To understand foreign policy and international relations, to truly grasp the forces, actors and dynamics that make our world move, I found that the best solution is to read a lot.
Through reading news from different sources, nations and point of views – even those you do not agree with at all – over time, one might just begin to decipher something akin to the true nature of power on the world stage, simply for what it is.
On the press side of things, I quite obviously recommend frequently reading the Financial Times as well as The Economist.
There also are countless books that could be recommended. When I wrote my thesis three years ago, I went through many of them, most of them dealing with international relations from a very theoretical, intellectual level which was to me (and a lot of other people I would suppose) rather dull and lacking on the relatable side, as great as these academic works might be.
As a side note, when I was a university student (while at the same time being active in a political party in Canada), I often clashed and butted heads with teachers over real-life, practical application of the theories they presented to us, trying to bridge the gap between academics and politicians, to the annoyance of the first and the indifference of the latter.
It is this “bridging” attempt that shaped my approach in discussing international relations while at the same time trying to do something about it. Beyond a hypothesis, beyond a four-fielder diagram, I fundamentally believe the worth of a theory is directly linked to the potential it has for immediate, real-life use.
In that sense, perhaps it is my penchant for good stories which made me very much enjoy the following two books, which taught me more than all the other theoretical works combined and which hold lessons about the nature of power on the world stage that remain true to this day, and which match Game of Thrones in terms intrigue, warfare and drama.
The first is former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s doctoral thesis entitled A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822.
This book discusses the establishment of the Concert of Europe. This “council” composed of Prussia, Austria, Britain, Russia, and later France did its best to keep all member powers in check for the first part of the 19th century and was surprisingly successful its task at first. In fact, one might even say it looked like a draft version of the United Nations Security Council. The book chronicles the Congress of Vienna and following meetings of the European powers, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, mainly through the eyes of Austria’s Metternich and Britain’s Castlereagh. Both statesmen struggle to make sense of a continent shaken up by conflicts and new orders, and explores the way Austria and Britain struggled to establish their own visions of a balance of power, whilst attempting to keep an ace up their sleeves, through shifting alliances and policies, threats and secret treaties, navigating a tumultuous world in a time of great societal changes. The book is extremely dense but will please any History aficionados.
Perhaps Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world could be considered the sequel to Kissinger’s book. Even though it had not been very active for years, officially, the Concert of Europe died in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. Paris 1919 chronicles the negotiations surrounding the treaty of Versailles, where the United States’ Wilson, Britain’s George and France’s Clémenceau, the “Big Three”, set out to establish a lasting peace in Europe, to create a new world order and to punish the parties responsible for the war. Hopes were high that this truly was the solution to la der des ders. Through vivid, intricately detailed storytelling, MacMillan describes the pitfalls of the negotiations which lead to its less-than-perfect treaty: the gigantic egos of men of the 19th century, the disproportionate fear of bolshevism rising to the East and workers’ revolts internally, the rise of nationalist movements in the ruins of crumbling empires on life support, the anachronistic imperial duel between France and Britain (with consequences lasting to this day) and the American naïveté and selectiveness when it came to movements of national, ethnic or linguistic self-determination. There is a 90-minute video adaptation available to watch online for free on TVOntario's website
These two books hold so many lessons which transcend time and space, about the nature of national power, a leader’s character, the resentment born from terrible wars and a bad peaces, on the communication gaps between cultures, and so much more. They are, in their own right, the equivalent of a specialized academic course on the matter, and are a cornerstone of learning for anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge of how our world works.