A Different Canon

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This summer, the American Foreign Service Association put out a recommended reading list for its members. Because AFSA is the professional association for all American diplomats and because the reading list was cosponsored by the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the list has more than just curiosity value.

It is the closest thing we are likely to get to an official curriculum for America’s diplomats: its stated purpose is to guide the “career-long, self-directed professional development” of Foreign Service officers. Especially intriguing is the smaller list of “highly recommended” books, which AFSA considers “must-reads for any well-rounded foreign affairs professional.”

Some of the 20 titles on the highly recommended list are simply textbooks, with titles like “Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 3rd edition.” But the bulk of the list is devoted to recent bestsellers, which offer various diagnoses of America’s strengths and liabilities in the post-September 11, 2001 world.


They range from “Colossus,” in which Niall Ferguson urges America to emulate the British Empire and unabashedly project its strength around the world, to “realist” works like “The Opportunity,” by Richard Haass, currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who urges America to integrate itself into multilateral institutions before its power slips away.

On the whole, the list seems to lean towards the realist end of the spectrum, with treatises by George Kennan and Henry Kissinger leading the way. There is even a place on it for Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” which raised the specter of American “imperial overstretch” in 1987 — two years before America became the world’s unchallenged superpower.

Reading the AFSA list, your correspondent is tempted to come up with an alternative, one that would focus less on realist manifestos and more on the ideals that could guide our diplomacy. Call it the other night-table. How might the culture of the State Department change if America’s diplomats were being encouraged to read books like the following?


“A Great Improvisation” by Stacy Schiff. Benjamin Franklin’s mission to France, between 1776 and 1783, must be counted as the most successful in American diplomatic history: without it, there would have been no America in the first place. Ms. Schiff shows how Franklin, arriving in Paris at the start of the Revolution, convinced the French to assist the colonial rebels in their fight for independence.

Franklin was not blind to realpolitik; he played on France’s great-power rivalry with Britain. But his fame as an enlightened thinker, along with his homely dress and manners, also helped to impress the French with American virtues. Ever since Franklin, America has been most successful in the world when it represented an idea as well as a power.

“Five Days in London: May 1940” by John Lukacs. A classic demonstration of how the fate of the world can hinge on the determination of a single person. Mr. Lukacs focuses on the events between May 24 and May 28 of 1940, when the Allies’ fortunes in the World War II were at their lowest ebb. German armies were cutting through France, the British army was bottled up at Dunkirk, and a large part of the British political establishment — including the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax — was pressing Churchill to sue for peace.


Over five days of Cabinet intrigue and debate, documented by Mr. Lukacs, Churchill convinced his colleagues that Britain must fight on alone, no matter what the cost. The “realists” of the day were all with Halifax, but history has proved that it was the idealistic Churchill who had the surer grasp of reality, when he declared that a Nazi victory would mean the end of Western civilization.

“Terror and Liberalism” by Paul Berman. In this essential book about the post-September 11, 2001 world, Mr. Berman traces the intellectual lineage of Islamic fundamentalism back to the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. The basic beliefs of Al Qaeda and like-minded groups — the cult of murder and suicide, the hatred of cosmopolitanism, modernity, and Jews — are the same ones that propelled Nazism on its career of destruction. Defending America from this new ideological threat, Mr. Berman argues, means recognizing that the best things in our civilization — openness, rationality, liberal tolerance — are precisely the things that Islamic fundamentalism wants to destroy.

“A Russian Diary” by Anna Politkovskaya. The opening ceremonies of the Olympics this weekend coincided with the opening shots of a war between Russia and Georgia, reminding the world that, even after the Cold War, Russia remains one of the most dangerous actors on the world stage. Politkovskaya is the best known of the journalists who have lost their lives telling the truth about today’s Russia. Her reports on the Chechen war and government corruption led directly to her murder in 2006. The “Diary” covers the last years of her life, showing how she braved threats and censorship to keep reporting. It leaves no doubt what sort of regime America has to deal with in Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy.”

“Mission to Moscow” by Joseph Davies and “Surrender on Demand” by Varian Fry. It would benefit every American diplomat to read about two of the darkest moments in the State Department’s history. Davies’s memoir is of his stint as American ambassador to the USSR between 1936 and 1938, at the height of the Great Purge. A businessman with no diplomatic experience, Davies swallowed the official line on Stalin’s show trials, writing that all the men framed by the dictator were guilty of espionage. His book, and the movie based on it, are remembered today as prime exhibits of American naivete about Soviet communism.

Fry’s memoir was published a few years later, in 1945, and covers his exploits helping refugees to escape Nazi-occupied France. Fry was sent to Marseilles in August 1940 by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private, ad hoc group concerned about the fate of artists and intellectuals fleeing the Nazis. Working clandestinely, using legal and illegal methods, Fry managed to save the lives of several thousand Jews and anti-Nazi Germans.

In his memoir, Fry writes about how he and Hiram Bingham, an American vice-consul sympathetic to his work, were hampered by the timidity of the State Department, which tried to limit the number of exit visas available for refugees. As punishment for his rescue efforts, Bingham was pulled from his Marseilles post. He quit the Foreign Service in 1945. This, too, is part of the State Department’s history, and it deserves to be pondered by members of AFSA, who may one day have similar choices to make.


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