Michael Cox has produced a balanced and perceptive assessment of American foreign policy since the end of the cold war. His writing is free of obvious partisanship or special pleading and demonstrates an enviable grasp of the full range of foreign policy issues that dominated the in-trays of the Bush and Clinton administrations. Cox has a knack of summarising complex developments clearly and succinctly without making the reader feel that he is engaging in oversimplification. In short, this is a model of contemporary history writing which amply meets the needs of specialists and general readers.
Not that Cox's book is without a thesis. No one who writes about contemporary affairs can avoid coming down on one side or another of important and contentious issues. Cox makes two major claims: first that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, America's post-cold war foreign policy has been characterised by coherence rather than confusion. The US has not been the lumbering giant without a mission that she has been painted as being. Where there have been problems, we are told, they have arisen, not from a lack of vision on the part of Clinton, but from the fact that "the world has become a far more complicated and less manageable place". Besides, Clinton's critics forget the domestic complexities of the American system - political, constitutional and ethnic - which militate against consistency in foreign policy-making.
Cox's second claim is that there is a good deal more continuity between cold war and post-cold war foreign policy than is generally realised: "The underlying aim of the US - to create an environment in which democratic capitalism can flourish in a world in which the US still remains the dominant actor - has not significantly altered."
Cox pursues these themes through an examination of global economic issues, defence policy, and relations with post-communist Russia, Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and, finally, with the Third World. Cox is nothing if not comprehensive. Along the way there are numerous shrewd observations. He is particularly good on the way in which the end of the cold war has changed the balance of power between the Congress and the presidency. "Without a Soviet threat," Cox writes, "it certainly became increasingly difficult for the White House to rally popular support or bring an unruly legislature to heel".
Precisely, but this theme does run counter to the dominant thesis of coherence. Arguably, Cox has overstated the element of coherence, perhaps as a consequence of relying so heavily on interviews with administration figures. Cox tends to judge policies in terms of goals rather than results. Of course the results of many of Clinton's policies are unknown and verdicts on them must be provisional. To that extent, any final judgement on Cox's thesis must also be provisional. For the moment it can be said that Cox provides, if not a simple defence of the Clinton administration, a sympathetic and intelligent understanding of its dilemmas. Clinton's critics may not be convinced by Cox's arguments, but they will be in no doubt about the basis of their disagreement with him.
Richard Crockatt is senior lecturer in American history, University of East Anglia.
US Foreign Policy after trhe Cold War: Superpower Without a Mission?
Author - Michael Cox
ISBN - 1 85567 220 0 and 221 9
Publisher - Pinter with Royal Inst. of International Affairs
Price - £25.00 and £11.99
Pages - 160