Andrew Thompson Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History University of Exeter
Humanitarianism developed at the intersection of Decolonization, the Cold War, and new & accelerating forms of Globalization. Decolonisation was about much more than the ending of colonial relationships: what was at stake was the dismantling of an entire global order: an old world of imperial states was replaced by a new world of nation states and this ushered in new patterns of cultural, political and economic relations. In the existential struggle that was the Cold War, the control of overseas territory mattered intensely to each side’s sense of security and power.
Capitalist West and socialist East competed to convince nearly and newly independent African and Asian states to adopt their models of humanitarian and development aid. As a result it became more difficult to distinguish aid given to further state interests from that given according to recipient needs. Globalisation meanwhile expanded the range of voices to which humanitarians had to listen while radically differentiating them. Aid agencies intensified their use of the international media, yet were exposed to greater pressures from their donor states and publics.
Together these 3 geopolitical forces − Decolonization, the Cold War, & Globalization − raised far-reaching questions about the relationship of international organizations and NGOs to state power; the basis upon which humanitarian needs were identified and prioritized; and the interaction of humanitarians with non-state armed groups. Continue reading “Debating the History of Humanitarianism”→
‘This is a great conservative system,’ reported the visitor following his trip to Moscow, ‘there is no lack of order, no anarchy, no lack of discipline! Everyone respects the authorities!’ While the liberal leaders of the materialist and soulless West allegedly no longer took up a stance against decadent art, degenerate music, and immoral sexual libertarianism, the leaders in the Kremlin, he claimed, heroically defended traditional family values and a ‘healthy patriotism’.
The tone of this argument will sound rather familiar to a contemporary observer of Russia’s reactionary domestic policies and its regression to Cold War style foreign intervention. A swashbuckling Vladimir Putin has attracted the tacit, and sometimes open, admiration from many Europeans who no longer feel represented by what they see as the liberal mainstream in politics and media. Continue reading “Soviet Internationalism in Latin America”→
Martin Thomas’s path-breaking book Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from Empire tells how the world’s two largest colonial empires disintegrated dramatically after the Second World War. Although shattered by war, in 1945 Britain and France still controlled the world’s two largest colonial empires, with imperial territories stretched over four continents. And they appeared determined to keep them: the roll-call of British and French politicians, soldiers, settlers and writers who promised in word and print at this time to defend their colonial possessions at all costs is a long one. Yet, within twenty years both empires had almost completely disappeared.
The collapse was cataclysmic. Peaceable ‘transfers of power’ were eclipsed by episodes of territorial partition and mass violence whose bitter aftermath still lingers. Hundreds of millions across four continents were caught up in the biggest reconfiguration of the international system ever seen.
In this new Talking Empire podcast Professor Thomas talks about the book with Professor Richard Toye.
In 1949, the French historian Fernand Braudel completed his first book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Piecing together a history of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean that transcended religious and national boundaries, Braudel ushered in the enduring trend of utilising sea and ocean basins as frameworks of historical analysis. Over the next few decades, a series of early American historians would likewise centre their work around maritime space, following European commerce and politics out of the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where, in the late eighteenth century, Florentine republicanism, English common law, and the European Enlightenment merged to create the United States, the New World ‘Empire of liberty’ that was to inherit global hegemony in the mid-twentieth century.
Though quick to incorporate cultural, demographic, and social studies of the region, the Atlantic World was initially conceived as a political-economic project, a heuristic device that accounted for the continuity between European and American imperialism. As a result, twentieth-century American historians were very much the products of their time, constructing an Atlantic World that reflected the bifurcated international climate of the post-war era. In doing so, however, their stories tended to neglect the historical interconnectedness that existed between early modern Eastern and Western Europe.
Ironically, just as Braudel was writing to counter notions that the Mediterranean had been a backwater, Western Europe and North America were politically and militarily reorganizing themselves around the Atlantic Ocean. In 1949, the same year that The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World was published, twelve of the modern incarnations of the historical Atlantic powers in Italy, Iberia, France, the Low Countries, and Britain, along with their former colonies in Canada and the United States, formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an intergovernmental military alliance of collective defence against the Soviet Union. Turkey joined soon thereafter in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, the Soviet Union spearheaded the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, institutions analogous to NATO and the European Common Market in the West.
In the wake of the post-war partition of Europe and the onset of the Cold War, the Atlantic Ocean basin was reconceptualised as an exclusively Western European space. And historians, in a sort of primitive accumulation, began to pull chapters from various Western national histories for incorporation into a larger Atlantic World narrative, one with its ultimate destination in the New World. It was during this period that the medieval Norse expeditions to northeastern North America gained widespread acceptance among American scholars, and it was Americanists with their careers rooted firmly in the Cold War who reframed the story of colonial America by emphasizing how migration from France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia was as central as that from the British Isles. The emergence of Atlantic history, as David Armitage aptly puts it, thus ‘owed more to NATO than it did to Plato.’Continue reading “More to NATO than Plato: The Atlantic World and the Cold War in Early American History”→
President Obama’s decision to reopen the US embassy in Havana and to begin easing commercial and travel restrictions continues to be regarded by supporters as the highpoint of Obama’s foreign policy agenda to date. But the move has its fair share of detractors, too. To understand the predominantly Republican opposition to trade liberalization with Cuba, we must look beyond the Cold War. We must look further back into America’s imperial past.
More Than a Cold War Hangover
The Democratic leadership has explained Obama’s sizeable shift in US policy toward Cuba. ‘We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests’, Obama stated. ‘Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.’ Nancy Pelosi similarly noted that ‘we must acknowledge our policy towards Cuba is a relic of a bygone era that weakens our leadership in the Americas and has not advanced freedom and prosperity in Cuba.’
Obama and Pelosi should look much farther back than the 1961 Cuban Embargo. The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.
Americans may have largely forgotten the first 60 years of US interventions in Cuban affairs – from the late 19th century to the mid-20th – but Cuban memories are longer. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, his justification for doing so was not in stark cold-war anti-capitalistic terms. Rather, he harkened back to an earlier era of US-Cuban relations and to Cuba’s right to international freedom of trade. In a January 1959 speech, he warned that American diminution of Cuban sovereignty, stretching back to the late 19th century, would no longer be tolerated, and in front of the United Nations in 1960, Castro denounced American economic nationalist policies toward Cuba, declaring that it was an inalienable right that Cuba be allowed to freely ‘sell what it produces’ and to see its exports increase: ‘Only egotistical interests can oppose the universal interest in trade and commercial exchange.’ So when the Eisenhower administration showed itself indisposed toward normalizing US-Cuban relations, Castro turned instead to the other major geopolitical player, the Soviet Union, ‘to sell our products’.
In January 1961, stemming in part from the Cuban-Soviet trade agreement, the United States put in place the now infamous trade embargo against Cuba and severed diplomatic relations. The embargo has since stunted Cuban political and economic growth, and has accordingly served as an easy scapegoat for Fidel and his brother Raúl by allowing them to blame the United States for any and all economic woes befalling Cuba.
James Mark History Department, University of Exeter
The University of Exeter, in collaboration with the Universities of Oxford, Columbia, Leipzig and Belgrade, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and University College London, has recently been awarded a major Arts and Humanities Research Council Grant (2014-18) to address the relationship between what were once called the ‘Second World’ (from the Soviet Union to the GDR) and the ‘Third World’ (from Latin America to Africa to Asia).
In the post-war period, as both decolonization and new forms of globalisation accelerated, new linkages opened up, and existing ties were remade, between these ‘worlds’. Contacts multiplied through, for instance, the development of political bonds; economic development and aid; health and cultural and academic projects; as well as military interventions.
Has Downton Abbey played an imperial role in Anglo-Chinese relations? Ever heard of the Cold War’s socialist internet? What is the current state of international history? What if the US Civil War had turned out differently?
Here are some good reads for your imperial and global weekend: From cartographic colonialism and the socialist origins of capitalism, to new archival photos of Victorian Egypt and reviving Cold War era containment.
Dr. Holt explores the crucial role of the short-lived Douglas-Home Government (1963-64) upon Cold War relations and British decolonization. With the 2015 general elections fast approaching, the story of Douglas-Home also proffers an illustrative historical example of how an impending poll can affect foreign policy.
Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Established under Security Council Resolution 186 of 4 March 1964, the force was tasked with preventing further violence between Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities in the aftermath of 1963’s ‘Bloody Christmas’. Still in place today, UNFICYP has become one of the longest running UN peacekeeping missions, and it owed much to the diplomacy of the British government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. It is also just one of many episodes highlighting the significance of Douglas-Home’s short-lived and oft-overlooked administration within the larger histories of Cold War relations and British decolonization. Continue reading “British Foreign Policy in the Shadow of a General Election: The Douglas-Home Government”→
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