10 Best Non-War History Books of 2020

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Ho hum. There are too many books about World War II on everybody’s 2020 history book lists. The war was obviously important, as it set up the United States for its current role as a global, benevolent, and ostensibly liberal hegemon, but it ended in 1945, which was 75 years ago.

Instead, here is a list of 10 history books from 2020 that will help you to not only better understand the world you live in, but also get a better feel for where the world is headed:

- 10. The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion, and the Rise of Trump by Patrick Porter. The postwar American-led world is not what it used to be. We are in the midst of a fundamental change. This book points out that it would be wrong to look back on that world with nostalgia, as the United States did horrific things in the name of capitalism, democracy, and freedom.

-9. Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy by Stephen Wertheim. A book that buries, once and for all I hope, the myth that the United States was ever “isolationist.” Most foreign policy wonks in the U.S. wanted the British Empire to continue to run the world after World War II, but once it became obvious that the British Empire had been smashed for good by the Nazis, elites in the United States began to put forth proposals for how their republic should step up and into the U.K’s shoes.

- 8. History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America by Bruno Maçães. This is easily the most optimistic book on the list, and Maçães puts forth a strong argument that American history is only beginning under the benevolent-though-hegemonic leadership of the United States.

Digression: What if we started to think of American “leadership” in the world as realistic and constitutional rather than benevolent and hegemonic? Check out this rough draft of my forthcoming article in The Independent Review for an answer to this question.

-7. Reclaiming Liberalism edited by Leslie Marsh & David Hardwick. For conservatives in the United States, there is nothing more sacred in the political realm than their constitution, and their constitution is, of course, a liberal document. Thus, American conservatives seek to conserve...a liberal document and everything it stands for. Huh? This book does a great job of clarifying the confusion. There’s also a good essay on China in the book, too.

-6. Strategies of Secession and Counter-Secession edited by Ryan Griffiths & Diego Muro. This is a barn-burner of a book. There’s no whistlin’ about Dixie in this one. The world is on the cusp of exploding with new countries. Who, what, where, why, when, and how are all answered in this one.

-5. Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire by Sujit Sivasundaram. Following a long line of mostly good books about imperial victims, Sivasundaram highlights the agency of indigenous actors and their interactions with European empires. It’s a great book that you will learn from but, like most in the genre, it glosses over the brutality of the indigenous polities that the Europeans partnered with.

-4. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt. Did you know that the brutal Indian Removals of the 19th century were packaged as humanitarian missions? That elites in 19th-century Washington claimed that the ethnic cleansing campaigns were part of their responsibility to protect both Native and white Americans? Me neither. The more things change...

-3. When There Was No Aid: War and Peace in Somaliland by Sarah G. Phillips. Speaking of the responsibility to protect doctrine, we all know the story of Somalia, but do you know the story of Somaliland? Located right next to Somalia, this de facto country declared its independence from Somalia back in the 1990s and has been at peace ever since. Phillips argues that Somaliland has been able to achieve peace in part because it continues to go unrecognized by institutions like the United Nations (which are, of course, organs of the postwar liberal order).

Digression: What if we started to think of the American federal order as a system of states rather than as a single state within such a system? Check out this rough draft of my forthcoming article in The Independent Review for an answer to this question.

- 2b. African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church by Elizabeth A. Foster. Christianity is alive and well in the world today. This may seem like an odd, or even false, statement given the rapid secularization of American and European culture. Dr. Foster's book explains, and explains well, how and why Christianity continues to prosper on the world stage.

- 2a. Hunting Game: Raiding Politics in the Central African Republic by Louisa Lombard. By far the most cerebral book on the list, Hunting Game is about sovereignty and governance after empire. The Central African Republic and its neighbors -- Darfur, Chad, and South Sudan -- are in many respects a lot like Afghanistan. If you want to understand the future of the War on Terror, this is the book for you.

-1. Time’s Monster: How History Makes History by Priya Satia. A book about history making history sounds suspiciously like a dry and jargon-laden door stopper masquerading as cool history, but this is no academic tome. This is a book about empire, the role of historians in society, and the way in which history is "made" today.

This year’s list obviously has a theme of current events running through it, and for good reason: History is upon us. Will we be doomed to repeat it? Or will 2020 finally be the year we learn to learn from history.

Have a wonderful 2021, from my family to yours.


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