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Book Review


In a world that suffers from an ahistorical consciousness, in which the origins of social conflicts are forgotten or not understood, such a work as Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (2005) is valuable. Placing contemporary world affairs in a historical context, Westad argues that the Cold War was far from being merely a conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union played out on the stage of Europe, with a few incidental repercussions in the Third World. Instead, the war’s most important aspects “were neither military nor strategic, nor Europe-centered, but connected to political and social development in the Third World” (p. 396). Westad concentrates on events in the 1970s and 1980s, showing how in Latin America, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southern Asia, the U.S. and the USSR intervened in ways that would shape these regions—mostly to their detriment—for decades to come. The book’s survey is useful and informative, as is its partial reconceptualization of the Cold War, but Westad’s commendable project goes badly awry in his framing the events he discusses primarily in terms of two opposing ideologies. “This book argues,” he writes, “that the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics. Locked in conflict over the very concept of European modernity…Washington and Moscow needed to change the world in order to prove the universal applicability of their ideologies…” (p. 4). The reader is thus supposed to think that certain political elites believed so strongly in their ideologies, were so totally obsessed by them, that they would do almost anything to prove their rightness. Everything was subordinated to the obsession with proving that one’s ideology was better than one’s enemy’s. Surely such an understanding of world affairs is impoverished. Institutional relations were far more important than ideologies in determining the course of the Cold War and its Third World interventions.


To set the tone of his book, Westad opens it with two chapters that respectively trace the careers of American and Soviet ideology. In these chapters and throughout the book, passages abound that quote the rhetoric of political leaders, their self-understandings, the ways they justified to themselves and the world their foreign interventions. At times this reaches the level of farce. For example, after quoting a State Department spokesman on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—“I believe in freedom as a right, a responsibility, a destiny…  The United States stands for freedom, defends freedom, advances freedom, and enlarges the community of freedom because we think it is the right thing to do”—Westad states with no hint of irony that the Iraq invasion is a perfect example of how “freedom and security have been, and remain today, the driving forces of U.S. foreign policy” (p. 405). He is, to be sure, critical of many U.S. (and Soviet) interventions, but on the whole he accepts politicians’ interpretations of them. Almost totally lacking is any discussion of economic context, of economic interests that may have been served by particular interventions, of whether certain industries or companies were pressing for some foreign-policy action that came to pass, of what institutions benefited from which interventions, of policymakers’ ties to various corporations. What was the significance of the Middle East’s oil reserves to the superpowers’ policies in that region? Did the existence of a “huge offshore oil field in Timor’s territorial waters,” which Western oil companies knew would be difficult to exploit if East Timor were allowed to become independent, have anything to do with the U.S.’s decisive military support (which Westad ignores) for Indonesia’s invasion of the island and subsequent decades-long genocide there? Maybe some of the superpowers’ foreign interventions were motivated in part by the tremendous profits that the armaments industry could make through war. Economically, what was going on with the U.S. and Soviet governments during the Cold War? Westad leaves us in the dark.


The very method of relying on leaders’ public and private statements—or rather, only those private statements made in the scattered conversations that have been recorded in the documentary record—in order to understand the motives or the causes of specific policies is flawed. Such statements as the scholar can find should be taken into account, but they do not usually provide the most important information for an understanding of policies. First of all, the documentary record of conversations is necessarily fragmentary. Policymakers are not tape-recorded in every minute of the day. The statements that make it into the record may well reflect self-censoring or posturing in front of one’s colleagues, or they may be rationalizations that disguise underlying unsavory motives. Public statements, on the other hand, are almost always nearly worthless except as indications of what plays well to the masses. 


More broadly, self-deception is as rampant among policymakers as it is among “ordinary” people. Politicians and high-level bureaucrats are just as human as the rest of us, maybe more so (in the sense of being more self-deceiving). Nobody wants to think he is beholden to corporations or whatever interests have financed and coordinated his accession to power; he will convince himself that in his political behavior he is defending freedom, defending democracy, defending his country’s security. Or, more likely, his having attained a high political position indicates that he has already been indoctrinated with the right ideologies, so that he genuinely believes that what he is really doing is fighting some horrible evil called Communism rather than merely suppressing Nicaraguan or Guatemalan or Chilean independence from U.S. influence, or suppressing labor movements that might threaten the rule of business or set a bad example to neighboring countries by showing that popular democratic participation can improve people’s lives. Or maybe he is clear-headed and knows exactly what he is doing. The point is that what he believes he is doing does not matter much; it should interest psychologists, not political scientists. The question is, what kinds of policies does the network of political and economic institutions allow to be pursued? What do these policies actually do? What effects do they have? If the policies continue for years and the people who promote them remain in power, one can assume they are having the right effects (as determined by powerful institutions). The essential irrelevance of lofty ideologies to the policies and machinations of political institutions is revealed in the fact that one can list off the top of one’s head a dozen foreign interventions whose effects have totally contradicted the interventions’ stated ideological purposes. If security and “defense” are so important to U.S. political institutions, why were the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waged, wars that transparently were going to increase the U.S.’s insecurity by fomenting terrorist activity? If freedom and democracy are so important to policymakers and the institutions they represent, why were Reagan’s wars in Latin America and Johnson’s and Nixon’s wars in Indochina waged, which destroyed democratic popular movements? Why has the U.S. government consistently flouted democracy by organizing coups to unseat popular leaders? Is it at all credible that policymakers are so disastrously incompetent that they cannot even understand their own ideologies, that whatever situation they stick their hands into they somehow manage to make infinitely worse than it was? Is it not more credible that they are merely paying lip-service to some nice ideology while acting so as to increase their own and their favored institutions’ power?


If the U.S.’s foreign interventions during the Cold War were really for the sake of fighting Communism, as Westad thinks, why didn’t the end of the Cold War end such interventions? Westad does not even consider this question, despite its obviousness. The Cold War effectively ended in 1989, or 1991, but then the Gulf War happened, and later the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and U.S.-supported coups in Haiti (1991 and 2004) and Venezuela (2002), and meanwhile the U.S. continued supporting Suharto’s aggression in East Timor, Turkey’s massacres of Kurds, Israel’s aggression in Palestine, etc., and it continued the Cuban embargo, instituted economic sanctions on Iraq, and so forth. These operations were typically explained not as defenses against Communism, because the Cold War was over, but as defenses against terrorism. The rhetoric had changed, but the interventions persisted. Is it likely, then, that “anti-Communism” was the real reason for identical interventions from the 1950s to 1980s, or was it not more probably an excuse, just as “counterterrorism” was an excuse later?


Even Westad’s broader thesis, that the Cold War shaped developments in the Third World, is only partially true. If anti-Communism was indeed not the main reason for U.S. foreign interventions but only a convenient excuse (which some policymakers may well have believed in, though that’s an unimportant question), it is probable that even had Russia or China never “fallen” to Communism, the United States would have intervened in the Third World on a large scale. Its purposes in doing so would have been the same ones it in fact had, namely to prevent countries from escaping its sphere of influence, from following independent, "anti-capitalist" paths, from establishing strong labor movements or building up the resources to resist pressure from American political and economic institutions. The suppression of such developments is the true “ideology” that American power-structures follow—as is obvious from any honest consideration of the facts. The work of Gabriel Kolko, such as The Roots of American Foreign Policy (1969), provides an indispensable corrective to the idealist fantasies of a Westad.


Notwithstanding all these criticisms, Westad’s book has its uses. Primarily, it is an informative survey of Cold War foreign policy. On another level, it provides insight into the thought-processes of a typical liberal intellectual. It is illuminating to see how such a person interprets the world, how he convinces himself of the essential justness of a given political order, and of the good intentions of policymakers (as if “good intentions” mean anything at all). The book is also useful in demonstrating the explanatory poverty of a worldview that emphasizes “ideologies” above material factors and institutional relations.

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