‘The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times’, by Odd Arne Westad (Book Review) | Nathan Wilson

Since its inception, academic historians have produced countless books analysing every detail of the Cold War (CW). For most historians, the CW remains arguably the most important event that never happened, however Westad (2012) argues lots did happen. But with this historical narrative, many have typically underplayed both the effects and events which occurred outside of traditional 20th Century historiography. This existed outside of the Eurocentric sphere of influence and towards those of the former colonised world alongside being outside of the orthodox, revisionism and post-revisionism historical accounts.

When viewing the World Wars, we often focus on Northern Europe, however a lot occurred elsewhere around the world. The same logic applies for the CW, which should be understood as Westad’s eponymic book title, as a ‘Global Cold War’. This global CW, saw proxy war fighting across the ‘Global South’ (Third World, ‘GS’), from Southeast Asia to Latin America and Africa. Subsequently, this term has been widely correlated with Westad’s arguments towards this subject matter, which is consequently “about the creation of today’s world” (Westad, 2012: 1).

Subsequently, I argue that Westad’s book remains invaluable for looking at the CW from outside of the typically Eurocentric and Global North’s own historical and structural narratives. Instead, Westad chooses to focus on what is not traditionally focused during the CW, its effects on the GS. This focus ultimately defines and directs Westad’s attention, which is explored within his book, while helping to both contextualise itself within the current historiography.

These include more orthodox and post-revisionist interpretations from LaFeber (1971) and Gaddis (1972), which allow Westad, to place his 21st Century arguments into these ongoing debates.

While most CW historians have focused on the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, instead of examining the Bandung Conference and the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), which arguably represents a structural CW pivot. Westad, correctly moves away from the traditional ‘blame game’ associated with previous 20th Century CW historiography, instead looking at the postcolonial project which emerged out of the decolonisation efforts being committed by European nations. These postcolonial projects had basis in forming new systems of political interactions and solidarity amongst themselves, demonstrated through NAM. One promising feature is Westad’s examination of the trend that emerged of focus shifting from the North to the South across the world, throughout the CW’s duration, which demonstrates a structural change that occurred and remained underemphasised amongst 20th Century (especially Orthodox) historiographies.

Westad’s emphasis is placed upon the main ‘losers’ of the CW, these being the GS, which saw the worst of the fighting and must deal with the subsequent fallout from its effects. What is notable is Westad’s analyses of both the US and the USSR. This was before looking at Vietnam or the ‘creation’ of the GS, Westad’s chooses to assess the global superpowers (similarly to Thomlinson (2003)). Furthermore, Westad deconstructs this through describing the US as an ‘Empire of Liberty’ and the USSR as an ‘Empire of Justice’. These terms are used to outline the structural beliefs of the core functioning reality within each respective entity. This separates the ideological underpinnings between the superpowers and ultimately becomes a tragedy, because both ‘empires’ are anti-colonial, but eventually became part of an older form of colonial domination, throughout the CW. Subsequently, both superpowers had a structural vision that was centred round their self-perceived strengths, which factored into their motivations for their actions. This is mirrored by Bevins (2021), Bockman (2015) and Schmidt (2013), showing US hypocrisy over its promotion of an ‘Empire of liberty’ world order, relating to Southeast Asia and Latin America, reflecting Westad’s thesis.

Westad’s work seeks to be heavily centred around using archival research to inform his arguments. This has been outside of the traditional superpower sources, with archives used from Montenegro, Serbia, and South Africa. This is brilliant because it helps to paint a broader image for the CW, from outside the traditional information circles, ultimately extending credence to his arguments. 

This similarly is like Bevins (2021) and Leffler (2005), who likewise emphases archival research, especially within the GS (in Bevin’s (2021) case Indonesia and Brazil). This research shows the correlation between the superpower’s quest for global hegemony and the ongoing decolonisation that was occurring across the GS (mirroring Tomlinson (2003)).

Alongside this, Westad has aimed to emulate the work and expand on the work of other historians, which include both Tomlinson (2003) (examination of the GS) and Schmidt (2013) (regarding decolonial Africa). This helps contextualise Westad’s work within this field of research of 21st Century historiography, by presenting supporting historical literature for his viewpoints.

In addition, this book presents the central agency as not belonging to superpowers, but instead to local players involved within these GS proxy conflicts. This emphasis allows the GS to ‘speak for themselves’ and broadens the perceived information from these sources. However, Westad does not downplay the significance of either the US or the USSR’s involvement, as core agents within the CW.

As such, Westad argues that Soviet intervention into Afghanistan merely accelerated an already collapsing USSR, supporting Braithwaite’s (2011) arguments. The was due to pre-existing economic stagnation that had started under Brezhnev, alongside failing to improve relations with Iran, because of the religiously determinist nature of the nation. I roughly agree with this, however Westad downplays the economic woes caused directly by Gorbachev himself, alongside the global crash in oil prices which compounded these woes, detracting from his argument.

Gorbachev’s open-mindedness was due to his understanding of self-determinism, regarding the rest of the USSR, but was too late to save the Soviet project itself, something compounded by its internal problems. Westad’s interpretation of Gorbachev is to me the most convincing.

For Westad, when examining Reagan’s actions, we see poor attempts at promoting counter revolutionaries to stop the Soviets, which consequently failed. Instead, these efforts forced the USSR to only become further involved into political and military nightmares. Alongside this, the US backed groups after the CW, only generated further problems within the involved GS country. For both the USSR and the US, the most notable example of this was Afghanistan. Subsequently, the results of this have only damaged the US’s international reputation across the GS. This is something that has followed the US, even into the modern day, post-CW, something that became more evident after September 11th.

Alongside this, Westad argues that Gorbachev became the first open-minded figure leading the country, part of this was the sole Soviet leader who had been born into the USSR, while his predecessors had been born under the Tsar. Gorbachev’s open-mindedness was due to his understanding of self-determinism, regarding the rest of the USSR, but was too late to save the Soviet project itself, something compounded by its internal problems. Westad’s interpretation of Gorbachev is to me the most convincing.

Westad concludes with several important predictions that are heavily implied throughout. Firstly, that eventually with the growth of Southeast Asia, China, and the rest of the GS, these nations will eventually revolt against the Western world. This is because of the widespread damage inflicted due to superpower CW interventions, which has only made them more susceptible to future self-designed tragedies. Secondly, this is in part because of the perceptions that developed around the superpowers from the GS. These perceptions still exist into the present day, and shape daily life within the GS. Westad’s arguments regarding China revolting against the West seem particularly salient today and believe help present an alternative image to that debate.

However, one major criticism with Westad’s work is that the book remains very complex, especially if one is not a CW historian. Secondly, the book occasionally feels like a puzzle, with each chapter being a separate entity, meaning it cannot be completely understood, until completion of the whole book. Yet Westad’s overcomes this, with a solid conclusion, that pieces all previous chapters together, generating a textbook reading feel.

Another criticism is because of an academic gap within the book. This being a lack of academic literature around not examining the spread of US-sponsored killings and terrorism. As demonstrated with entire chapters dedicated to Somalia and Ethiopia, while there is almost no mention of US-state sponsored Anti-Communist mass killings, throughout the GS. This is especially relevant, as Indonesia was the template for such methods, especially in Brazil, Guatemala, and Thailand (highlighted by Bevins (2021)). Secondly, a greater emphasis on China’s role within the CW, expanding upon Xia’s (2008) contributions would be desired too.

Overall, Westad’s book remains dense with seven hundred pages, yet fully develops a solid understanding of the core historiographic debates across the GS. This remains a solid continuation of Westad’s previous works, which have examined the global aspect of the CW. In conclusion, Westad’s book is vital for understanding the Global CW, that existed outside of the traditional Eurocentric and global north narratives. Consequently, the book’s insights both highlight these undeveloped fields, while presenting a holistic image of the biggest event that never happened. Therefore, the book sets high ambitions and remains impressive in its scope and argument, something I would argue its peers have not surpassed. 

Photo Credit.


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