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Simon and Schuster
"Diplomacy" is by Henry Kissinger.

With so many international hot spots and potential diplomatic landmines in the world today, sometimes it can be confusing for the layman to try to sort it all out. Why did the United States support this action? Why did a war nearly break out over that issue? Can our current policies avoid conflict in the future, or bring prosperity to ourselves and our allies?

One key in better understanding diplomacy today is to study how nations interacted in the past. There are many great books out there that take a look at the history of diplomacy, and here is a list of eight of the best.

• "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World,” by Margaret MacMillan (Random House, $20), is a wonderful exploration of the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War I. This 2003 work looks closely at U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as he naively but sincerely sought to set up a new international order that would make war obsolete. The book illustrates the problems that existed between Wilson and his allies, notably Georges Clemenceau of France and David Lloyd George of Britain. Wilson wanted a magnanimous peace for Germany, while his allies insisted on harsh peace terms. MacMillan sharply describes the process of compromise that eventually wore down Wilson's vision and created a system that virtually guaranteed the outbreak of another war 20 years later.

• MacMillan also authored 2006's “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World” (Random House, $17). Here, MacMillan sheds light on the Cold War as U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Communist China after 20 years of diplomatic isolation from the United States. For all of his folly as president, MacMillan shows Nixon's strengths as a diplomat as he and his National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger developed their policy of triangular diplomacy, essentially playing the Soviet Union and China off against each other. Nixon's meeting with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong and Prime Minister Chou En-lai was both awkward and exciting, and a moment absolutely crucial in shaping America's current relationship with China.

• “Jefferson's Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon, and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase” (Sourcebooks, $19.99) is a captivating look at one of America's greatest moments of diplomacy. Written by Charles Cerami, this 2003 book explores just what it took for the United States to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This is a great look at the early American republic and president struggling with constitutional issues over the acquisition of territory. More than that, Cerami's book takes us into the Paris drawing rooms where the deal was hammered out by future president James Monroe and French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand.

• 1989's “The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941” (W.W. Norton, $35) takes a deep look at one of the strangest periods in World War II. Authors Anthony Read and David Fisher brilliantly explain how two totalitarian states with hostile and completely antithetical systems could set aside their differences for a time and work together. Particularly interesting are the portraits of the major players in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Beyond Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, the authors illuminate the motivations, talents and flaws of the foreign ministers — the Communist Vyacheslav Molotov and the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop. The book also wonderfully depicts the unraveling of this marriage of convenience, as Hitler became dead set upon war with the Soviet Union in 1941.

• David King's 2008 book “Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War and Peace at the Congress of Vienna” (Broadway, $15.95) is a highly readable look at the conference that tried to put Europe back together again after 20 years of chaos from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. As entertaining as it is enlightening, King's book stars a gallery of royal figures and diplomatic titans. Though this book explores many of those figures intimately, King's presentation of the Austrian foreign minister, Klemens von Metternich, is both majestic and touching. Metternich spent his days fighting for a new conservative order in Europe, even as he spent his nights pining for the beautiful Duchess of Sagan. This is very good diplomatic history with a touch of historical soap opera thrown in.

• The diplomatic crisis surrounding the creation of the Berlin Wall is the basis for Frederick Kempe's 2011 book, “Berlin, 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” (Berkley Publishing, $29.95). Kempe shows the young U.S. President John F. Kennedy as he went from misstep to misstep during his first year in office. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev proved to be by far the more able statesman that year as he defiantly allowed the East Germans to erect a wall in the heart of Berlin. Kempe brilliantly writes about the subtle diplomatic language that the two world leaders communicated in that fateful summer, and the intense, closed-door policy sessions in Washington and Moscow that could easily have led to a nuclear war a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kempe also adds smaller human stories about the Germans who had to live with the consequences of the leaders' decisions.

• Classicist Donald Kagan wrote the deeply insightful 1995 work “On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace” (Anchor Books, $15.95), which looks at several periods throughout history where war could have been avoided. The wars he explores are the Peloponnesian War of ancient Greece, Rome's Second Punic War, and both world wars. Each episode examines not the military outbreak of the war, but the diplomatic failures, often miscommunications, that led to conflict. Kagan expertly demonstrates that all peace must be preserved from a position of military strength, and that the failure to maintain such strength, or the unwillingness to use it, are the chief causes of war throughout history. It is an important lesson leaders would do well to remember today. Kagan also includes a look at the Cuban Missiles Crisis, a diplomatic episode that could easily have descended into nuclear war, but where diplomacy ultimately prevailed.

• Finally, no list of great books on diplomatic history would be complete without Henry Kissinger's magisterial 1994 book, “Diplomacy” (Simon and Schuster, $23). The former U.S. secretary of state traces major diplomatic episodes from the 19th through the 20th centuries, including his own efforts in the field of foreign policy. The Congress of Vienna, the Paris Peace Conference, Kissinger's role in ending the Vietnam War, and many other critical events in world history are considered here, making for some truly interesting reading. Kissinger argues that nations often swing back and forth between a foreign policy that is idealistic and one that serves its own interests, though the two, he notes, are not always mutually exclusive. Regardless of what one thinks of Kissinger's own role in wold history, his intelligence and theoretical approach to diplomatic problems is nothing short of fascinating.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]