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Introducing the 2013 Gelber Prize finalists: today's nominees, Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer

Over the next few weeks, we're going to be featuring one interview per day with the authors of the books nominated for this year's Lionel Gelber Prize, a literary award for the year's best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs. The award is sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in cooperation with Foreign Policy. The interviews are conducted by Rob Steiner, former Wall Street Journal correspondent and director of fellowships in international journalism at the Munk School.

Today's authors are Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. Here's the jury's citation for Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying:

Soldaten, in translation from the German by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, provides a compelling window into the views and psychology primarily of German prisoners of war held in American and British camps during the Second World War. Taken from secretly recorded transcripts of conversations among POWs, the book offers verbatim evidence of the horrors of combat and genocide, casually described soldier to soldier in yet more evidence for the banality of evil. The transcripts also provide insight into the culture of war itself, and the relationship of German soldiers to the Nazi leadership and regime. A memorable, disturbing chronicle.

Listen to the interview here.

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So, did Obama listen to our proposals for his second term?

For our January/February issue, you may recall, FP reached out to several leading thinkers with the same question: If Barack Obama were to tackle a global problem that is actually solvable in his second term -- no grand Mideast peace bargain or wholesale reinvention of the world economy -- what should it be? We highlighted 10 answers we received in the magazine, and it now looks like some of the recommendations could be in reach. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the president endorsed four of the proposals.

  • Make a trade deal with Europe: Edward P. Joseph argued that Obama could help extricate Europe from its protracted debt crisis by striking a "comprehensive free trade deal with the European Union." On Tuesday night, Obama announced that his administration would launch talks on a "comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union -- because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."
  • Fix American democracy: Micah Sifry suggested that Obama could revitalize democracy in the United States in part by "fixing the country's broken voting system." During the State of the Union, Obama promised to create a non-partisan commission to "improve the voting experience in America." (Never mind that the president will appoint controversial campaign lawyers to lead it.)
  • Cut power plant pollution: "If Congress refuses to act" on climate change, Gernot Wagner explained, Obama should harness existing law and Environmental Protection Agency regulations to combat global warming. On Tuesday, Obama declared that if Congress refused to act on the issue, he would. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," he said.
  • Kill the oil monopoly: Gal Luft called for the president to "break oil's stranglehold over America's transportation sector" by sending Congress a bill making sure that new vehicles sold in the United States are exposed to fuel competition. In his address, Obama didn't advocate this legislative route. But he did support the spirit of Luft's proposal in arguing that the United States should use some of its oil and gas revenues to fund an "Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good."

Sure, Obama didn't embrace all of the suggestions in our roundtable. There was no talk of rescuing Greece, banning land mines, capturing Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, severing ties with our more unsavory allies, or taking U.S. nukes off launch-ready alert (the president did call for cuts to the nuclear arsenal).

And he also backed some of the very pie-in-the-sky initiatives we were trying to avoid. If you're going to set the goal of eradicating extreme poverty (defined by Obama as living on a dollar a day or less) around the world within the next two decades, you need to have a more detailed game plan than platitudes about "connecting more people to the global economy" and "giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve."

Still, the fact that the president threw his weight behind some of the objectives outlined in our package suggests he is thinking about realistic ways to forge a foreign-policy legacy during his final years in office. As for Zbigniew Brzezinski's recommendation that Obama "get his authority back"? That was certainly the subtext of last night's State of the Union address. Achieving that goal would go a long way toward helping the president follow through on the others.

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