International Politics Podcasts 101 – A ‘Best of’ List

by Gordon Friedrichs

Podcasts are ubiquitous. As of January 2020, there have been roughly 850,000 active podcasts and more than 30 million podcast episodes worldwide. As impressive as these numbers are, they also reflect a substantial increase compared to just two years ago when “merely” 500,000 podcasts existed – a 62.5% increase in just two years. More than half of Americans that are older than 12 listen to podcasts, and roughly 32% consume them on a monthly basis (mostly on their mobile phone from their homes). A large majority of podcast consumers have quite a robust attention span: More than 80% of podcast listeners tune in for more than seven hours per week, subscribe to an average of six shows, and listen to roughly seven shows per week.

Unsurprisingly, podcasts have become a significant source of revenue. Podcast advertisement will generate more than $1 billion in 2021 – ten times the money spent in 2015. This source of revenue has become a lucrative business environment, so much so that major companies like Spotify are investing up to half a billion dollars in podcast companies. Sony Music, Apple, and the major radio station owner Entercom are also investing huge sums to boost their podcast presence, offering a broad range of shows and content. Beside these big media companies, traditional content providers, such as WarnerMedia, but also others, have been diversifying their networks. This ranges from daily-news shows, history podcasts, or true crime (The Dropout by ABC News!), to narrative investigative series (I highly recommend The City by USA Today).

It is almost impossible to know where to start and how to decide what to listen to. Of course, the HCA Podcast has got you all covered on interdisciplinary perspectives and voices on the Coronavirus in the U.S. The New Yorker’s Podcast Department is a solid starting ground to read about good podcasts and whether they might be for you. They cover a range of podcast types and topics, including a best-of-the-year review.

Although I do listen to, and highly recommend, podcasts about other spheres of life, for example the terrific podcast about Dolly Parton by the New York Public Radio, I want to take the opportunity and offer interested readers my list of ten worthwhile podcasts on global affairs and international politics. The field of international politics has seen an astonishing surge of podcasts in recent years. This not only encompasses the world of think tanks, but also academic journals (e.g. International Security or International Affairs are running podcasts highlighting articles from their latest issues). Podcasts help to condense and keep track of the vast amount of information floating around online in the form of opinion pieces, studies, and policy briefings, yet they also serve as an alternative to the daily news outlets (The Economist, for example, has a bunch of excellent podcasts supplementing their weekly print edition). Academia itself has begun taking a closer look at the impact of podcasts on the political science discipline and whether it can offer a language and analytical skill-set to make sense of world events.

So my list below (in alphabetically order) might be a good starting point and help interested readers to get a sense of what it is out there, and why it can be worthwhile to delve into the world of podcasts on international politics:

Arms Control Wonk

This podcast is all about the good stuff of international politics: nuclear weapons, arms control, disarmament, and matters of nonproliferation. Hosts Jeffrey Lewis, Anne Pellegrino, and Aaron Stein take issues of national and international security just as seriously as they take each other’s hobbies, which serves as a memorable signature for the podcast’s intro. They usually discuss the latest written pieces by one of the hosts for the “Arms Control Wonk blog“, one of the go-to blogs for, well, arms control wonks (or at least those that call themselves such).

Topics of this podcast range from the latest weapons programs by U.S. adversaries (ideally weapons of mass destruction), such as Russia or Iran, and their impact on international security, to global and national challenges to existing arms control regimes. It’s a delight to listen to the hosts (and their guests) talking about nukes, missiles, and the latest technological advancements in military arms in both a serious and sarcastic manner. You not only learn a lot about international security jargon but also about the peculiarities individual countries reveal while trying to boost their national security and military defenses, something that remains relevant even in times of global pandemics and trade wars.

Bombshell

Another one of those kinds of podcasts that doesn’t take itself too seriously but covers a quite serious subject. Bombshell is different in many respects, however. First, all hosts are women. Second, they are interested in international security, weapons of mass destruction, and arms races. Third, this combination is both rare and laudable. There are still too few women working in international security, and Bombshell is just a great ambassador for how much female scholars can contribute to our understanding in this area.

The hosts Loren DeJonge Schulman (Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security), Radha Iyengar Plumb (an economist currently working in Silicon Valley), and Erin Simpson (a defense academic turned executive, and a Professor of Marines at Quantico), are not only tremendously funny and witty, they bring a fresh and analytically sharp mindset to the issues at hand. Episodes usually start with something utterly unrelated to the topic that is covered, like describing their alcoholic beverages in front of them or what they are actually doing while recording this podcast, or what news they have missed this week. This unorthodox style is also how they end their podcasts: asking each guest three personal questions (tune in to know what they are – they are hilarious!).

Their approach is unconventional but smart and insightful. Episodes usually cover an array of different topics and what currently keeps think tankers and politicians engaged. Factually and intellectually, the hosts don’t mess around. It is astonishing what range of knowledge and expertise the three of them bring to each episode, and it is a delight to listen to all of it. Bombshell is part of the very readable “War on the Rocks” blog.

Dollar and Sense

Political economists offer a fruitful and much needed perspective to most issues of international politics. Dollar and Sense, partly named after its host, David Dollar of the much respected Brookings Institution, does exactly that and with excellence. Want to know what drove oil prices up this week? How Covid-19 will affect America’s logistics workforce and the global economy? What to make of the US-China trade war? Are US sanctions up to date? Dollar and Sense might be just the right podcast for you!

Its guest are both from the Brookings family and the broader political economic scholarship. Because of this, the insights are tremendously rich in empirical detail and analytical clarity. I highly recommend the episodes with US Senators on US trade policy, because they give an inside perspective on what drives Republicans and Democrats apart on trade, but mostly what’s going on inside the two parties.

Fault Lines

Another podcast focused on national security matters and international relations, and probably the one with the broadest geographical range of issue areas. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Cyberspace – you name it. Great hosts and guests with regional expertise, who shift the focus a little bit away from the U.S. to regional hot spots. It’s a relatively new podcast with only 28 episodes so far, so also a great opportunity for interested listeners to watch them grow and find their groove.

National Security Law Podcast

If some of the podcasts on this list appear pretty nerdy to you, you don’t know the NSL Podcast yet. Steve Vladeck (probably one of the best scholars on US constitutional law in the US at the moment) and Bobby Chesney simply knock it out of the ballpark. It is fast talk, lawyer jargon at a sophisticated level, and it is about the most crucial and most decisive national security law questions of our times. From Trump’s intention to invoke the Insurrection Act, to privacy laws and the latest (and upcoming) Supreme Court rulings , NSL has the most knowledge to present and discuss all possible arguments of the case.

I recommend to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the hosts going on about the latest legal absurdities by the Trump administration. Don’t be afraid to be intimidated. You will be anyways, eventually. Did I mention it is also tremendously funny?

Pod Save the World

An offspring of the very popular “Pod Save America” podcast, hosted by the former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, and Tommy Vietor, “Pod Save the World” is for those seeking this Obama-vibe political era that’s been missing from U.S. politics currently. Deeply establishment liberal, pro-Democrats/critical-Republicans/definitely anti-Trump, Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhoades (Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor) offer an enriching inside perspective into the executive branch’s inner workings (and how to do U.S. foreign policy right). It is a lot of Trump-bashing but always insightful and definitely worth a subscription.

The creators call it “no-bullshit conversation about foreign policy”, and they might be right, but what makes this one really stand out is that its guests really provide behind-the-scenes insight into the U.S. foreign policy apparatus and the people involved. It is like watching an episode of “The West Wing”, just more authentic and factually true (sorry Aaron Sorkin, but your take on how impeachments work is just off). You can read their liberal foreign policy perspective from their episodes’ title, but one cannot escape the feeling of being sucked into the White House’s West Wing and command center for U.S. foreign policy when it truly mattered.

The Diplomat

There are excellent podcasts covering Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific Region, so it is hard to settle for just one recommendation. I am fascinated by North Korea, so I must recommend two podcasts on that particularly issue before I recommend the Diplomat: one is The Impossible State (with the great Victor Cha, former National Security Advisor to the Bush administration and others from CSIS) and the other is called Korea Now (with Jed Lea-Henry). Both are tremendously rich in insights and offer the best analytical perspective on what’s going on on the Korean peninsula and why this matters for the world and the U.S. in particular.

Now back to the Diplomat. The website is a prime source for those who want to know the latest from the Asia-Pacific region (and it’s a stellar one). The podcast is equally good. Hosted by Ankit Panda, it covers issues such as China’s new national security law vis-à-vis Hong Kong, civil-military relations in India, or Vietnam’s cyber-espionage on China during the Coronavirus crisis. Although not so much focused on the U.S., the podcast regularly delves into issues of U.S. national interest, such as Trump’s recent state visit to India or the politics of the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan. It’s a sober and cut-to-the-chase podcast that not only sheds light on a key region in international politics but also gives us the chance to hear voices from experts (oftentimes residing in the region) that most often do not feature that prominently within the Washington think tank establishment.

The Lawfare Podcast

With probably the most identifiable signatory lines of all podcasts on this list (and the best background music, in my opinion), the Lawfare Podcast (also run by the Brookings Institution) has become one of the most significant voices in the Washington politics and U.S. foreign affairs community. Sharp, clever, and with a strong judicial perspective on matters of U.S. national security and the like, Benjamin Wittes and his co-hosts are one of the leading voices in providing a clear analytical perspective on current events in the realm of law, courts, and jurisdictions.

Guests come from the Brookings family but also consist of other scholars and academics from time to time. They talk about disinformation campaigns, the significance of the Mueller report for the presidency, the indictment and case dismissal of Michael Flynn, the various workings of Appeal Courts and the executive’s numerous legal challenges, as well as the latest happenings in the Justice Department. It is rich, it is lawyer jargon here and there, and it is just great listening to. I personally favor episodes about international law, treaties, and the role of Congress (with and from the excellent Jen Patja Howell) just because the Trump administration has proven to be a great living example of how much the U.S. has insured itself from mass international calamity (albeit not forever). For me, the most insightful recent episode was with Rashawn Ray on Police Violence in the light of the George Floyd killing.

The President’s Inbox

HCA friends and affiliates will be familiar with this podcast’s host: James “Jim” Lindsay once participated in a public panel discussion in Heidelberg a few years ago. Lindsay has managed to make the President’s Inbox truly the inbox of students and academics of U.S. foreign policy. It is probably one of the most professionally edited podcasts in this list, and every episode is packed full of information. Lindsay’s guests are great, too, and it is a key feature of this podcast that it puts the spotlight not only on key contemporary issues of U.S. foreign affairs but also on recent books by both eminent and junior scholars.

Besides having academics, the podcast also regularly invites foreign policy practitioners to talk with them about key challenges facing the U.S. Each week’s topic deals with key questions that are on everyone’s mind when thinking about U.S. foreign policy, such as the role of the World Health Organization, American alliances, or the impact of the Coronavirus on U.S. global leadership and U.S.-China relations. At times, it is a little bit too loaded with Council on Foreign Relations staff and insight, but Lindsay is just a phenomenal host who raises the right questions and brings out compelling arguments about what the U.S. should do internationally.

The Truth of the Matter (Center for Strategic International Studies, CSIS)

Hosts Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz provide clear, sober, and concise factual analyses of current global events. Leaving out politicians, their guests are predominately from the think tank realm and academia. This makes this podcast appear apolitical, yet due to their institutional affiliation, the hosts show a leaning towards a liberal internationalist worldview.

Their episodes cover a wide array of U.S. (and global) security issues, both from a domestic and international perspective. It’s a little bit dull at times, mainly because they try hard to be apolitical, but their topics are great (U.S. food security, climate change, global migration, Syria, or Brexit). Their guests are predominately recruited from the large group of fellows at CSIS, which is an advertisement both for the think tank’s range of expertise and analytical depth. I particularly recommend the episode “Bad Ideas in National Security“ – a critical reflection on think tanks and the ideas industry.

Gordon Friedrichs is a postdoctoral researcher at the HCA’s Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust in American Culture, Society, History, and Politics”, which is funded by the German Research Foundation. His research deals predominately with U.S. foreign policy, domestic polarization and populism, international relations theory, as well as Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. In his GKAT project, he investigates the role of trust in U.S. global financial authority.


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