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  • A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post–Cold War Era
  • Prosser Gifford
Matthew Connelly , A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post–Cold War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 424 pp. $55.00.

Matthew Connelly has written an ambitious book that succeeds admirably in its argument. Through careful research in six national archives and the intelligent use of many state papers and first-hand accounts, he establishes his basic premise; namely, that the Algerian revolution was won by aggressive—at times desperate—diplomacy. At a time when the Armée de Libération Nationale, the military arm of the revolution, was losing the war in the cities and at the borders of Algeria, the Algerian nationalists (the Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN), having no secure hold on any national territory, declared independence and achieved it, despite the presence of hundreds of [End Page 170] thousands of French troops and a militant settler community in Algeria. An improbable outcome. How was it achieved?

The Algerian revolution was not fought primarily in Algeria. Connelly demonstrates conclusively that it was fought in Cairo, Tunis, Paris, Bonn, London, New York, Washington, Moscow, and even New Delhi and Bandung. The revolution was fought not just by countries but by varying groups and aggregations of people who came together for varying purposes; it was, in the end, a revolution of the decolonized and decolonizing against the world view that had been declared by the great powers in 1945. Even Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle, against their initial instincts, came to realize by 1960 that the alignment of forces was markedly and permanently different from what it had been ten years earlier. The Algerian war was a substantial catalyst and cause of this difference.

In addition to unfolding a detailed diplomatic narrative, Connelly embeds his complex story in a theoretical framework that takes account of the classic history of the Mediterranean region as a whole, following Fernand Braudel, and supports recent trends to write history from a transnational perspective. The cultural geography of the Mediterranean has Europe facing Islam (north to south) and Iberia facing western Asia (west to east). No one can escape the consequences of this historical geography—the narrative of Algeria is quintessentially international and can be understood only in this wider context.

Each principal actor faced major dilemmas. For the French, Algeria was uniquely part of France, an "internal problem." Morocco and Tunisia were set free in order to preserve energies and forces for Algeria. But France needed allies, American arms, and the opportunity to subvert or challenge hostile votes in the United Nations. These needs gave others leverage and invited meddling in what was clearly not only an internal problem. France argued the humanity of its traditions while engaging in brutal torture and indiscriminate raids on villages—a contradiction that ultimately led to crisis at home and the realization that the war could not be won through military means. For the Algerian FLN the external diplomatic forces were as crucial to the success of the revolt as the internal forces, and they needed all the allies they could muster diplomatically. Yet they did not want to be tied to Habib Bourguiba's or Gamal Abdel Nasser's or the Soviet Union's agenda, although the threatened involvement of these parties at times was useful in drawing the attention of the West. The Algerians' main arguments were couched in Western terms: self-determination and the right to control a national territory. Among the principal fora they used were international organizations and particularly the United Nations in New York. For the United States, the Algerian war was a major distraction that drew France from attending to crucial problems in Europe, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and German rearmament. Algeria led to the great miscalculation of Suez in 1956 and required the French to mop against the tide of (Third-World, non-aligned) history. The war also provided fruitful opportunities for Soviet meddling. The United States wanted to help the French in Europe but did not want to be seen as helping them...