The Blog March 17, 2023

What We're Reading

Asensio Robles López, European University Institute

Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Published in 2017, The Cold War: A World History is a monograph that deserves to be revisited periodically – I, for one, like to return to it from time to time. Despite being published six years ago, it remains the last monograph that Odd Arne Westad, the beacon of Global History applied to Cold War Studies, has left in print. And while it has perhaps not received as much praise as his The Global Cold War, it has nonetheless strong features that make it a must-read for any student of the Cold War.

The Cold War: A World History does not showcase as much as one would like one of Westad’s best-known skills: his ability to leap across primary sources (and literature) in languages as diverse as English, Russian or Mandarin. Yet it is his reliance on secondary literature that allows him to take a bird’s eye-view of a subject as multifaceted as the Cold War –and to do so, moreover, by covering most of the world’s regions throughout all the twentieth century. This ambitious scope, together with Westad’s towering reputation as the greatest Cold War historian of our times, are the two strongest assets for this book to become a major reference in the field.

With the benefit of seven years’ hindsight, it is safe to say that this book has achieved that goal. Westad is at his best when reflecting on the nature of the Cold War, which he says as having both a geopolitical and ideological dimension. In Westad’s view, the Cold War reflected above all a clash between two ideologies, capitalism and communism, characterized by their universalist aspirations. This drive for greatness and perfection, along with the fact that their respective spearheads at the dawn of the twentieth century were raising superpowers, eventually transformed this ideological conflict into a new international system after World War II. Herein lies the major difference in Westad’s view between the Cold War as an ideological conflict and as a system of international relations: while the former had a longer history, stemming from the late 19th century until nowadays, the latter can be easily identified as emerging in the years after 1945 and ending in 1991.

Westad’s book is therefore a fascinating story of actors and processes competing to find their way in the middle of this geopolitical and ideological struggle. This does not mean, as the author acknowledges in his introduction, that the Cold War was the only or the most determinant international force in every part of the globe and during most of the century. Yet for a brief period of time, it became the global phenomenon that left no place untouched.

Now in 2023, one wonders whether recent events, most notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, might invite Westad to see the Cold War in a different light. Perhaps now is the time for a new monograph.


Daniel Sargent, “Neoliberalism as a Form of US Power”, in David Engerman et al., The Cambridge History of America and the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Volume IV 1945 to the Present, 2022.

If Westad’s book is the clearest example of a mature historian reaching the pinnacle of his career, Daniel Sargent’s work reflects that of a rising star. Sargent, however, may fall less into the category of Cold War history and more into the category of the history of US foreign relations, more specifically the trend now known as America and the World. Until recently, Cambridge University Press had not published a major work in this historiographical trend, which has clearly been on the rise in the last fifteen years. All this changed in 2021, when the Cambridge History of America and the World was published. And Sargent’s name, as could be expected, appeared on the list of contributors.

Since co-editing the now-classic The Shock of the Global (Harvard University Press, 2010), Sargent’s work has revolved around one main issue: the United States government's evolving relationship with its own role as a superpower and with twentieth-century globalization. This is the underlying theme that appears in his chapter in the The Shock of the Global, his monograph A Superpower Transformed (Oxford University Press, 2015), and his Diplomatic History’s article “Pax Americana.” What distinguishes his latest chapter from the others is Sargent’s long view of US foreign relation up to the present –ending with the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis— and his focus on the notion of “neoliberalism”.

Sargent's specific interest in "neoliberalism" allows him to better explain his understanding of globalization. Contrary to the established tendency in the field, Sargent emphasizes that the unraveling of globalization did not begin with the advent of neoliberal policies in the 1980s, but rather in the 1960s and 1970s. An interdisciplinary scholar at the intersection of International History (broadly understood) and International Political Economy, Sargent reminds us how the Bretton Woods system was built on the principle of "containment of global capitalism"-what other scholars might call "embedded liberalism," using the work of John Gerard Ruggie. But if the postwar international economy was characterized by a will to control globalization, Sargent tells us, the end of Bretton Woods and the multiple crises of the 1970s marked the failure of the system to fence off indefinitely the convergence of world markets. Multinational corporations or international finance did not need Reagan or Thatcher to emerge: they were already a reality, and a growing concern, in the 1970s. The decline of the United States as the world's undisputed number one economy, the rise of the OPEC countries as central international actors, or the New International Economic Order initiative were other signs of a world that was becoming more multipolar, more interconnected, and therefore more complex.

In this sense, what the rise and consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1980s did was to narrow the options and meaning of globalization and reorient America's role as a superpower. But neither was neoliberalism doomed to rise in the late 1970s nor did successive U.S. administrations lay out a master plan for its consolidation. Sargent is a master at showing us how American policymakers often improvised in the face of ever-changing circumstances. And while globalization served to ease America's transition as a declining industrial and trading power, it also sowed the seeds of many of the tensions we see today –not only in the United States but elsewhere as well.

The United States' attitude toward its own position as a superpower and its place in the world remains one of Sargent's interests, and one of the most important topics for understanding today's world. One can only look forward to his forthcoming monograph.


Matilde Cazzola, Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory.

Viva l’indipendenza: La fine dei grandi imperi coloniali nella stampa internazionale dell’epoca, special issue of Internazionale storia, July 2022

This issue of the Italian periodical Internazionale is meant as a celebration of and reflection about one of the epoch-making historical processes of the twentieth century, namely, decolonization, through a selection of contributions published in global press circuits between the end of World War II and the 1990s. The rich collection of articles, photos, and maps in this volume is taken from accounts by first-hand witnesses and coeval commentators of the struggles for liberation from colonialism and imperialism which spread all across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. These sources show that decolonization movements implied not only armed military actions and diplomatic negotiations but also a great imaginative effort. The postcolonial, decolonized world is, in fact, also the outcome of a set of political and cultural attempts to envisage novel social and governmental systems able to represent an alternative to the racialized and exploitative order of European empires.

Tim Clayton, James Gillray: A Revolution in Satire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022)

This book reconstructs the life and artistic career of James Gillray, the most celebrated illustrator and political cartoonist of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, against the backdrop of the transformations of the Age of Revolution. The work combines the best features of a richly illustrated art history book and a meticulously detailed biography, while also shedding light on British print culture and market. Particularly remarkable is the way in which Gillray’s art chronicled the British reaction to the French Revolution and Britain’s war with France, being equally able to portray actual individuals (from the British King to Napoleon) and represent more metaphorical personification of the French and British nations. His political satire and caricatures push the reader to interrogate not only the key role that art can play as a form of both information and propaganda during wartime but also the complicated relation which exists between artistic freedom and politics in revolutionary times.

Matteo Battistini, Eleonora Cappuccilli, and Maurizio Ricciardi (eds.), Global Marx: History and Critique of the Social Movement in the World Market (Leiden: Brill, 2023)

This collection of essays is the outcome of a collective inquiry around the temporal and spatial axes of capital’s world domination in the political and social thought of Karl Marx. By focusing on key notions such as social movement and revolution, law and patriarchy, state and nation, and colonization and empire, the chapters investigate Marx’s analysis of the ‘capitalization’ – and resulting politicization – of the global space. This global space is to be understood not as the mere outcome of the progressive geographical expansion of the world market, but rather as the very condition for its existence and reproduction. This reproduction is also made possible by pre-existing power structures such as landownership, the patriarchy, and enslavement, which are reinvented and assigned new disciplining functions by capitalism. However, the book also shows how the global expansion of capital ends up opening new political possibilities. Thinking globally, Marx saw that the global space of capital harboured a social movement also potentially global in scope, and which redefined emancipation in a way transcending the nation-state.

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