June 14, 2013, by Harry Cocks

US Foreign Policy in the American Century and After

Two key arguments have dominated the historiography of international relations since 1945 – the last half of the “American century.”  The first of these stresses that US foreign policy since that date has been guided mainly by economic interests, while the second supposes that the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the “War on Terror” mark a substantial shift in the nature of America’s global influence.  However, in a new edition of his popular book International Affairs Since 1945: A Global History (Oxford University Press, 2013), co-written with John Kent, Professor John Young argues for the primacy of ideology in these conflicts.

Marxism, as Young and Kent argue, posed a local threat to national elites in the immediate post-war period and it was the fear of a turn to the left across the world – and not just inside the communist bloc – that inspired the great feats of western anti-communism: the Marshall Plan, the establishment of NATO and the EU, and intervention in Korea.  A Cold War ideology that represented communism as an all-enveloping, pervasive threat and refused to acknowledge that a global stand-off had local and national dimensions was the key factor behind the spread of wars and insurgencies throughout the developing world, especially in the Congo, Vietnam and Central America.  The new edition of Professors Young and Kent’s book updates the history of global politics to include events since 9/11, especially the war on terror and the associated conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Chinese power, the great recession of 2008 to the present, and the Arab Spring.  In dealing with the events of the early 21st century, Professor Young stresses the continuities of American policy, in particular the way in which George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” after 2001 (and its continuation in new forms under Barrack Obama) replicated many of the characteristics of the early Cold War.  For instance, in adopting an imprecise and global war against a hard-to-define abstract concept like “terror,” the Bush administration invoked an all-encompassing ideological challenge not dissimilar to that once thought to be posed by global communism.  Bush’s War on Terror, therefore not only exaggerated and misrepresented the nature of the threat, but also contributed enormously to its misunderstanding.  The effects of this way of thinking are very much still with us, and not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but on the streets of western cities.

John W. Young and John Kent, International Affairs Since 1945:A Global History (Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2013)


Posted in AfghanistanBarrack ObamaChinaCold WarCommunismPoliticsTerrorismUS Foreign PolicyWar on Terror