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January 23, 2006

Recent Twentieth Century and Post-War world histories: Jeremy Black asks, do they pass the Tunisia Test?

Posted by Jeremy Black

The World Since 1945: An International History
by P. M. H. Bell
Pp. 606. London: Arnold, 2001
Paperback, £21.99

International History of the Twentieth Century
by Antony Best, Jussi M. Hanhimäki, Joseph A. Maiolo, & Kirsten E. Schulze
Pp. 558. London: Routledge, 2004
Paperback, £18.99

A World of Nations: The International Order Since 1945
by William R. Keylor
Pp. 464. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
Paperback, £22.99

International Relations Since 1945: A Global History
by John W. Young & John Kent
Pp. 763. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
Paperback, £24.99

These four books all testify to the high quality of work available for students, and also show that major academics are willing to write textbooks, an activity threatened in Britain by the emphasis in Research Assessment Exercises on more self-consciously scholarly works. The books also testify to the problems facing the textbook approach. Expectations that a textbook should provide the narrative necessarily limits the scope for analysis and also ensures that the book is shaped from the perspective of the narrative.

This is a pity as it would have been more interesting to see an explicit engagement at length with different ways to present and analyse international relations. In part, P. M. H. Bell manages to do this by including a section on the conduct and motivation of international affairs, but for some reason it is towards the close of his book.

Each of the books devote more attention to Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia than would have been expected from works of this type thirty years ago, although, within that framework, there is considerable variety. Keylor, an American, devotes two chapters to Latin America and only one to Africa, and his accounts of Latin America are very much organised from the perspective of relations with the USA, an approach that greatly underplays the nature and variety of Latin American international relations.

Although all of the books are moving in the right direction, there is still too much of an emphasis, in the geography, chronology and analysis of the works, on the Cold War, or rather on particular aspects of the Cold War: the political and military are covered at greater length than the economic, financial and cultural. In practice, as the new century advances, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine how best to understand post-1945 politics. Doing so in terms of the Cold War, with the post-1990 years seen as its winding down, or its consequences, is of considerable but still only limited value.

The Cold War thesis subordinated events elsewhere in the world, especially in the developing world, to the confrontation between superpowers and ideologies. This approach requires unpicking, not only by asking the questions raised by the various authors but also by proposing different ways to organise such studies, including narratives that raise the question of significance.

To confront the "Tunisia test" - how far does the study address the history of Tunisia - is to be disappointed. For example, Young and Kent, in what is an excellent book, cover Tunisia and decolonisation, but, thereafter, it disappears. Keylor mentions that Tunisia faced Islamic protest movements from the mid-1980s, but otherwise there is nothing post-decolonisation. Bell discusses Bourquiba and pan-Africanism, while Best et al, a very fine volume, is not comparable as it has to cover the entire century. Now Tunisia was not the key state in post-1945 international relations, but, aside from the need to discuss such relations at the level and from the perspective of such states, Tunisia also provides an opportunity to look at such issues as the impact of Arab-Israeli hostility, the nature of North-South relations in the Mediterranean basin, and neo-imperialism.

At the global and regional levels, it would also be useful in these books to have extensive discussion of changes in the politics and theories of international environmental and financial relations.

It would be invidious to choose between these fine books. The Best et al is distinctive for its chronological scope. The authors argue that the history of international relations during the century revealed four powerful trends: globalisation, the role of ideology, the steady diffusion of power away from Europe, and also a propensity for conflict. They are sensible in emphasising the danger that in explaining long-term historical developments (p. 1):

the historian can, if not careful, erase the fundamental variable in all human contingency.
Indeed, the willingness to engage with the ambiguity of causation is important in any surveys of this type. Keylor's organisation is more geographical than that of Bell or Young and Kent, but all combine chronological and geographical elements.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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