Interviews February 14, 2024

U.S. foreign policy, Cold War history, and history of capitalism: An interview with Fritz Bartel.

It is an exciting time for Cold War historiography. Long gone are debates that were once central to the field, such as those about the origins of the Cold War and the responsibilities for its emergence. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Cold War for our present, some historians now argue, was not its outbreak but its end. Why did the Eastern bloc collapse in the late 1980s? How was it possible for this collapse to occur without triggering major international and domestic turmoil (Romania’s case notwithstanding)? And why did neoliberalism prevail over other economic paradigms in the new post-socialist democracies? Answering all these questions has become an urgent task in light of today's war in Ukraine, the continuing rise of populism, the growing delegitimization of liberal democracies, and the exhaustion of neoliberalism and globalization as reliable agents of growth in post-industrial societies.

These are precisely the three big questions that Fritz Bartel sets out to answer in The Triumph of Broken Promises: The end of the Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2022). Bartel’s book offers a picture of the end of the Cold War that has at its core a particular interpretation of the nature of the East-West conflict. Eastern communism and Western capitalism shared the same base: the Cold War was a politico-economic contest between two industrial ideologies over how best to ensure the continued social and economic well-being of their own populations. As such, both systems were largely successful during the golden years of post-war economic growth. However, if Western capitalism ultimately won the Cold War, Bartel argues, it was because Western liberal democracies proved to be much more flexible and capable of breaking their socio-economic promises in an increasingly globalized world than the Eastern Bloc after the 1973 oil shock. It was not geopolitics that ultimately decided the end of the Cold War, but rather the different strategies that East and West chose in a world increasingly shaped by oil, international finance, the exhaustion of extensive economic growth, and globalization.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bartel on December 5, 2023. What follows is a summary of our discussion about the origins of The Triumph of Broken Promises, its place in today's literature on U.S. foreign policy and Cold War history, and the lessons this book might have for our turbulent times.

—Asensio Robles, European University Institute

ASENSIO ROBLES (AR): Thank you for being with us today, and congratulations on the publication of The Triumph of Broken Promises. I think the wide coverage it has received over the past months speaks of the massive impact that it has had. This is certainly not the first interview that you’re doing about your book. But I want to ask you: what is the story behind it? How did The Triumph of Broken Promises come about?

FRITZ BARTEL (FB): The story really began for me when I learned during my MA that the Eastern bloc was $90 billion in debt to Western governments and bankers when the Berlin Wall came down. That made no sense to me: why would communists borrow from capitalists? Why would capitalists lend to communists? So, I set out to understand that history.

The literature on this topic did not shed much light. Stephen Kotkin had written “The Kiss of Debt” in The Shock of the Global, but there wasn’t a great deal out there beyond that, particularly considering how foreign relations scholars had started to think about non-state actors and the global shocks of the 1970s. In some ways, it seemed to me that the prevailing historiography saw Eastern bloc as exempt from these forces. Of course, there had been many studies about how the debt crisis affected the Global South, but there wasn’t yet something connecting (besides Kotkin’s work) this topic to the Eastern bloc.

As soon as I got into researching debt and finance in the Eastern bloc for my dissertation, it became clear that energy was closely tied to the Eastern debt. As soon as I started looking at Eastern bloc cases, it became clear that the history of Soviet energy had to be brought into the story. Then, once you’re looking at finance and energy in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s not long before either austerity or “economic discipline,” as I call it in the book, emerge. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) archives clearly demonstrated to me that the revolutions of 1989 were closely linked to, caused by, pressures of economic discipline.

The conceptual framework of my book therefore emerged towards the end of my work on my dissertation. I knew that I was now making several big claims about the international history of the late 20th century, but they weren’t yet sustained with archival evidence to the point that I wanted them to be. For example, I had used Russian-language sources for my dissertation, but I had not been into Russian archives yet. Neither had I written my chapter on Thatcher’s Britain and its comparison with the Polish crisis in the early 1980s. I thus spent the next five years trying to make those claims as substantiated as I could. And that’s the book that emerged.

AR: What would you say are the main conclusions of this book?

FB: There are a couple of key premises. One has to do with the nature of the Cold War. I argue that it is, at its roots, a political-economic competition, as opposed to perceptions of this conflict as a primarily military competition. The case that it is a security competition is stronger in the earlier phases of the conflict: the 1940s and 1950s. But just because it started in that way doesn’t mean that it ended for the same reasons. I think that, by the end of the conflict, the military factors are much less important, relatively speaking. In that way, I guess that my first claim is that we should look at the Cold War primarily as a political-economic competition in which both sides competed to “make promises and deliver on those promises to their own populations.” A system in which governments on both sides of the wall are judged by how they deliver on rising standards of living and increasing a secured socio-economic position for large quantities of their people. I think this is the basis of East-West competition, particularly as the Cold War moves into the era of “peaceful coexistence” in the 1950s.

The second premise of the book is that the two main blocs in the Cold War, the East and the West, are comparable in that they share more in common than what makes them distinct. To make a comparison of the two blocs is therefore appropriate. I’m getting this from Charles S. Maier. I think he’s the first historian to have said, all the way back in 1991, that we should look at the history of the collapse of communism and capitalism in comparative perspective. He also makes the point that both systems are constituted by industrial societies at their core, and that one of the most prominent lenses to look at them comparatively is by following how each of them reacted to their respective industrial crises in the 1970s.

Then, there is this idea in my book that the 1970s “privatized the Cold War.” What I mean by that is that non-state actors became during this decade just as central as governmental actors to determining Cold War outcomes and the relationship between East and West. That was very different from the kind of Cold War that I believed existed before this book. I assumed that the two sides were relatively autarchic from each other, and that the little interaction they did have was controlled by state actors. This is something that just turned out not to be true, particularly in the finance arena. So, my concept of “privatization” is a way for me to try to encapsulate this non-state, transnational element of the Cold War after the 1970s.

All that turns into the main challenge presented to East and West, which is this idea of “breaking promises:” the imposition of economic discipline (or austerity) upon populations. The reason I developed this concept is that I wanted to come up with an intuitive language that very quickly made clear why so many of the economic changes that capitalist and communists societies had to go through during the 1970s and 1980s were so difficult to make. They were so difficult to carry out, as I have argued in the book, because these changes were not just economic. Economic transformation constituted breaking political and social contracts that Eastern and Western leaders had implicitly established with their own citizens. In this way, I argue that the challenge for Western and Eastern industrial societies during the 1970s and 1980s was not just economic adaptation, but in fact rewriting the social contract as it existed between the state and the population. I decided that it was best to summarize this idea with this language of breaking promises.

AR: International economic readings of U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War have been on the rise since the 2010s (The Shock of the Global is one of the first books that come to mind). What do you think are the main reasons explaining this rise? And why has it taken so long for Cold War and U.S. foreign policy scholars to put international economic factors at the forefront of their analyses? The closest example that I can think of is the Wisconsin school from the 1960s and 1970s.

FB: I think these things are in some way cyclical. The Wisconsin School, the first school of revisionism within U.S. foreign relations historiography, did look at the economic factors behind U.S. foreign policy. That kind of revisionism then had a few iterations between the late 1960s and early 1990s. Then, I think the turn towards international/transnational history beginning in the 1990s, which has produced a lot of fantastic work, did not put the international economy at the top of its interpretative priorities. Of course, this does not mean that economic and other factors cannot go well together—precisely demonstrating that this is possible has been one of the main intentions of my book.

Then, we also must look at the reasons for the rise of international economic studies in historiography over the last, say, ten years. Two things combined, I think, revealed the need to put this perspective back on the agenda. One is the 2008 financial crisis. This was certainly the case for me when I was an undergraduate. I remember I almost stopped caring about what was going on my actual classes and just was reading as much as I could about the financial crisis, which seemed to be disrupting every facet of politics and economics. That certainly created for me a keen interest in connecting international politics and economics.

The financial crisis happened just as the 1970s began to become archivally accessible: as archival materials started becoming available, many historians started asking big and important questions about the decade. Once you start to look at the 1970s, I don’t think it takes it a bias towards political economy to think that economic factors are central to the unfolding of events.

AR: How does your book precisely engage with this rising scholarship? How do you see your work fitting in in this conversation?

FB: I would say that there are three scholars that were the biggest inspiration to me.

First, Daniel J. Sargent’s A Superpower Transformed was a great inspiration. He was the first historian to demonstrate, at least to me, how private markets during the 1970s in a way overpowered state actors at important moments. I just ran with that idea and applied it to new territories and time periods. Perhaps more importantly, I saw in Sargent’s work a book about the limits of U.S. power in the 1970s. Part of what I’m trying to do in The Triumph of Broken Promises is to explain how that decade of limits in the 1970s turned into the rebirth of U.S. global power in the 1980s. Like Sargent, I do this by placing globalization and international finance at the center of my analysis. It was the Volcker shock of 1979, rather than anything the Reagan administration self-consciously did, that renewed America's structural power in the international system. And I argue that it did so by making global finance the new engine of U.S. growth in the new, post-industrial era.

But this came at the cost of breaking promises: in order to restore international investor confidence in the United States, Paul Volcker and the Federal Reserve were forced to prioritize price stability and a strong dollar in international markets over low unemployment, rising wages, and industrial strength at home.

That’s a story that Charles S. Maier has told in lots of ways throughout his work. I think in his book Among Empires he uses the Volcker Shock as the hinge point in the United Sates’ transformation from what he calls an “Empire of Production” into an “Empire of Consumption.” This distinction, along with all of Maier’s work, was enormously influential for me. Hopefully, what I’m doing in my book is extending some of the implications that Maier first proposed with this distinction. How is the rise in consumption that he tracks happening in a context of flatlining real wages and precarity for large sections of the American population? It’s happening on the basis of various forms of debt.

So that switch from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption” is not just a switch from one type of economic activity or geopolitical power to another. It is also a shift from a much more secure form of economic life to another that is not—at least for large sections of population. What most Americans got in the 1980s was a much more precarious version of the American dream. That’s, in the case of the United States, what the triumph of broken promises means.

The third crucial figure who inspired my work was Stephen Kotkin. He was an enormous influence in how I thought about history from the Eastern bloc’s side. He makes the point early in his book, Armageddon Averted,that the Eastern bloc states were extremely good at putting up rust belts, but they were also extremely bad at taking them down. That’s a much shorter version of my book!

There are, of course, many other influences besides these three authors. I think of Federico Romero and Angela Romano’s European Socialist Regimes' Fateful Engagement with the West, for example. I think this book, and others by both historians before it, have done very important work thinking about Socialist states interacting with the global economy and restoring agency to their own interactions with both the West and the global economy. I think we’ve been travelling parallel, complementary tracks. It’s been nice to know that there are other people out there pursuing the same agenda.

AR: Yours is an approach that reminds me of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence. He, too, recognizes the existence of a Great Divergence that allowed the West to become the most influential region on a global scale at a certain moment in history. But he also falls short from suggesting that this Western “triumph” was due to some kind of Western virtuosity. The bottom line of The Great Divergence and The Triumph of Broken Promises seems to me to be the same: "Yes, the 'West' may have sometimes fared better than other parts of the world, but the factors that allowed for such moments of Western predominance are nothing to be proud of."

FB; I had never thought of that comparison myself, and no one has ever mentioned it, but I’m flattered by it! But now that you say it, yes, I can see what you mean. The title of my book was meant to subvert the standard kind of triumphalism that prevails in the United States about how and why the Cold War ended: Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union, told Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall,” freedom prevailed, etc. Any time that you think of a triumph, it should be something that you would be proud of. In this case, of course it’s not.

I think many people have tried to critique this kind of triumphalism by somehow saying that the West did not win the Cold War. Arguments like this often say that either “we all lost the Cold War,” or that it was accidental, or something along those lines. This is not the view that I present in this book. I think that the West definitely won the Cold War—and won it quite handily. But the question is what kind of competition were they in at that point, and on what basis did they win? It is in this sense that I argue that, yes, the elements that determined the West’s victory of the Cold War were not anything to be proud of. That’s what I was trying to do with the language of “triumph” that I use in the title. If it puts me in the company of Pomeranz, then that’s a nice addition as well!

Fritz Bartel

AR: I also guess that another reason behind the success of your book has been that it touches upon some of the burning issues of our societies today. The dependence of low-growth economies on ever-increasing public debt, and the difficulty for governments to reduce it, comes to mind. One of the lessons we can draw from your book is that no government (with perhaps the exception of the United States) can postpone the day of reckoning indefinitely when it comes to debt. Borrowed money will have to be repaid at some point, and the sooner governments address this issue, the better. Has The Triumph of Broken Promises any lessons for today?

FB: A couple of different aspects come to mind. One is that one purpose of debt is to defer political contestation. In the United States, for instance, most of the debt comes from various forms of Republican tax cuts. The reason this form of politics is allowed to persist is because there’s no hard budget constraints on the United States. As I trace in the book, that was discovered in the 1980s. If a harder budget constraint ever did reemerge for the United States, based on a loss of global confidence in the dollar, then the United States would have to reckon with the wildly divergent political priorities that exist in this country. Politicians would have to decide whether they want to continue to make the rich richer, or whether they want to do something about economic equality, such as investing in people, health care or education.

Thinking of non-exceptional cases outside the United States, the issue of debt relief comes to mind. This is an issue that unfortunately I was not able to get into in detail in The Triumph of Broken Promises. Debt relief would have solved many of the economic and financial problems in this book, even though it would have also transformed the politics of the Cold War and perhaps led to its perpetuation.

The dominant process in the 1980s was instead debt rescheduling—the process by which debts are deferred and just enough liquidity is added on pre-existent debt to keep it technically solvent. This is one playbook for handling financial crises in a highly indebted world, but there’s nothing economically necessary about that playbook. It’s a political choice. It was a choice in the 1980s, it was a choice in the 2010s; and it seems to be the choice that policymakers are once again making in the 2020s to deal with financial problems that have emerged after the pandemic.

So, I guess that one of the lessons of The Triumph of Broken Promises is that our future depends in part on what kind of choices we make about debt. We can either continue rescheduling debts and treat them as something that will always have to be repaid, no matter the conditions under which they were taken out or the economic shocks that may have caused them to become unsustainable. This viewpoint only strengthens the enormous leverage that powerful actors in the international system, like the United States, the IMF, or global capital holders of various kinds, already have in the system. But of course, it does nothing to build a more just and equitable international order.

One of the many things we’ll have to do to work toward more international justice and equality is rethink the idea about sovereign debt that dominated the late 20th century and continue to dominate our own time.

AR: Before we draw this to a close, I’d like to ask you about your future plans. Your research journey is, after all, not a very conventional one. Most young scholars begin with a very specific, even niche, subject of study, and only as the years go by do they try to move into broader questions. Covering the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberalism across the Eastern and Western blocs in your Ph.D. dissertation and first book is not, in essence, the most common of experiences. There certainly does not seem to be much more out there left to investigate. What’s in the pipeline?

FB: It’s a nice challenge to try to find a topic that is as enriching and exciting as this one was. I’ve felt very lucky that at every moment, for so many years, I’ve been continuously surprised by how rich this topic was.

The first thing I’m currently working on builds chronologically on my first book. I’m now looking into the role of Western actors, both public and private, in the transition to capitalism in Russia in the 1990s. We currently have two competing views on this topic. One argues that Russia’s economic problems throughout this decade were primarily the result of Western-imposed neoliberalism. On the other side of the spectrum, the other camp argues that the West actually had very little control over what happened in Russia in the 1990s. This is where the work of historians can have an effect. I’m therefore working with the IMF archives as well as Russian and Western government documents to see what role the West played in Russia from the fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of Vladimir Putin.

The other project is totally different. It’s a history of Los Angeles as a site of U.S. hard and soft power projection, global political economy, and cultural production since the 1940s. As I was looking around for a new book project, I went back to William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis, a book about how the railroad connected Chicago and the American West in the late nineteenth century and transformed both in the process. It got me thinking about how we might fold the histories of cities and transportation technology into the international history of the twentieth century as well.

This is where Los Angeles comes in. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the largest ports in the Western Hemisphere, and they’re the main connection points by which the United States is economically connected to the Asian Pacific. Of course, L.A. is also the home to Hollywood and U.S. soft power: how the United States projects an image to the world and how it understands itself. Add to this the facts that Los Angeles owed its rise to the second largest city in the United States to the postwar military-industrial complex, and that both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan came out of southern California to redefine American conservatism, and it seemed to me that I might have the makings of a book. Hopefully it’s one that will allow me to think about various forms of U.S. self-understanding and power in the world, and do so through the lens of a city, rather than at the national level. But we’ll see. I’m at the very, very early stages, and there’s a long way to go.

* * *

Fritz Bartel is a historian of U.S. foreign relations, the global Cold War, and capitalism. His work explores the impact of energy, international finance, and globalization on the Cold War order and the transformation of U.S. foreign policy. He received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2017 and was a postdoctoral fellow and associate director at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University.

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