Review: East, West, North, South

East, West, North, South
East, West, North, South: Major Developments in International Politics 1945-1996
Geir Lundestad
Translated from the Norwegian by Gail Adams Kvam
Scandinavian University Press, Oslo, 1997

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — November 21, 1998, 2:00pm

East, West, North, South has "established itself as one of the leading works in the Nordic countries on the political history of the post-war era," and I would venture to say that the reason is that Geir Lundestad’s book was originally written in Norwegian. The book does provide some useful insights into international politics, but it does not, in my opinion, distinguish itself as a major work in international politics in general.

My major fault with this work is its seeming disorganization. The work seems to be at times a randomly covering and recovering of topics, sometimes loosely grouped under various headings. The Cold War is covered in chapters 2-6, then the same period is covered again in chapters 8-10, with different aspects being highlighted (e.g. Chapter 9, "Developments within the Western Block, 1945-1996"). Although the book raise many specific points and brings certain issues to light, the reading seldom seems to have an overall goal. In the rambling, conversational approach, it’s hard to tell at times what point is being made, or if there is one.

A lot of information is covered, and not very much of it is specifically documented. The bibliography "has a limited objective" (329) of only listing a few works the author feels important; therefore, it would seem virtually impossible to find out from where a certain item was derived. At times, when a certain issue is raised, you will be directed to another part of the book (only page numbers, again reflecting the spaghetti-work of topics) where the topic is covered, supposedly in more depth.

Since the East, West, North, South seems to only present a large amount of information, it’s up to you to provide structure and meaning. The book may be best useful, then, as a reference for a particular topic being researched. That may be why I found Chapter 11, "Decolonization," particularly useful: I gained information from it because I was researching a class presentation on decolonization, and already had a certain framework around which I could wrap information. In particular, Lundestad makes the point that "most of the colonies were acquired after the first ones had already gained their independence," making it hard to create an simple picture of decolonization (274). The picture illustrating the liberation of the African colonies (276) is particularly insightful — there were a lot of them, and they were mostly granted independence in the 1960's.

The policies of several countries, including Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal are covered. The difference between British and French colonization is explained: Britain saw its colonies as separate entities, while France saw its colonies as part of France. Therefore, Britain allowed more of a local autonomy, seeing eventual independence of the colonies, while France sought to gradually assimilate the colonies into French culture (278). The author also sees ideals being linked to decolonization, in the change of public opinion and the unwillingness of countries to use force to retain forms of rule that went against the ideals of freedom in the colonizing country. "The significance in this factor was emphasized by the fact that the poorest and least democratic of the colonial powers, Portugal, retained its colonies for the longest time" (273).

Without an external structure, then, there is more of an incentive to simply pick up various previously-unknown facts instead of gaining an overall coherent picture. Nevertheless, I found certain facts to be quite intriguing, including the following:

Lundestad also makes the interesting observation that "the geographic distance across the Atlantic had increased to some extent". By this he meant that in the US "the political center shifted to the west and south in line with the population trend," and Britain’s leadership role diminished, first shifting a leadership role to France and then emphasizing the role of West Germany as it rose economically, politically, and militarily (212).

The Carter Doctrine of January, 1980, looks forward to the Persian Gulf War, saying that, "any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by the use of any means necessary, including military force" (123).

Reagan’s statement that, "The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people," proved to be true (124). However, if Reagan was really convinced that the Soviet Union was responsible for most of the unrest in the world, he was wrong so far that we still see unrest after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, although this could be classified as different unrest (125).

Lundestad’s book may be an excellent place to start if you can only read Norwegian. It would also be a good source of facts you might not have known about a certain part of international political history since 1945. Otherwise, you might not want to start with East, West, North, South unless you first have a specific idea of what you want to learn.