Moving Beyond (and Before) the Cold War

I’ll take up the point raised by Shane Maddock’s recent post on moving beyond the Cold War.  I share his feeling that the focus on the conflict has imposed its own “interpretive framework” on scholarship in U.S. foreign relations and international history generally and that this scaffolding can limit our understanding of a slew of global trends (as well as some local ones).   Maddock sees the continuities in American foreign policy the post-Cold War as a reminder that critical issues within it did not end with the struggle itself. 

It is also true that many policies vital to the prosecution of the Cold War were in play before the struggle.  In the decade or so before the end of the Second World War I have been impressed by how much thinking on international economics and the governance of the world economy was a response to the Depression. What is even more compelling is how international it could be.  Influential Americans were regularly swayed by voices abroad on important issues (in this period the likes of John Maynard Keynes and Gunnar Myrdal gained a wide hearing in the U.S.).   A surprising number of important American economists and policymakers studied in Geneva, to be close to the reservoir of well-respected economic analysis and data produced the League of Nations. 

This led them to some mainstream assumptions about the importance of international bodies and globally oriented programs to stabilize the world economy.  As the war began in Europe, postwar planning began in earnest.  It was an extensive effort that went far beyond the well-known studies of the Council on Foreign Relations and the State Department.  The shape of a postwar world inspired a sprawling discussion.   A 1942 State Department report tallied 93 civil society organizations and government bureaus doing “important” (with kudos going to, among others, the Institute of Advanced Study, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Student League of America) work on “post-war reconstruction planning” and another 75 whose efforts were “unimportant” (no glory for Yale’s Institute for International Studies or, I am ashamed to admit, the Fletcher School at Tufts). 

While interests of these diverse groups could vary wildly, a staple discussion was the shape of the world economy after the war.  This was logical for people who were still in a depression, and one that had nagged them for over a decade, producing much of the political and social turmoil with which they were grappling.  In the first years of the war, for some, the war appeared as an opportunity masked by crisis.  It was a moment to reform the international system and apply the lessons that many thought had been learned in facing a severe economic crisis.  So discussion was often backward looking and structured by recent events—something not unknown to policy discussions today.  But these discussions produced much of the thinking that informed and, crucially, built support for the postwar settlement and the institutions that eventually emerged from it.  Not all of these discussions were prefaced on increased or permanent American global involvement.  However, when those involved got down to the nitty-gritty of how a disjointed and struggling world economy was to be knit back together on a liberal basis (and most of these groups harbored liberal attitudes) certain Cold War activities began to be seen in outline.  One means to reform the world was to tie “developing” areas more tightly to the industrialized centers.  Binding them could be done with a program that would offer them aid in the form of science and technology to transform the economies, societies, and even the cultural outlooks of their inhabitants.  And of course, advocates of this course saw the United States as one of the best sources of this technical capacity.  This all demanded greater U.S. involvement worldwide and was a clear precursor to the modernization implements and institutions that would be instrumental to the ideological combat of the Cold War.  Of course, development of a similar sort retains great importance in U.S. grand strategy, in the tactics of counterinsurgency, and international affairs generally today.

I do not want to create a straw man here (or to become one myself).  None of this is to say that the Cold War does not matter or was insignificant.  It did intensify or distort these and other trends.  For example is hard to see the breathtaking expansion of U.S. military activity worldwide without the Cold War. But it is hard to doubt the United States would have enhanced its global reach and influence through formal organizations like the World Bank and with constantly evolving concepts like development in many areas of the world with or without the Cold War.  It all points to a need to view many vital themes and topics in wide angle and in a manner that sees the Cold War as a one era among many.