Frosty for­eign re­la­tions

PIERS LUD­LOW rec­om­mends an am­bi­tious new work ex­plor­ing the world­wide im­pact of Cold War ten­sions

BBC History Magazine - - Reviews - Piers Lud­low is as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional his­tory at the London School of Eco­nom­ics

The Cold War: A World His­tory by Odd Arne Wes­tad Allen Lane, 720 pages, £30

A great deal of books about the Cold War al­ready ex­ist, and there are plenty of well-writ­ten over­views on the mar­ket. But Odd Arne Wes­tad’s im­por­tant new vol­ume not only makes ac­ces­si­ble to the gen­eral reader the very lat­est aca­demic re­search into the many facets of the east–west con­flict, but also em­pha­sises more ef­fec­tively than any pre­vi­ous sur­vey the truly global na­ture of the strug­gle be­tween cap­i­tal­ism and com­mu­nism. In other words, it fully lives up to its ti­tle.

Its orig­i­nal­ity is ev­i­dent from its start­ing point. The tra­di­tional de­bate about the be­gin­ning of the Cold War fo­cuses on the lat­ter stages of the Sec­ond World War and the years im­me­di­ately after. A few his­to­ri­ans sug­gest that it be­gan in 1917. But Wes­tad takes a dif­fer­ent line, trac­ing the ori­gins of the ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle at the heart of the Cold War back to the late 19th cen­tury and the emer­gence of com­mu­nism as a po­lit­i­cal force in Europe. The open­ing chap­ters thus take the reader on a rapid march through the first half of 20th- cen­tury his­tory, un­der­lin­ing how the US– Soviet com­pe­ti­tion that emerged after 1945 was deeply rooted in a pre­ex­ist­ing ide­o­log­i­cal split. Aware­ness of the longer-term roots of the Cold War’s core ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle (and also of other key phe­nom­ena with which it in­ter­sected, such as na­tion­al­ism in the de­vel­op­ing world) is a re­cur­rent fea­ture of the book.

Once the nar­ra­tive reaches the tra­di­tional Cold War time­frame (1945–90), a sec­ond key char­ac­ter­is­tic emerges: the book’s readi­ness to fol­low the east–west strug­gle al­most lit­er­ally to the four cor­ners of the earth. There is, of course, much dis­cus­sion about the ide­o­log­i­cal chasm be­tween the US and the Soviet Union, with plenty of in­sights into in­ter­nal pol­i­tics, and pithy char­ac­ter sketches of the su­per­pow­ers’ key lead­ers. How­ever, Wes­tad’s book is at its best when ex­plor­ing how this clash of com­pet­ing moder­ni­ties was played out first in Europe and east Asia, then in the rest of Asia, Africa, the Mid­dle East and Latin Amer­ica. Even In­dia, which tried hard to stay aloof from the east­west strug­gle, found its in­ter­na­tional po­si­tion pro­foundly shaped by the Cold War. Its non-align­ment stance was as in­flected by the ide­o­log­i­cal clash as that of the most loyal mem­ber of ei­ther bloc.

This is not to say that Wes­tad presents a vi­sion of the Cold War in which ev­ery string was pulled from ei­ther Washington or Moscow. On the con­trary, ref­er­ences to su­per­power in­ter­ven­tions across the globe are coun­ter­bal­anced by fre­quent ex­pla­na­tions of how the Cold War in each theatre was deeply shaped by both lo­cal con­di­tions and re­gional ac­tors. Nor does the book claim that other pat­terns of change un­fold­ing along­side the Cold War were driven by US-Soviet con­fron-

Wes­tad em­pha­sises the truly global na­ture of the strug­gle be­tween cap­i­tal­ism and com­mu­nism

Com­mu­nist vi­sions of the fu­ture lacked plau­si­bil­ity as an al­ter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ism

tation. But what Wes­tad does demon­strate is that de­coloni­sa­tion, Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion and the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict be­came closely en­tan­gled with the Cold War. These is­sues were both in­flu­enced by, and ex­erted an in­flu­ence over, the dy­nam­ics of su­per­power ri­valry.

The third great orig­i­nal­ity of the book is the way in which it side­steps the stan­dard de­bate about whether the US won the Cold War or the Soviet Union lost it (or whether it was Rea­gan or Gor­bachev who dun­nit). In­stead, Wes­tad as­serts that what re­ally mat­tered was the tri­umph of global mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism. The ide­o­log­i­cal ri­valry born amid the eco­nomic tur­moil of late 19th-cen­tury Europe pe­tered out in the 1980s as it be­came steadily more ap­par­ent that com­mu­nist vi­sions of the fu­ture lacked plau­si­bil­ity as an al­ter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ism. The col­lapse of the com­mu­nist bloc was thus pre­ceded by the col­lapse of its ide­o­log­i­cal rai­son d’être.

De­spite its am­bi­tious scope, this is not a hard book to read. The nar­ra­tive moves smoothly from one as­pect of the Cold War to an­other, from one global theatre to the next. It is un­der­pinned by a prodi­gious amount of read­ing, largely hid­den away in the end­notes. More im­por­tant still, the ideas ad­vanced and the events de­scribed are brought to life by the au­thor’s per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions, Rus­sian jokes, cul­tural in­sights and well-cho­sen quo­ta­tions. This may be a book about a fierce and pe­ri­od­i­cally bru­tal strug­gle, but it is also one that pro­voked roars of laugh­ter from this re­viewer. Its value, both for the gen­eral reader and as a teach­ing text, is greatly in­creased as a re­sult.

A poster from 1949 cel­e­brates the vic­tory of com­mu­nism in China. As Odd Arne Wes­tad’s new book high­lights, the spread of com­mu­nism ac­cel­er­ated the Cold War’s global im­pact

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