It’s a catchy title for sure, and an even more intriguing book. How to make Love to a Despot: An Alternative Foreign Policy for the Twenty-First Century by Stephen D. Krasner was a reliable performance of why the United States must embrace good-enough governance.
Although the book addresses a robust history of U.S. relations in other countries, it centers on why the U.S. got involved in foreign affairs. Case in point: U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to Make Love to a Despot seeks to provide an answer for U.S. policies abroad by neither implementing a utopian nor dystopian world views.
First, I’ll briefly summarize the book, then talk about what I liked. Then, I’ll tell you what I didn’t like about it, followed by my final thoughts.
At first glance, I loved the title. It seems like a seductive read at first, then the tone turns serious. Despot first begins with a United States worldview that countries are better off with a democratic government. A utopian worldview such as this has caused trouble for the United States, according to the book. Similarly, a dystopian world view is not healthy either.
Instead, Despot advocates for ‘good-enough governance.’ That is, autocracies and dictatorships comprise of most of the world’s governments. So, to achieve global objectives, the United States needs to work with these despots and dictators. However, the book argues that the utopian worldview held by the United States has eliminated opportunities to work with despots to achieve national security for itself.
The book continues with Germany and Japan’s successes for building their own democracies. On the other hand, countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have not had such fortune to even have a stable government. Challenges like Iraq and Afghanistan have plagued countries like Russia and the United States that both have sought to remedy the region.
Later, the book talks about elections and their effects on good-enough governance. One lesson the book portrays is that corruption is inevitable even in the United States. So, when elections are concerned, participants shouldn’t get too surprised to know about corruption infecting its democratic process.
The bright spot in U.S. foreign policy was Plan Colombia. As explained in the book, it outlines how the United States and Colombia worked together to achieve specific goals. When there’s interest by both governments, then good-enough governance can follow.
Finally, Despot explains how difficult it is to establish a consolidated democracy. Despot explains the modernization theory and rational choice institutionalism. Also, the book argues that other approaches could explain how weak countries can create a consolidated democracy. The book uses the term “the road to Denmark” alluding to Denmark’s rise to one of the world’s most governed nations.
What I liked
Despot was eye-opening. It puts a different spin on how to view the United States and its foreign policy. For instance, the book talks about how America has this utopian view that all countries can become the United States’ spinning image. It made me pause to realize that this cannot be.
It’s not that American’s are foolhardy. On the contrary, we want to spread what has worked for us. However, the book does a great job of articulating why this worldview has hurt U.S. foreign policy over the past thirty years, or, since the Cold War. I enjoyed the thought experiment of trying to figure out this puzzle we call foreign policy.
I thought that Despot did a great job of explaining the theories and implementing them into the book. It explains why modernization theory doesn’t fully explain why states indulge in a consolidated democracy. Also, Despot tells why rational choice institutionalism is a better example. For brevity, I won’t reveal those theories here. But, Despot is an excellent example of how to layout political theory and provide examples for it.
Even more, Despot caught my attention with Colombia. Most books hone in on Iraq and Afghanistan now, leaving other less-interesting countries out of the discussion. It had similarities to Exercise of Power by Robert Gates in this chapter. Despot stayed brief with Colombia’s deep history but provided enough details to make a point.
Finally, the best part of the book was the chapter on good-enough governance. It never occurred to me that the United States must lower its expectations to achieve its own strategic goals. Despot argues that national security sometimes requires intervening in countries. Those national security goals cannot be obscured by poor governance in the host country. Instead, the United States must settle for good-enough because that’s all it’s going to get.
What I didn’t like
Despot was very dry. It read a lot like a textbook. I did enjoy the book, but I caught myself drifting a lot as well. Also, I got the audiobook. I’ll say that it’s great reading if you’re wanting to go asleep.
However, if you’re interested in an excellent foreign policy read, then this is your book. However, Despot is more breadth rather than depth. So, if you’re looking for an overview of several countries, then this is your book.
I didn’t enjoy the audiobook performance as I would have liked. Although, in a lot of my reviews, I advocate for getting the paperback version anyway. Despite the book’s content, the narrator did an excellent job of trying to make the text more engaging. It’s challenging to do that when it comes to describing political science theories and their relations to the United States and foreign policy.
I have always advocated for leaders being stewards of their professions. Even so, this is an excellent book to know. U.S. foreign policy affects all leaders in every capacity. The more you know about the world, the more you can connect solutions to problems.
Despot is one of those books where it’s better to read a little bit at a time. I binge-listened to it on car rides to work. But, you can take your time. That’s the best way to read this book.
Overall, I give this book a 6/10. I still think that leaders should read a foreign policy book. However, I enjoyed Exercise of Power by Robert Gates a little more, and it covered the same material as Despot.
If you want to buy How to Make Love to a Despot, click here.
Have you read this book? What did you like or didn’t like about it? Thanks for reading!