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