Best books of 2021: Politics

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century
by Fiona Hill, Mariner Books $30

As senior director for Russia in the Trump White House, the author worked closely with the president. Her memoir is full of startling and unsettling insights into how Trump dealt with foreign leaders and his “autocrat envy”. Hill’s book is also a compelling memoir about her journey from a working-class background in northern England to the corridors of power in Washington. Her background gives her particular insight into the social and economic forces driving the rise of populism in the US, UK and Russia.

Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro
by Richard Lapper, Manchester University Press £20

Jair Bolsonaro is the most controversial leader to come to power in Brazil since the end of military rule in the 1980s. With the Brazilian president up for re-election in 2022, Lapper, a former FT Latin America editor, provides a lively and comprehensive guide to the life and times of Bolsonaro — explaining his ideology and the social bases of his support: the beef, bible and bullets of the title. This book is an important guide to what may be one of the political stories of the coming year.

The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy To Displace American Order
by Rush Doshi, Oxford University Press £21.99

As the US and China slip towards a new cold war, Doshi argues that Beijing is pursuing a long-term plan to displace the US as the world’s most powerful nation. The verdict may sound sensationalist, but it is carefully argued and backed by deep research and primary sources. The fact that Doshi is now advising on China in the Biden White House means that this book is also valuable as a guide to current US thinking, about its growing rivalry with China.

Move: The Forces Uprooting Us
by Parag Khanna, Simon & Schuster $30/Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20

The crisis on America’s southern border and the flows of refugees into Europe underline the extent to which mass migration is now one of the most important forces, shaping global politics and economics. Despite the calls in parts of the west to halt the flows of people, Khanna sees mass migration as both inevitable and welcome. But his work also contains dark forecasts about how much migration will be driven by the changing climate.

Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?
by Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet and Ben Noble, Hurst £20

Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned earlier this year, is the most dangerous political opponent to take on Vladimir Putin, during the Russian leader’s more than 20 years in power. Despite his extraordinary courage, Navalny has attracted his share of critics — from both the liberal left and the nationalist right. This book is a fair-minded and comprehensive guide to a man who may yet play a major role in the future of Russia.

Go Big: How To Fix Our World
by Ed Miliband, Bodley Head £18.99

The former Labour party leader has used his electoral defeat in 2015 to rethink his approach to politics, arguing that people are now hungry for “big” solutions to what look like overwhelming problems. In a successful series of podcasts — and now a book — he engages with thinkers, often working at a local level, who propose radical solutions to a range of problems, from climate change to affordable housing.

Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy
by Christophe Jaffrelot, Princeton University Press £30

The most comprehensive study of Modi’s India to date offers a bleak and unsparing view of the direction of the country. Jaffrelot, a professor at King’s College London, argues that India has turned into an “ethnic democracy” in which Muslims and Christians are effectively second-class citizens. Modi’s Hindu nationalist project has, in his view, effectively hollowed out institutions that might have checked the prime minister’s power — including the supreme court, the media and the election commission. The conclusion is that the world’s greatest democracy is sliding towards authoritarianism.

Books of the Year 2021

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Wednesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Thursday: Fiction by Laura Battle
Friday: History by Tony Barber
Saturday: Critics’ choice

Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War
by Jessica Donati, PublicAffairs £20

In the year in which the US finally and ignominiously pulled out of Afghanistan — allowing the Taliban to retake power — Donati’s book has a particular resonance. Her closely reported story of US special forces operations in Afghanistan captures much of the chaos and tragedy of the conflict and the human costs involved.

The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization
by Harold James, Yale £21.95

In contemporary political debate, words like “neoliberalism”, “geopolitics” and “globalisation” are chucked around — but their actual meanings are often contested and obscure. James, a Princeton professor, delves into the often-surprising intellectual origins of key concepts in the arguments about globalisation — and illuminates the debate in the process.

Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order
by Colin Kahl and Thomas Wright, St Martin’s Press $29.99/£23.99

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people and been a huge shock to the global economy. This book, based on original reporting as well as analysis, convincingly argues that the pandemic has also reshaped global politics — accelerating the move towards confrontation between China and the US and highlighting the breakdown of international co-operation.

Red Roulette: An Insider’s Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption and Vengeance in Today’s China
by Desmond Shum, Simon & Schuster £20

The long economic boom in China has created many huge fortunes. But Chinese billionaires are also vulnerable to sudden changes in political fortune and abrupt falls from grace. The author tells the story of his rise to wealth and the sudden arrest of his ex-wife and business partner. In doing so, he pulls back a veil on the intersection between power and wealth in China. The book reads like a thriller and has become a bestseller.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
by Sathnam Sanghera, Viking £18.99

At a time when Britain’s imperial legacy is once again a subject of public controversy, this immensely readable book is very timely. The account by Sanghera, a former FT writer, is simultaneously personal and scholarly. It addresses many of the questions that are now urgent subjects of public debate — such as Britain’s role in the slave trade and the connections between empire and multiculturalism.

Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad
by Michela Wrong, Fourth Estate £20/PublicAffairs $18.99

A deeply researched and highly critical biography of one of Africa’s most praised leaders — Paul Kagame of Rwanda. It accuses the Rwandan leader of orchestrating the assassination of exiled opponents — and questions his economic record and his role in the events that led to the Rwandan genocide. The FT praised the book as “remarkable, chilling and long overdue”

Peril
by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Simon & Schuster £20/$30

The US and the wider world are still assimilating the extraordinary events of January 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol, in an effort to overturn the result of the US presidential election. This is a first draft of history, following the usual Woodward method of meticulously recreating events through the testimony of insiders. It makes for compulsive and disturbing reading.

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War
by Howard W French, Liveright £25/$35

A recasting of the history of the modern world that places Africa and Africans at the centre of the story. French argues that the rise of the west to global dominance was made possible by the exploration and exploitation of Africa — and, above all, by the slave trade. He recounts the destruction of complex African societies and the scale and brutality of slavery. At the time of Black Lives Matter this is an intensely political message. But French’s book is no work of propaganda and has been hailed as a “masterpiece” by Peter Frankopan, professor of global history at Oxford.

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