A large serving of politics without the spice

International History of the Twentieth Century. First edition

February 25, 2005

This collective endeavour is in its way rather old-fashioned - a reflection offered by its youthful authors. It is in essence a history of high politics, or high international relations, with a light seasoning of economics. It does not mess with periodisation or chronology. It is dedicated to the idea of the "solid foundation" (an idea whose time has passed, one might think, but for the expository ardour of the writers of textbooks).

In other words, International History of the Twentieth Century is an emanation from a world we have lost: it is no more and no less than a general introduction. The book is both concise and efficient. It was once observed that the tragedy of English food is that "plain" cooking cannot be entrusted to "plain" cooks. This is plain cooking by a practised team of international cooks.

They work well together. There are no historical histrionics. The menu planning is sensible; there is a uniform house style and a certain abstinence in the spice department. Antony Best & Co (Licensed Victuallers to the Discriminating Student) are not in favour of over-egging the pudding. This is a well-ordered text for the well-ordered tum. There is small risk of student indigestion.

Whether there is quite enough to provide the requisite stimulation is another matter. Some play is made of the book being "specially designed to support study". Apart from the usual appurtenances of glossary and annotated bibliography, this seems to refer to the boxes of "debates and controversies" sprinkled - it is tempting to say drizzled - throughout the text.

The subject matter of these boxes is a good indication of the authors' overall concerns: the origins of the First World War; peacemaking in 1919; the intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor; the origins of modern Western imperialism; the 1948 war in the Middle East; the origins of American interventionism; ideology and foreign policy in the 1930s; why the Allies won the Second World War; the origins of the Cold War; Sino-American relations and the "lost-chance" thesis; the Cuban missile crisis; the rise and collapse of détente ; America's Vietnam War; the Third World; Japan's "economic miracle"; the Sino-Soviet split; the impact of the Cold War in the West; the African state; the Cold War in the Middle East; state strategies and responses to the Islamist challenge; and the end of the Cold War.

The selection is unremarkable, even unexceptionable. The treatment, however, is surprisingly stodgy. "The reasons behind the emergence of détente have created a considerable amount of debate among scholars of the Cold War. In fact, the arguments are so wide-ranging that it is hard to detect clear 'schools of thought'; the most complete account remains Raymond Garthoff's Détente and Confrontation (1994), which emphasises the bilateral Soviet-American relationship and the emergence of nuclear parity in the 1960s but also pays homage to the many other issues that impacted on the superpower relationship." Cut to dozing student reaching absent-mindedly for the Tabasco sauce.

A total history of the 20th century - intelligible to anyone who would give attention, and flavoursome with it - may be a chimera. Paradoxically, it is perhaps more nearly achieved by the lone scholar than the joint venture: Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes (1994) or, if that is thought to be too short or too determinate, John Roberts' Twentieth Century (2000). Both books give shape and colour to their intractable times. Or for the second half, Peter Calvocoressi's World Politics (2000) and David Reynolds' One World Divisible (2000) do likewise. These are all fatter books than the one under review. But they are not necessarily longer reads.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

International History of the Twentieth Century. First edition

Author - Antony Best, Jussi M. Hanhimaki, Joseph A. Maiolo and Kirsten E. Schulze
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 531
Price - £65.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 415 20739 8 and 20740 1

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