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International Socialism, March 1975


Phil Gregory

The End of the Postwar Era


From International Socialism, No.76, March 1975, p.38.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The End of the Postwar Era
Alastair Buchan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £4.25

THIS book describes the erosion of political and economic power from the US and the USSR, despite their strategic strength. It notes the widening cracks in the international system today, the break-up of the Western alliance as a by-product of US-Soviet arms negotiation, the potential of Japanese rearmament, and the apparently permanent factor of Sino-Soviet conflict. The author sees the familiar landscape of the Cold War – a balance of strategic, political and economic power – dissolving into a crisis-ridden sea of multipolarity, where a trade war is undermining a strategic alliance system, or where political influence is wielded out of proportion to nuclear strength.’The late 1970s,’ he concludes, ‘may have unpleasant similarities with the 1930s.’ The answer lies in reviving ‘the spirit of internationalism.’

By which he means the institutionalised ‘internationalism’ of governments, and not that of peoples. For Professor Buchan, founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies, the system itself has not failed, it has merely succumbed to ‘structural adjustment’. Order, stability, and the control of change may yet rescue it from anarchy. The world’s course may be set fair for the next quarter century if there is a revival of the Japan-US-Europe axis, the development of something called ‘regional associations’, and a renewed faith in ‘new forms of international organisation’. But this piety dominates only the conclusion. In the rest of the book Buchan skilfully outlines the history of the Cold War and identifies the major characteristics of contemporary international politics.

Despite the fact that his system has no motor, no dynamic, and is, according to him, subject to pressures from such factors as uncertainty in ‘leadership’, and the undermining of the ‘old foundations of social discipline’, etc, Buchan nevertheless clearly illustrates the options open for relations between capitalist states in this period of crisis. If we ignore the weak liberalism of his conclusion (which we must) then Buchan shows that international politics have entered a state of permanent crisis.

There are at least six major international negotiations in some degree of progress at the present. According to Buchan, a possible scenario could be erected on the failure to reach an agreement on the limitation of warheads in SALT Two (the book was published in October 1973, before the SALT breakdown and before the Americans retargeted their missiles). The result would be a minimal reduction of the superpowers’ forces in Europe (due to cost), but also a failure of the European security negotiations, the emergence of irreconcilable differences at the intra-Western negotiations on trade and money (and the consequent carve-up of trading areas), a self-interest approach to oil by each European state and Japan (again Buchan was right), and an adjournment of the conference on the Law of the Sea (the next battleground). The fallacy, as Buchan shows, would be to assume that the USSR would be the beneficiary of such a breakdown. Moscow has a greater stake in successful dialogue than ever, to check the unlimited exploitation of the multi-warhead (MIRV) missile, to gain access to Western technology, and to prevent the emergence of stronger secondary powers.

It is vital for Brezhnev that the world remains bipolar, that eventually the great round of negotiations is translated into meaningful agreements. But the price of agreement will also be high. Greater understanding between Washington and Moscow will produce greater mistrust in Brussels, Tokyo and Peking. Trade and monetary harmonisation among the Western powers will certainly require, in Buchan’s careful phrase, some ‘severe internal adjustment’.

Despite weaknesses, this book is a valuable guide to the collapse of the postwar system. The negotiations in progress stand comparison with those of Yalta, Potsdam and Brctton Woods. But whereas they inaugurated, on the basis of proven economic and military strength, the era of the arms economy, the present round of negotiations mirrors its breakdown. The era of crisis is here to stay.

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