America and Britain shaped the world after World War II, and ought to be proud of their work

A new history of the Anglo-American relationship is sane, balanced and insightful

John Rentoul
Wednesday 26 November 2014 12:45

“Hyperbole” is the most useful word with which to describe James Cronin’s fine book, Global Rules: America, Britain and a Disordered World. Hyperbole is what it lacks, and what a relief that is. Increasingly, a book of this kind would be called something like, Atlantic Conspiracy: How America and Britain Colluded to Run the World after the War and Still Do. The author’s argument would be asserted in its most extreme form, accompanied by insistent claims that Everything You Know About This Subject Is Wrong and that This Book Will Change The Way You Look at the Special Relationship.

Cronin doesn’t write like that. He writes considered and balanced prose that respects the complexity of postwar history but which tries to make sense of the longer trends and important moments in the story. He has a big thesis, which is that the rules of international relations were drawn up after the Second World War mainly by the US and the UK; that those rules survived the fall of the Soviet Union; and that they are likely to persist for a long time after the rise of China.

“The postwar order in the ‘West’ was mainly the work of the United States and Britain,” Cronin writes. “Only three states really mattered in 1945 – the US, the UK and the USSR – and the Soviets had a limited agenda focused primarily on defence. The other states to which a veto was accorded in the UN Security Council – China and France – were in no position to lead.”

Cronin covers the Cold War with a sure touch, but it is when the Berlin Wall falls that his narrative really comes alive. He traces how the words of human rights accepted by the Soviets in the Helsinki Accords in 1975 gradually came to mean what they said, and shaped the freedom and democracy that came peacefully to central and eastern Europe, but which also spread, less evenly and successfully, through the rest of the world.

“The new order was also a system that, because of the character of the rules embedded in it – with commitments to markets, democracy and human rights (or good governance) – was potentially very intrusive. Applying such rules would mean judging and seeking to alter what happened within states and in how states treated their citizens.” What happened next was not automatic, as Cronin notes, but there was a logic that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The book shows how, when Tony Blair set out the case for military intervention in Kosovo in his speech in Chicago in 1999, he was expressing principles shared with Bill Clinton (although he was more cautious in espousing them) and with Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General who oversaw the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” – a doctrine that was set out before the Iraq war and adopted by the UN General Assembly afterwards.

Cronin thus shows how, although the decision to invade Iraq was contentious, it arose out of conventional thinking. At the time, both proponents and opponents of the war believed Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction: “The debate centred instead on whether and when to use force to obtain Iraq’s compliance.” Once the war began, however, “nothing went as planned and the hopes and fears of all sides were displaced by different concerns”.

Cronin brings the story up to date, with Barack Obama’s correction to a less assertive American foreign policy, but concludes: “When the US suffered defeat in Vietnam, ... there was a rival superpower to take advantage of its weakness and isolation and the USSR did so. Failure in Iraq had no such consequences, for no other power was ready, eager or able to displace the United States from its dominant, if now a bit less dominant, role.”

The world failed to turn away from “Atlantic Rules” in 1989, after the end of the Cold War, and failed again in 2008, after the global banking crisis, which might have challenged the Anglo-American economic order. Cronin argues that the model will survive for a long time, because it brings the benefits of order and prosperity and because it is flexible enough to adapt. “Economic openness is at its heart. Its political requirements are minimalist and mostly negative: it seeks to avoid war and human rights abuses, and on principle favours the rule of law and peaceful political transitions. Democracy is preferred but, as China’s role demonstrates, optional. Its governance, moreover, is not forever fixed, centralised and resistant to change, for it is fundamentally a thing of rules and institutions and not mere domination; and it is not an empire in any meaningful sense of the term.”

Not an empire? This kind of penetrating reasonableness in academia will never catch on.

Global Rules: America, Britain and a Disordered World, James E Cronin, Yale University Press, £25.

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