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US history and politics

Themeless pudding

Contemporary Europe and the Atlantic Alliance

W inston Churchill, who liked his food, once turned up his nose at a dish that was put before him. "This pudding,'' he said, "has no theme.'' The jaded gastronome would have recognised this book. Contemporary Europe and the Atlantic Alliance is a pudding without a theme. It is described by its authors as a work of synthesis, multidisciplinary in character, "suitable - we trust - for upper-division undergraduates, for general readers interested in contemporary history, and also for specialists who wish to see their own work in wider perspective'', a wish-list of breath-taking unreality. It purports to cover the period "from the year in which the European Economic Community began to function (1958) to the present", where the present is a grey zone, circa 1994-96, chiefly remarkable for its political and editorial indeterminacy. ("Only Nato had emerged with some credit from the Balkan tangle, but even Nato's future role in the Balkans seemed far from assured.").

The book is essentially a loosely related series of country surveys. The text is both passive and conservative. Not for these authors the clamorous challenge of globalisation and fragmentation, or the politics of identity; their approach is statist, ministerialist and obscurantist. The prefatory justification for this approach is as partial as it is peculiar. "European hikers mostly sew their own respective colours on their backpacks - not the dark blue colours of the European Union complete with a circle of golden stars. European soccer crowds always cheer for their own respective national teams. More fundamentally, the essentials of sovereignty remain with the EU's individual member states in the sense that any one of them could secede from the EU without being prevented from doing so by armed force, as were the Southern states during the American civil war and the Catholic cantons in the Swiss Sonderbundskrieg during the 19th century.'' In a Europe of the ex-state and the ur-currency, the prospects for a war of secession may not be the most compelling form of analysis.

In the body of the work, however, analysis is conspicuously absent. The dominant type is the extended summary: recapitulation without explanation. "From its beginnings, Nato faced numerous troubles. Each of the allies had its own separate interests, and it own military culture. Nato's intelligence was deficient ... There were numerous shifts in strategy, both conventional and nuclear. Planning for conventional war veered from a cautious strategy of initial retreat to 'forward defence' (to please the Germans). Nuclear strategy turned from initial designs for 'massive retaliation' to graduated response. There were all manner of disagreements about how the alliance should be led. (These culminated in de Gaulle's decision in 1966 to withdraw from Nato's military command.) There were political quarrels. (The worst were those between Turkey and Greece which disliked each other almost as much as they disliked the Warsaw Pact powers.)

Occasionally the anodyne lapses into the supine. "Reagan had a peculiar ability for sizing up people and gaining their trust. Gorbachev clearly liked the US president, and believed him. Reagan thereby helped to change the world by changing Gorbachev's views about the cold war. Reagan spoke the truth about the 'evil empire'. He put the Soviets under political, as well as financial, pressure by rearming and projecting US power, thereby vastly raising for Moscow the price of military competition. Reagan was unusual among US politicians in that he believed throughout that the Soviet Union was vulnerable. Above all, he firmly considered that foreigners all over the world preferred US democracy to communist dictatorship.''

Judgement on Reagan is not the only judgement withheld. Of the three references to Chechnya, the most substantial reads: "The (Russian) army had not performed well in Chechnya - a territory no larger than New Jersey, with a population of less than 1,000,000 people." As for another faraway place, older readers of The THES will surely feel a twinge of nostalgia over the portrait of Britain in the 1970s. "British academia was highly respected, so was the business of British art enterprise: the Beatles and other pop groups were known the world over, marvellously combining protest with profits. 'Serious' theatre flourished, as did classical music, opera, the ballet and other arts. British banking and other financial services held their own throughout the globe. Despite deficiencies in the British cuisine, the British tourist industry had become a major enterprise. British agriculture was one of the world's most efficient. The British also held other trump cards. They had a low (although rising) crime rate. They had a remarkably 'clean' public service." The 1970s, one gathers, was an era in which Britannia neither ruled the waves nor waived the rules.

And now? For that we must look elsewhere. New Labour does not signify in these pages. Cool Britannia is a foreign country. For the mood music of the modernisers - polenta and parmesan, E and Eno, globalisation and fragmentation - undergraduates, general readers and specialists alike may prefer to try Nick Hornby.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Contemporary Europe and the Atlantic Alliance

Author - L. H. Gann and Peter Duignan
ISBN - 0 631 20589 6 and 20590 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £65.00 and £15.99
Pages - 418

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