The Cold War was a seminal moment for great power politics, during which the twin superpowers, the US and USSR engaged in a decades-long battle for influence throughout the world. At least, that is the conventional wisdom regarding this long and tumultuous historical period. In a book talk hosted by the Yale International Security Studies program on October 20th, Lorenz M. Luthi challenged this narrative that the Cold War was principally a competition between the superpowers. Instead, he argues that we ought to view this period as a time in which both the United States and Soviet Union were largely reacting to developments among middle powers, decolonizing nations, and post-revolutionary regimes. This framework is the centerpiece of Luthi’s new book, Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe. However, Luthi confided during his presentation that his original title was The Cold War Without the Superpowers. This more provocative title helps demonstrate the themes Luthi touched upon in his book, namely the need to question superpower-centric narratives, and incorporate other trends, most notably decolonization, into our understanding of the Cold War.
Luthi’s approach sits within an ongoing movement to turn away from high-level diplomatic narratives which tend to privilege an American triumphalist narrative. For instance,Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s recent work The Cold War’s Killing Fields suggests that the late 20th century was only “cold” for some countries, while throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia it was a time of bloody wars, pogroms, and genocidal violence. These new histories of the Cold War therefore challenge us to consider whether the very name “Cold War” is an appropriate characterization for this period. Indeed, Luthi notes that, while 1989 has come to be seen as a watershed moment for many western countries, the international dynamics which would define the post-Cold War era had already been in place since the 1970s in some cases elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East for instance, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat viewed Cold War superpower competition as a hindrance to his efforts to make peace with Israel and grew increasingly convinced he would have to try and ignore the US-Soviet fault line to succeed in his foreign policy goals. Post-revolutionary Iran also rejected the idea of bipolar competition and proposed a new vision for a theocratic world order, the consequences of which still play out in the present day. While, as Luthi was careful to note throughout his talk, this does not mean the superpowers were inconsequential, it complicates our tendency to compartmentalize certain issues as Cold War or post-Cold War. Throughout much of the Middle East and Asia, the battle between Soviet communism and American capitalism took a back seat to questions of how to organize postcolonial society, conflicts of identity, religion, and representation. That these issues were catapulted to international prominence after the collapse of the USSR did not mean that they did not exist before then. Luthi’s arguments in this respect offered a refreshing new take on late 20th century international relations.
While it is unlikely that the superpower-centric view and terminology of the Cold War will disappear anytime soon, the push led by scholars such as Luthi towards more global scholarship of this period is a welcome one. In particular, it is worthwhile to consider the regions Luthi left out in his talk, most notably Africa and Latin America, which faced similar struggles to define themselves amid ever-present neo-colonial and interventionist threats from the superpowers. Hopefully the attendees at this event and the readers of Cold Wars, Asia, the Middle East, Europe will themselves be inspired to draw upon Luthi’s work and fill in these persistent regional gaps in our understanding of the Cold War.