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  • In Search of a Postcolonial U.S. World Order
  • Hannah Gurman (bio)
Robert B. Rakove. Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. ix + 291 pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $95.00.
Ryan M. Irwin. Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ix + 244 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00.

On July 2, 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy delivered the most controversial speech of his congressional career. In response to the bloody French war in Algeria, he proclaimed:

The most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile—it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent. The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called, for want of a more precise term, imperialism—and today that means Soviet imperialism and, whether we like it or not, and though they are not to be equated, Western imperialism.1

Tapping into the United States’ exceptional image of itself as, yes, Western, but also a former colony that had been liberated from the shackles of European empire, Kennedy prophesied that the fate of the Cold War would depend on how the United States responded to the “uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa,” those nations still grappling with the legacy of colonialism who had not yet taken sides in the superpowers’ struggle.2

Kennedy’s turn to Asia, Africa, and Latin America heralded a major shift in U.S. foreign policy in the coming decade and has, in recent years, become increasingly prominent in histories of the Cold War. This is due in part to the rise of postcolonial studies and the internationalization of the history of U.S. foreign relations. Leading historians of the “Global Cold War,” to use the titular phrase of Odd Arne Westad’s 2005 tome, argue that the East-West power struggle cannot be understood outside of the context of competition over the Global South—the targets of the superpowers’ respective attempts [End Page 748] to sway the developing, and in many cases, newly independent nations, in their favor—or at least to prevent them from being swayed the other way.3

Two new books, Robert B. Rakove’s Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World, and Ryan M. Irwin’s Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order, both by first-time authors, make impressive and thought-provoking contributions to this fast-proliferating body of work. In many respects, they reflect a common vision that is manifested through the search for a moment of relative purity in the longer and otherwise messy history of U.S. liberal internationalism. Operating within liberal discourse, these works emphasize the true promise and temporary successes of U.S. efforts to reach out to the leaders of Africa and Asia, in particular in the 1960s, even as they acknowledge the strategic aspects of this turn and its centrality to the continued U.S. dominance in the world order. Both works thus frame the Sixties as a decade in which the postwar rhetoric of a liberal world order shaped by the United States in accordance with the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations was moving closer to reality. At the same time a series of regional crises tested this framework by forcing the U.S. to negotiate between the older imperialist order and the emerging postcolonial one.

These works also share a similar trajectory in which the rise of a truer form of liberal internationalism—whether manifesting itself in the United Nations General Assembly; the international conferences of non-European powers; or a more egalitarian form of U.S.–bilateral relations with the third world—ultimately becomes unraveled. In narrating this loss, the historian acts as coroner—seeking answers to precisely when and why the more genuine form of U.S. liberal internationalism died. As part of their respective autopsies, both authors participate in long-standing debates about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson—making the case that one or the other was the “truer” liberal internationalist.

The particular subjects of these respective books draw their authors to distinct...


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