.

Disorder

By Helen Thompson,

Book cover of Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

The book that has come closest to making me think it may really all be about oil after all! Or energy at least. Although written before the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine, Thompson shows that the origins of the war go back far beyond 2014 or even 1991, but rather lie in the 1950s – when Anglo-French power in the MENA region was broken, first by the 1956 Suez War and then by Algeria’s secession from France in 1962, which in turn would lead to West Germany becoming dependent on the USSR for energy – a dependence that lasts to this day. Her account of the geopolitical consequences of the US fracking revolution is superb – prompting me to think that the Ukraine war can be seen as a battle over who will supply the European energy market. Once the LNG terminals in northern Europe are built, the US has…


Who am I?

Having come of age at the End of History in the late 1990s, it seemed to me back then that the only big political questions left were international ones. Everything in domestic politics appeared to be settled. As I pursued this interest through my scholarly work as an academic, I came to understand how questions of international and domestic order were intertwined – and that one could not be understood without the other. As we’re now living through the end of the End of History, unsurprisingly we’re seeing tremendous strain on political systems at both the national and international level. These books will provide, I hope, some signposts as to what comes next.  


I wrote...

The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-2019: A Critique of International Relations

By Philip Cunliffe,

Book cover of The New Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919-2019: A Critique of International Relations

What is my book about?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that the international order defined by liberal globalization is under severe strain. Will it survive, and if not, what will replace it? In The New Twenty Years' Crisis 1999-2019, Philip Cunliffe shows that the decline of our liberal international order began in 1999. In contrast to claims that the order has been undermined by authoritarian hegemonic challengers such as Putin’s Russia, Cunliffe argues that the primary drivers of the crisis are internal. In search of a solution, this book argues that breaking through the current impasse will require pushing past the fear that the twenty-first century will repeat the mistakes of the twentieth. Only then can we finally escape the twenty years crisis that perpetually bedevils liberal international order.

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

Book cover of The World According to China

Liz Economy’s grasp of international relations is compelling and insightful as she sets out to explain how China sees itself in the world, especially in the light of the pandemic. Looking to recover its past glory and status, China under Xi Jinping has seized both on what he sees as the West’s economic and political failings, and China’s own accomplishments and size to advance new agendas. At home, a leftward lurch resembles a throwback to the Mao era. In the world, China wants to reshape global institutions to reflect better its interests and to get others, for example in The Belt and Road, to support China’s narratives. 

How Xi intends to do this, whether he is likely to succeed and how the United States and the international community should respond and prepare for the challenge ahead will hold your attention to the last page.


Who am I?

I used to be Chief Economist at the UK bank SG Warburg and then at UBS, starting out in 1987 and finally cutting the cord in 2016 as Senior Economic Advisor. I visited China twice or three times a year from about 1994 and then the pandemic intervened. After the financial crisis, I decided that China would be the world’s next big thing. So I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going on there and for the last few years, I've been an associate at the China Centre at Oxford University and SOAS in London. Red Flags was a book I simply had to write. Maybe there’ll be another. We shall see.


I wrote...

Red Flags: Why XI's China Is in Jeopardy

By George Magnus,

Book cover of Red Flags: Why XI's China Is in Jeopardy

What is my book about?

Red Flags is about how China’s unique experience of economic development came to pass, and how and why it has run up against increasingly strong headwinds that pose huge challenges in the coming years. 

Foremost among these are weaning itself off an addiction to debt, rapid population aging, the stall in productivity growth, a sharp leftward lurch in politics and governance, and all taking place in the harshest external environment China has experienced since Mao. Many of these problems of course are of China’s own making and will determine what sort of adversary or threat China will be in the 2020s and after.

Not One Inch

By M. E. Sarotte,

Book cover of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate

The book is a great guide to understand Russia’s perspective on post-Cold War developments and the contemporary crisis of relations with the West. Written by a historian, the book reconstructs the role of NATO expansion in shaping Russia’s security interests since the 1990s. The author documents opportunities, errors, and (mis)perceptions by both sides in setting their relations in the course of growing geopolitical tensions.


Who am I?

I am a Russian academic living in the West and a contributor to both Western and Russian academia. I move between the two and try to build bridges by explaining the two sides’ differences and areas of potential cooperation. I do it in my teaching and research on international politics, which I understand through the lens of culture and politics. Most of my books analyze Russian and Western patterns of thinking formed through history and interaction with each other. I love reading good books about these topics and hope you enjoy my selected list!


I wrote...

Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity

By Andrei P. Tsygankov,

Book cover of Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity

What is my book about?

This clear and comprehensive text explores the past thirty years of Soviet/Russian international relations, comparing foreign policy formation under Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Medvedev, and Putin. Challenging conventional views of Moscow’s foreign policy, Andrei Tsygankov shows that definitions of national interest depend on visions of national identity and is rooted both in history and domestic politics. Yet the author also highlights the role of the external environment in affecting the balance of power among competing domestic groups. Drawing on both Russian and Western sources, Tsygankov shows how Moscow’s policies have shifted under different leaders’ visions of Russia’s national interests. He gives an overview of the ideas and pressures that motivated Russian foreign policy in different periods.

Near Abroad

By Gerard Toal,

Book cover of Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus

Russia remains intensely focused on the post-Soviet Eurasia as essential to the country’s security and relations with the outside world. The conflict in Ukraine is the culmination of Russia’s perception of geopolitical significance of the “near abroad.” The book by a political geographer analyzes Ukraine and the Caucasus as two principally important subjects of Moscow’s attention. In the author's view, Russian foreign relations reflect competing geopolitical visions, weak state institutions, and perceptions of unresolved legacies of the Soviet dissolution. 


Who am I?

I am a Russian academic living in the West and a contributor to both Western and Russian academia. I move between the two and try to build bridges by explaining the two sides’ differences and areas of potential cooperation. I do it in my teaching and research on international politics, which I understand through the lens of culture and politics. Most of my books analyze Russian and Western patterns of thinking formed through history and interaction with each other. I love reading good books about these topics and hope you enjoy my selected list!


I wrote...

Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity

By Andrei P. Tsygankov,

Book cover of Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity

What is my book about?

This clear and comprehensive text explores the past thirty years of Soviet/Russian international relations, comparing foreign policy formation under Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Medvedev, and Putin. Challenging conventional views of Moscow’s foreign policy, Andrei Tsygankov shows that definitions of national interest depend on visions of national identity and is rooted both in history and domestic politics. Yet the author also highlights the role of the external environment in affecting the balance of power among competing domestic groups. Drawing on both Russian and Western sources, Tsygankov shows how Moscow’s policies have shifted under different leaders’ visions of Russia’s national interests. He gives an overview of the ideas and pressures that motivated Russian foreign policy in different periods.

Everything Under the Heavens

By Howard W. French,

Book cover of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power

Have you ever wondered what makes China “China”: why it is so confident about history, present, and foreseeable future? This book, written by competent NYT correspondent Howard W. French, sheds some light on the way Chinese leadership sees things from their own point of view. You will learn about the history of China, and how this relates to its flagrant ambitions for world domination. An invaluable unicorn in today’s book-publishing anti-intellectual crisis.


Who am I?

Hawkes (MD, BScN, MGA) is a novelist, YouTuber, and former analyst for the NATO Association of Canada. His writings have appeared in Heater, The Raven Chronicles, ArabLit, and many other magazines and publications. His recent espionage novel, The Haze, is set in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.


I wrote...

The Haze

By Burnaby Hawkes,

Book cover of The Haze

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of a CIA operation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, The Haze follows CIA agent Hector Kane as he finds his career and marriage at stake when he receives a phone call from a Saudi prince who claims that Hector’s wife is a Chinese spy.

Midnight's Borders

By Suchitra Vijayan,

Book cover of Midnight's Borders: A People's History of Modern India

India’s birth as an independent nation threw its borders into sharp focus due to Partition. Lines were hurriedly scribbled across a map to create multiple new nations and throw most of South Asia into ceaseless turmoil. What I appreciate about the author’s approach is that she travels the length of India’s land borders and captures oral stories of individuals living daily lives in these tense spaces that are highly contested but also largely forgotten. This book is a travelog unlike any other across a part of India that is nearly impossible to visit.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by maps all my life. The map of India has always held special interest. As I’ve lived in different parts of India, I’ve seen firsthand how India is one country, but its stories are multiple. I chronicled India’s varied stories through the origins of each of its states. Similarly, I’ve curated a diverse and inclusive reading list. It covers different parts of the country and contains different types of books—graphic novel, travelog, memoir, and short story collections. The authors also cut across religion, gender, and social strata. I hope you discover a whole new India!


I wrote...

The Origin Story of India's States

By Venkataraghavan Subha Srinivasan,

Book cover of The Origin Story of India's States

What is my book about?

India is a federal union with 28 states and 8 union territories. The states of India are all-encompassing—they cover every inch of land and hold every single person that makes up India. States give every Indian a home and an identity. Every time a new state is created or an old one altered, India and Indians are remade, recreated, reborn. When India completed its journey of independence on 15 August 1947, its states began their individual processes of formation. And while India’s modern history of independence and partition is much recounted, the history of its constituent partsits statesis hardly known, even to its residents. This book tells the stories of the states of India, which are also the story of India.

China and Africa

By Daniel Large,

Book cover of China and Africa: The New Era

The ascent to power of Xi Jinxing in China in 2013 heralded a new era in China’s overseas engagements and in its domestic politics and economic policy; what Elizabeth Economy has called the “third revolution.” This fascinating book by Large brings the story of China’s engagements in Africa up to date. It is packed with fascinating details and analysis and shows how China’s interests on the continent are shifting from being primarily economic to being more geopolitical. It is a detailed and nuanced analysis of the changed nature of relations. 


Who am I?

I became interested in China-Africa relations fifteen years ago when I realised that the rise of the former was going to have major and long-lasting effects on the politics and economics of the continent. In a sense, the rising role of China in Africa foretold its rise to global power and influence. Since then I have been fascinated by the ways in which China has restructured, or been involved in the restructuring, of African economies and politics and the ways in which that country’s global strategies and roles have continued to evolve and their impacts. I have written several books on the impacts of emerging powers in Africa.


I wrote...

Africa's Shadow Rise: China and the Mirage of African Economic Development

By Pádraig Carmody, Peter Kragelund, Ricardo Reboredo

Book cover of Africa's Shadow Rise: China and the Mirage of African Economic Development

What is my book about?

For years economists have spoken of 'Africa rising', and despite the global financial crisis, Africa continues to host some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Africa's Shadow Rise however argues that the continent's apparent economic 'rise' is essentially a mirage, driven by developments elsewhere - most particularly the expansion in China's economy. While many African countries have experienced high rates of growth, much of this growth may prove to be unsustainable, and has contributed to environmental destruction and worsening inequality across the continent. Similarly, new economic relationships have produced new forms of dependency. Drawing on in-depth fieldwork in southern Africa, Africa's Shadow Rise reveals how the shifting balance of global power is transforming Africa's economy and politics, and what this means for the future of the region.

The Myth of Continents

By Kären Wigen, Martin W. Lewis,

Book cover of The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

In this fascinating and highly readable account of how we have come to think of the globe, Martin and Lewis (a geographer and historian respectively) introduce their reader to the historical construction, contingencies, and inconsistencies of our basic geographical building blocks. On what basis has the world been divided up into “east,” and “west,” and how, for example, did Japan come to be considered part of the “West?” Why do we think of continents as fixed entities rather than as conceptual categories for thinking about both space and culture? How do these categories shape our continuing perception of geographic space and our own place in the world? 


Who am I?

As Professor of History and Global Asian Studies and Director of the Engaged Humanities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I'm interested in intersections at the margins between cultural systems. I first became drawn to Chinese history after visiting the country in 1982 and returned to teach English there before undertaking graduate studies. My work on eighteenth-century China focuses on ethnography and cartography as tools of empire building during its period of growth and expansion. My current project, Bridging Worlds: Reflections on a Journey, chronicles a quest for personal integration when obtaining an education has too often become predicated on the ability to cut oneself off from aspects of one’s own inner knowing and lived experience.


I wrote...

Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China

By Laura Hostetler,

Book cover of Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China

What is my book about?

In Qing Colonial Enterprise, Laura Hostetler shows how Qing China (1636-1911) used cartography and ethnography to pursue its imperial ambitions. She argues that far from being on the periphery of developments in the early modern period, Qing China both participated in and helped shape the new emphasis on empirical scientific knowledge that was simultaneously transforming Europe—and its colonial empires—at the time.

Although mapping in China is almost as old as Chinese civilization itself, the Qing insistence on accurate, to-scale maps of their territory was a new response to the difficulties of administering a vast and growing empire. Likewise, direct observation became increasingly important to Qing ethnographic writings, such as the illustrated manuscripts known as "Miao albums" (from which twenty color paintings are reproduced in this book).

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