- The New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Vol. 4: Challenges to American Primacy, 1945 to the Present by Warren Cohen
This book is a revised edition of a 1993 volume that was the last of a four-volume set, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. Twenty years after the original volumes were published, the publisher invited each volume’s author to prepare an up-to-date version in view of the scholarly developments and new perspectives gained during the two decades.
Such revision was particularly needed for this volume, the first edition of which recounted U.S. foreign relations after the Second World War through the beginning of the 1990s, right after the end of the Cold War. Much has happened since then, and today’s readers (college students, for instance) would expect to find a reliable account not only of the Cold War but of the world transformation in its wake. This revised text admirably fills that need. It presents a straightforward and non-ideological history of the Cold War and provides a detailed account of U.S. foreign affairs under the leadership of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Presumably many of the book’s current-day readers were born after 1993, when the first edition was published. How, then, would they read a book about the Cold War of which they have no personal memory? Readers twenty years ago would have had vivid memories of the ending of the Cold War, although perhaps not of its origins or of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Their lives had been intertwined with the global struggle for power between the United States and the Soviet Union. What would today’s young readers find in the story of the Cold War to which they could relate?
Both Warren Cohen and I were born in 1934, twenty years after the outbreak of the Great War. To people of our generation, vicissitudes in international politics were a fundamental reality, the standard reference point for our lives and for our understanding of recent history. When we went to college during the 1950s, we studied how the First World War inexorably led to the Second World War, and the Second World War to the Cold War. In a sense, this was an easy history to comprehend because the recent past was still very much part of the present.
But the world has changed dramatically since the early 1990s, and to today’s younger generation throughout the world geopolitics does not seem to be the basic framework in which to find meaning for their lives. They appear to be far more interested in relating to one another through constantly changing means of communication and concerned about the implications of globalization on their personal lives, environmental and energy problems, or human rights abuses. They seem less interested in the “structure of the international system” (p. 55) than in the well-being of their local communities and less prone to seeing the world in terms of “national interests” than of personal interests—or else of global, human interests.
Nevertheless, it will be a good idea for the younger generation to have some knowledge of Cold War history, if only so they can reflect on the contrast between [End Page 259] those years and the post-1993 period. There is no better way for them to grasp that geopolitical phenomenon than by reading this book. Most of the data, episodes, and conceptual frameworks used in the first edition remain in the revised version, and the involvement of the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and in hot wars in Korea and Vietnam is chronicled in clear language. The first edition’s emphasis on the theme of frustration America’s leaders and people often felt about their inability to steer the world toward an era of global peace and prosperity remains. But the overall framework is still that of “great power politics” (p. 175) in which the United States and...