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POL 499: Senior Seminar [Winston Churchill]: Writing a book review

Senior Seminar in Political Science

Scholarly Book Review

Recommended reading: Cantor, Norman F, and Richard I Schneider. How to Study History. Crowell, 1967.

(This book will be on Reserve in the library).

See the sections: How to read a history book; Book reviews; and Two student papers critically examined.

SAMPLE scholarly book review

The unquiet frontier: rising rivals, vulnerable allies, and the crisis of American
. By Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell. Princeton: Princeton University
Press. 2016. 240pp. Index. £22.95. isbn 978 069116 375 8. Available as e-book.

      Creating enduring alliances is a difficult task and maintaining them is even harder, especially
when the arch-enemy against which the alliance defined itself dissolves into thin air.
Alliances cost money and political capital for Great Powers. Weaker allies need assurances
that they will not be abandoned in case of war; for the Great Powers this creates a looming
risk of being dragged into war for local interests of minor allies. The temptation to give
up and scale back on overseas commitments and retreat is particularly acute for the insular
Great Powers, such as the United States, which are protected by large bodies of water. That
would be a grave mistake, as Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell forcefully argue in their
recent book. Their central message is that ‘in both the bipolar and unipolar international
settings, allies have been indispensable to maintaining the global order that has allowed
for peace and prosperity of the “American” century’ (p. 5). It is a rallying cry against calls
for American political and military retreat from the world, variously labelled as ‘offshore
balancing’, ‘restraint’ or, more pejoratively, ‘isolationism’.

      The book is divided into six chapters. After the introduction in chapter one, the
authors examine the deprioritization of alliances in American grand strategy. They focus
North America on geographic, technological and ideological reasons for ‘downgrading the importance of
allies’ (p. 17) and discuss why alternatives to allies, such as seeking a Great Power settlement
or relying on technological superiority, are misleading and inadequate strategies. Chapter
three deals with revisionist powers (such as Russia, China and Iran) and their strategies to
challenge the western liberal order. The authors focus on probing as the dominant strategy
of revisionist powers. Probing is defined as ‘a low-intensity and low-risk test aimed at
gauging the opposing state’s power and will to maintain security and influence over a
region’ (p. 43). Revisionists, Grygiel and Mitchell argue, resort to probing ‘when they
think that the existing great power is retreating’ (p. 44). Probing ‘aims to revise the order
gradually and carefully, starting from the outer layers of the rival great power’s influence’
(p. 48). This behaviour is central to the book’s argument and is presented in a very wellthought
through and well-written chapter on revisionist strategy, which has been understudied
to date. Chapter four shifts the focus to the response of US allies.

The authors discuss various strategies adopted by allies in three regions—Asia, the Middle East and
central and eastern Europe—against three revisionist powers—China, Iran and Russia—
in response to the perceived American retreat and the weakening of extended deterrence
as a result of this. These strategies range from balancing (military self-help or regional
caucusing), to bandwagoning (accommodation or avoidance/hedging). The net result of
such strategies by American allies, the authors argue, would be ‘highly destabilizing for
regional security orders, stymieing US efforts at containment, fuelling disputes among
allies, and creating a greater “critical mass” in support of revisionism in the global balance
of power’ (p. 114).

Chapter five makes the case for maintaining and strengthening the US alliance system.
The authors discuss, at some length and with considerable nuance, the geopolitical, military
and geo-economic benefits of both historical and contemporary alliances. This chapter
convincingly demonstrates why downgrading alliances in American grand strategy would
be a very costly mistake with long-term, unintended consequences for the Unites States
as well as for the future of the western democratic liberal order. The last chapter offers a
series of detailed, well-thought-out and specific recommendations for American foreign
policy at the global and regional level that ‘seek to restore American credibility and thus the
strength of our alliances’ (p. 157). Grygiel and Mitchell do an excellent job in this respect: it
is refreshing to see concrete and practical advice on how to go about countering revisionist
powers’ probing behavior on the front lines of geopolitical competition.

I have two minor criticisms. First, the discussion on the domestic politics of American
grand strategy is rather limited. The changes to American foreign policy advocated by
the authors require countering the calls, coming from both the left and the right of the
political spectrum, for American retreat from the world. How can such a domestic coalition
be established and how can different audiences be persuaded? A separate chapter on
how to muster and sustain the political will necessary to change the course of American
grand strategy would have been a great addition the book. Second, surprisingly, Turkey
is missing among the frontline allies that Grygiel and Mitchell discuss. There is a single
mention of Turkey (p. 45) and that is within the context of the 1853 Crimean War. This
omission is puzzling, given that Turkey, a long-time NATO ally, is literally situated
between two of the three revisionist powers (Russia and Iran). Turkey has a long history
of antagonism with both countries, punctuated by periods of cold peace. This reviewer
would have expected Turkey, a major regional military and economic power, to feature
more prominently in an American grand strategy that aims to counter revisionist powers
and strengthen regional allies.

Overall, however, The unquiet frontier is an excellent example of how policy-relevant
scholarship on grand strategy and foreign policy should be done. The arguments presented
in the book are persuasive, well articulated and nuanced. Policy-makers, academics, as
well as general readers interested in American grand strategy and the future of the western
liberal order will definitely find it worth their time.

International Affairs 92: 5, 2016
Copyright © 2016 The Author(s). International Affairs © 2016 The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Balkan Devlen, Izmir University of Economics, Turkey

Popular Book Review

A popular book review tends to be geared towards a different audience than a critical review. The review is generally shorter and less substantive than a scholarly book review. Please adhere to the review length and expectations of your faculty.

Example for the Book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson:

A friend recommended "A Walk in the Woods." Sigh, I thought. Another recommendation. I admire the "woods" from a distance, but I fear insects, snakes, vermin, rodents, and even the casual snap of a twig within their clutches. I do not camp. I do not eat camp food. I prefer to have my meals without a side of food poisoning. So you'd be right in thinking that my reaction was something like, "Ugh another referral. I will have less in common with this book than a Protestant would have with the Pope." I started it grudgingly, expecting to do the obligatory dragging of my eyes across the page until it was finally, relievingly, replete.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

Within the first few pages I surprised myself by chuckling. Then laughing. Then outright, from the gut, throwing back my head and howling. I stayed up until almost 1 AM that first night, devouring chapter after chapter, even though I had to be up early for work the next day. I just couldn't put it down. The writing is refreshingly honest-- at once thoughtful, hilarious, sarcastic, and downright well done. This is not the scribbling of a celebrity trying to sell books. This is the tale of someone who has truly lived a once in a lifetime kind of all-American experience. His observations about the conditions of the trails, the miraculous preservation efforts made by volunteers on the trail for decades, and even his views on life, are inspirational. His descriptions of the kooky characters, the beautiful, sweeping vistas of untouched wilderness that he discovered as he rounded thousands of wearying bends in the never-ending trails . . . it's magic. Pure magic. I can almost close my eyes and see it, so vivid are his descriptions of the meadows, the wildflowers, the soft sighing of the trees in the quiet breeze.

I've always said that the best kind of writing contains three elements. First, it is relevant/relate-able to all. It takes an incredible author to take a subject about which I have little interest (camping), and make it relevant and interesting to me, yet he does. Second, it should have humor-- not the "polite chuckle" kind of humor, but a real, genuine, gut laughing kind of humor, hidden delightfully throughout the text, waiting to surprise you like golden treasure where you would least think to look. Third, it should have moments of piercing, beautiful clarity-- moments when you find yourself, for reasons you almost can't explain, blinking back the tears as some particularly poignant thought resonates through your very being.

Bill Bryson delivers richly on all three counts. This book ended with my feeling deliciously and completely satiated, in every way. I laughed until my sides were sore, I cried at the honest, beautiful tendrils of his story as it wrapped its beautifully written arms around my heart. I shook my head solemnly with a deep, "Mmmm, yes" at the inspirations recorded within the story as he discovered, not just the beauty of the Appalachian Trail, but the beauty of life, warmth, family, and companionship. Perhaps the beauty of America is that a little bit of the magic resides in the heart of all of us. That's the message here. And it's a darned inspirational one.

I haven't done this often, but a few times in my life a book is so wonderful-- so stupendous-- that I just can't bear to end it. So the moment I finish, I move my bookmark back to chapter 1. Not ending-- just starting again.