Review of "The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times"

The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times by Orne Westad takes together a dauntingly large number of documents released or unclassified by governments to provide a narrative of what happened when the post World War II global powers, the USSR and USA, intervened in the third world, “the former colonial or semi-colonial countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that were subject to European… economic or political domination” (3).

Westad opens by contextualizing Soviet Socialism and American Capitalism as ideological conceptions of socio-economic relations that represent different variations of modernism. Both powers saw themselves as embodying the natural trends of development and subsequently sought to obtain security from the other via weapons development and alliances. Additionally, he is keen to point out how in this post-colonial period: “Moscow’s and Washington’s objective were not exploitation or subjectification, but control and improvement. While this distinction may be rather ethereal seen from the receiving end, it is crucial for understanding the Cold War discourse itself: while imperialism got its social consciousness almost as an afterthought, in the Cold War it was inherent from the very beginning” (5). In this regard Westad writes to correct post-Soviet collapse revisionists who see the struggle between the two as emanating primarily from the machinations of the Evil Empire. Quite often, Soviet influence sought to counterbalance the relationship of “guide” and “ward” that the U.S. had imposed. Towards this end he provides a short but compelling account of American’s continuous aggression towards collectivists domestically and international and points to it’s intervention immediately following the Russian revolution in October as a sticking point for the newly self-proclaimed Socialist government.

The first chapters the book limns this account in detail while the second delves into the evolution of a United States ideology that increasingly viewed itself in a paternalistic mold. The Native American, Philippines, Mexico and many other countries felt the hard hand of America as they attempted to express faith in something other than market rationality. This form of emancipation at gun barrel point lead to agendas of “nation building” and “development” that would later be seen if not the models that at least the precedents for subsequent third-world intervention. Following this outline of American ideology and how it played out the third chapter begins by providing an account of the Soviet model for development and intervention.

Westad outlines the variations found in Marxism’s relation to anti-colonial practices within the third world. Significant factors, such as level of economic and bureaucratic development are analyzed and how it was that the United States sought to develop it’s own form of scientific modernization theory in an effort to combat the Marxian model gaining traction in these countries eager for development but seeking to avoid the pitfalls of exploitation by their newly empowered countrymen. Insistent on the post-Enlightenment connections of these two forms of historical experience that laud science, education and technological development and seek to shape the world in it’s own image, Westad presents them in an almost evangelical sense.

From here the last two hundred and fifty pages give account of the many “hot” conflicts in the Cold War. Westad gives background on the major players within the conflict and details the fighting and diplomacy involved in the struggles in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Horn, Southern Africa. There are of course monographs on each of these conflicts however, to my knowledge, they do not limn the links between all of them in the manner in which both governments did.

The Soviets vacillating enthusiasm for their intentional projects at the cost of domestic growth is a recurring theme, as it the inability for the United States diplomatic core and intelligence services to provide an accurate telling of events to the policy makers. This latter point also obscured the manner in which the U.S. helped create the situation that would later be classified as under-development in world-systems theory. While this might be construed as a particularly academic concern, when considering that such theory influenced the U.S. decision to mobilize against democratic movements in Latin America it’s significance shines through. Also worth mentioning is that this should not be seen as a specifically American flaw, as similar modes of wishful thinking was occurring on the Soviet side as well. Westad develops this particular theme most forcefully in the various responses to the Afghan revolution and their calls for assistance. In the tension between these two super-powers Westad is also keep to illustrate how their policies helped facilitate the growth of radical Islam as a counter-balance to their attempts at extending into the Muslim world. Westad ends with a general call to non-violence in the political process in the understanding that as long as capitalism continues to cause the crises that lead to calls for revolution, Marxism will be a viable option for the dispossessed. The wars that he just described will continue, but need not.