Forum on New Histories of the Cold War

This essay is part of a forum on new histories of the Cold War. All contributions to the forum can be found here.

Paul Thomas Chamberlain
The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace
New York: HarperCollins, 2018

Lorenz Lüthi
Cold Wars: Asia, The Middle East, Europe
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020

Kristina Spohr
Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020

Are we entering a new Cold War? Recent years have seen a deterioration of relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, countries have practiced “vaccine diplomacy,” turning Sputnik, Sinovac, and Covaxin into tools of international influence alongside the Pfizer, Moderna, and Astrazeneca vaccines. And since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s intervention in Syria in 2015, commentators have asked whether we might be witnessing a return to the pattern of United States-Russia relations that largely defined international relations during the decades after the Second World War.

Observers might well push back against these Cold War parallels. The United States and China compete with one another, but they are far more economically integrated with one another than the United States ever was with the Soviet Union. Neither China nor Russia today offers a truly universalistic ideology comparable to Marxism-Leninism or Maoism. Geopolitical power is more evenly distributed than it was during the Cold War, as well. Countries like Turkey, India, Iran, or the United Arab Emirates may lack the heft of the United States or China, but conflicts like Libya or Nagorno-Karabakh highlight how “middle-tier” actors have significant agency in international politics. The pace of financial globalization in the last three decades, too, makes for a very different international political economy than that of the Cold War. Accurate or not, however, the Cold War remains an attractive metaphor for observers of twenty-first century geopolitics.

For this reason, however, it is crucially important to understand what the Cold War was and what it was not. Fortunately, three recent histories of the Cold War, all published within the last three years, offer a diversity of perspectives on that question. In his book The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace, Columbia historian Paul Thomas Chamberlain sees the Cold War in terms of “three catastrophic violent waves of warfare that killed more than fourteen million people,” above all in a “rimland” stretching from Beirut to Pyongyang (1). Cold Wars: Asia, The Middle East, Europe by historian Lorenz Lüthi sees the Cold War in nominally similar terms to Chamberlain’s book in presenting the Cold War as a global conflict whose impact was felt far beyond Berlin, Prague, or Budapest. Yet, Lüthi’s emphases on the importance of middle-tier actors and the timing of how the Cold War as global structure entered regional arenas offers an instructive contrast with Chamberlain’s emphasis on waves of revolutionary violence.

Finally, if Chamberlain and Lüthi focus on the effects of the Cold War, LSE historian Kristina Spohr examines the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe and East Asia in her 2019 book Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989. Spohr centers her perspective on the White House of George H.W. Bush and Bush’s attempts to create a “new world order” in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of Berlin Wall. Spohr’s choice to focus on statesmanship and inter-state diplomacy, above all in East Asia and Eastern Europe, offers a contrast in emphases with Lüthi and Chamberlain, who tend to emphasize structures and a more global view of the Cold War. Read together, then, the three books offer a useful panorama on the state of a field today. They highlight the accomplishments of scholars decades after the opening of archives in some parts of the world, and closures in others. They point to potential areas of future research. And they help problematize the use of the Cold War metaphor in current debates about international politics.

In order to spur debates about the contribution of Chamberlain’s, Lüthi’s, and Spohr’s books, Humanity has organized a forum featuring the voices of several early career scholars who have made their mark on the field of international history and bring to the table a diversity of regional and area studies perspectives. Susan Colbourn is a diplomatic and international historian interested in questions of international security, alliance politics, and strategy. The recipient of a PhD from the University of Toronto, Colbourn is the author of the forthcoming book Euromissiles: A Transatlantic History and the incoming Associate Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Reem Abou el-Fadl is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at SOAS University of London and the author of Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War. She has also edited volumes on the history of Egypt and is in the process of translating the memoirs of the Egyptian Africanist Helmi Sharawi into English. Finally, Stella Krepp is assistant professor of Iberian and Latin American history at Bern University, Switzerland. Together with Thomas Field and Vanni Pettinà, she is the co-editor of Latin America and the Third World: An International History, while her book The Decline of the Western Hemisphere: The History of Inter-American Relations since 1941 is currently under review with Cambridge University Press.

Humanity co-editor Timothy Nunan invited Colbourn, el-Fadl, and Krepp to take part in a two-part discussion of these three books. In order to open the discussion, Nunan invited the forum participants to submit a short reflection with their initial reactions to the books. These reactions will then serve as the foundation for the second part of the discussion, namely an audio discussion that will be recorded and shared later this winter. Reproduced below are the initial short reflections from Colbourn, el-Fadl, Krepp, and Nunan.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email