The Cold War and the New Imperialism

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If one is trying to wrap their mind around all of the current global conflicts in the world, particularly where the United States is involved, you can go to several go websites for a good analysis. If you are interested in finding out what the US policy towards Venezuela is you’ll find great information at Venezuela Analysis. For those who are looking for current information on Israel/Palestine that doesn’t give you a governmental perspective, then visit to Electronic Intifada. If you are trying to get the perspective of those who live in Afghanistan regarding their endurance of the 7-year US occupation, a great source is the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA). For those interested in a broader understanding of US foreign policy, an excellent source is Foreign Policy in Focus. However, in order to come to terms with current US foreign policy one needs to have some historical context. The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 is a good place to start for those wanting to put current policy into perspective.

Henry Heller, a professor of history at the University of Manitoba, has written an excellent overview of US foreign policy since World War II with an emphasis on the Cold War. This book is broken up into eight sections, beginning with the end of World War II and its aftermath. Heller makes a compelling argument that the US position after WWII was one of containment, particularly of left and Communist elements. This position of containment would explain why the US in many cases throughout Europe assisted in putting fascist groups back into power, particularly at the local level. The author does a wonderful job of demonstrating how this policy of containment is what led to the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

The second and third section of the book takes a close look at the period of de-colonization globally and how the US made a concerted effort to enlarge its sphere of influence. The US directly intervened in places such as Guatemala and Iran by overthrowing democratically elected governments, while seeking to position themselves in Africa and Southeast Asia as countries moved toward liberation from European rule. At the same time the USSR was dealing with a post-Stalin era and trying to reform its government and expand its global influence as well. Heller demonstrates that the only real confrontation between the two super-powers was how they competed for building global allies, particularly in developing countries.

In the fourth chapter of the book, the author takes a look at liberation movements globally, particularly in Latin America with the influence that the Cuban revolution had on the entire region. The Cuban revolution is what really drove the Kennedy administration’s desire to shift tactics in Latin America with the introduction of policies and agencies like the Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, and the Alliance for Progress. These policies were not terribly successful by themselves, but when used in conjunction with military campaigns such as the use of proxy forces or direct intervention, the policies which began under Kennedy have continued to influence US policy makers ever since.

On the other side of the globe, US tactics were much more traditional with direct intervention in Southeast Asia during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Eisenhower administrations. What is generally referred to as the Vietnam War, was actually a US war against Southeast Asia since it included the US bombing of Cambodia and military operations which were being conducted out of Laos. Heller does a good job of framing this regional war within the larger Cold War context. As the US was becoming mired in Southeast Asia, revolutionary movements were emerging in other developing countries and to some extent in Europe and the US as more and more people were challenging traditional power structures. However, in this portion of the text the author does not give enough credit to Third World movements for their influence on the left in Europe and the United States.

In chapter six, the author looks at the shift from revolution to Neo-liberalism, particularly during the Reagan and Thatcher years. This shift was in part due to an increase in military spending but also because of a greater emphasis on pushing economic policies which drove many countries into debt. It was during the 1980s that the influence of international lending institutions and foreign investors began to push for structural adjustment policies designed to open Third World markets and impose a policy of privatization in countries that had just a decade early flirted with revolution. Nicaragua was a good example of where the Sandinista revolution of 1979 was squashed by a US proxy war and its economy devastated by an embargo and diversion of resources from development to military spending. The Sandinistas lost the election in 1990 and the new government, which was backed by the US, embraced the Neo-liberal plan imposed by Washington. Nicaragua went from being a country of hope to a country of child prostitution and poverty.

The book concludes by looking at the disintegration of the Soviet Union and what factors contributed to it and how that set the stage for US global dominance. Heller provides a good overview of the Clinton years and how they set the stage for the Bush administration and its policies. This is important in that the Clinton years are usually overlooked as the first full administration in the post Cold War era and why the US government could get away with military campaigns in Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and boost military spending overall, with major arms sales to countries such as Turkey and Colombia. The Cold War and the New Imperialism is a very useful resource for those who are not only trying to have some context for US policy abroad, but can also be a useful guide in determining which direction the policy might take with the next administration.

Henry Heller, The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005, (Monthly Review Press, 2006).

Author: mediamouse

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