The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005

The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005, by Henry Heller. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006. $65.00; paper, $22.95. Pp. 366

“History clearly has not ended,” writes Henry Heller in the preface to his book. “Indeed, the future has never been of greater concern to humanity, and yet it appears more confusing, less certain, and more pregnant with change than ever.” To shed light on the current world disorder, the author set himself the ambitious goal of describing and analyzing the primary political and economic events and trends of the entire post-WW II era. The purpose of this book, the author states, “is to order and explain the kaleidoscope of recent events.” While there may not be all that much that is new for the seasoned activist who has lived through most of the period described, the book is aimed more at a younger audience, thirsting for a deeper understanding of the current world situation. As such, this synthesis scores over most of its rivals through its broader scope and deeper understanding.

Inevitably in a book of this size, topics tend to be covered in short summary form and occasionally the reader yearns for more detail than can be provided. Yet it is remarkable how much information has been included, and the book as a whole is a masterly distillation of a lifetime of learning and prodigious research. That so much material has been organized into a coherent whole is an impressive achievement.

Heller convincingly demonstrates how decolonization brought only formal independence to African and Asian nations formerly under the European heel. “Third World exports increased dramatically, but remained largely confined to raw materials and primary products,” while export competition reduced returns. For the most part, meaningful industrial progress was largely limited to Asian nations such as South Korea and Taiwan that were granted special access to Western markets, in order to build up their economies in the interests of Cold War aims. But most of the other newly independent states remained economically dependent on the West.

Significant attention is directed to the U.S. domestic scene, with interesting insights. The credit-driven expansion of consumerism and capitalist-driven social fragmentation wrought a disturbing change in society. “The spread of individualism eroded family, working-class, ethnic, and peasant solidarities. The combination of individualism and consumerism fostered what has been memorably described as a culture of indifference.” The grip of big business tightened, with an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Working-class neighborhoods vanished, as union members moved to the suburbs, with an attendant diminution of class-consciousness. Manufacturing plants shifted operations to the south and west, and eventually abroad, weakening unions.

Third World revolutionary movements peaked in the 1970s. Heller’s explication of the process that led to the subsequent transformation of the world scene from revolutionary hope to ascendant neoliberalism and the crushing of aspirations is one of the highlights of this book. Stagflation, the stepped up offensive by business interests and the growing conservative movement led to the Reagan and Thatcher years, when corporate interests dominated the domestic scene and political consciousness was altered for the worse.

Heller rightly calls this transformation “remarkable,” and demonstrates how after its triumph in the U.S. and Great Britain, neoliberalism was systematically imposed on the rest of the world. “Overwhelmed by debt, most of the countries of Latin America and Africa were forced to surrender control of their economies to Western banks and international financial agencies controlled by Western governments. As a condition for loan bailouts, such countries had to raise interest rates, lower tariffs, and open their economies to direct and indirect Western investment. They were forced to deregulate their economies and massively reduce social, health, and education spending.”

The Reagan revolution not only dismantled many of the gains of American workers, but also those of workers abroad. Furthermore, one Third World revolutionary movement after another was crushed through a combination of covert intervention, economic destabilization and aid to guerrillas. Revolutionary governments firmly ensconced in power were forced to abandon their principles under the onslaught of neoliberal economic pressures, merely in order to survive. Eastern European socialist states took on more debt from Western international financial institutions, a not negligible factor in their eventual demise.

“The dominance of neoliberal ideology and policies hardened in the early 1990s into a new global order. Political and social questions receded in importance.” Bill Clinton “proved even more committed to liberal market orthodoxy” than his predecessor, George H. W. Bush. The collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist states in Eastern Europe brought about a unipolar world. Heller provides a sobering narrative and selection of statistics on the effect of the neoliberal triumph, illustrating the economic disaster that has befallen the majority of the world’s population. Yet the very dominance of neoliberalism has triggered unmanageable developments and resistance, rather than “the end of history” once promised by the neoliberal ideologues who had hoped for the permanent silencing of opposition.

In such an environment, the U.S. has adopted an openly imperialist and militaristic policy, first bombing Yugoslavia, and then invading Afghanistan and Iraq, while threatening a number of other nations, most prominently Iran. Military intervention in the Middle East was primarily economically-driven. “This audacious U.S. plan was born out of overwhelming military strength combined with a growing sense of economic vulnerability. On the latter point, American military power and, if possible, control of Middle East oil would enable it to reassert its waning economic primacy while shoring up the dollar. Massive increases in military and reconstruction expenditure in the form of contracts to American companies would help to reawaken the United States economy out of deep recession.” The war, however, led to uncontrollable consequences that leave the future in question.

Heller exhibits an impressive command of the facts throughout the book. To organize such a daunting amount of research into a coherently analyzed whole is no minor achievement. His assessments and conclusions are consistently judicious and well-considered. At no point does he lazily fall back on received opinion, even on topics that are all too often the victim of such treatment by other authors. It is apparent that, despite the disparate and wide range of material, Heller’s judgments are based on thorough research and thought. The Cold War and the New Imperialism can be confidently recommended to readers interested in exploring the current world crisis and the historical processes that led to it, as well as in placing the invasion of Iraq in a wider political context.

Originally published in Science & Society