Aftermath: The makers of the postwar world

Daily: The Pulse
Date: 02.02.20


Richard Crowder is the Deputy British High Commissioner to Pakistan. In 2015, he wrote his
first book,
Aftermath: The Makers of the Postwar World. I chanced upon his book in the
beginning of this year, 2020. The book offered me an insight into fathoming the way the
present educated generation of the British looks at history. Crowder also justified Winston
Churchill's giving up the colonial sphere of influence, though in Crowder's writing, I found a
subdued lament for the loss of the colonial past. I would not call Crowder's effort to distort
history, I would call his effort to rationalize history to mollify the present.

Book Review

Besides opening a window on history, the book offers an insight into the Richard Crowder's
way to look at history.

The first popped up feature of the book is that Sir Robert Cooper, the originator of the
doctrine of a new liberal imperialism, and the purported acharya of Richard Crowder, has
written the book's foreword. By so doing, Sir Robert Cooper offers an illumination of his
annotative faculties. Revealing his thoughts on international relations, Sir Robert Cooper
makes certain interesting comments that grab my attention.

Cooper writes:

“In 1945, the men of the postwar era were thinking not just about the beginning of World
War II; they had also lived through World War I. They had thought about how that began,
and how it ended, and how the Allies had handled the aftermath; and then about the
economic and political crises that led to World War II” (p. xi).

Though Sir Robert Cooper upholds the title of the book, aftermath, he overlooks the fact
that history is a merciless teacher to those who refuse to learn. What lessons World War I
could not disseminate, World War II did convey comfortably: obliteration. War brings
annihilation. If Europe had learnt any salutary lessons from World War I, the next world war
could not have happened. Interestingly, at that time, Europe was passing through the
phase Sir Robert Cooper calls the unity of Christendom.

War is no respecter of any civilization or imperialism. Amusingly, imperialism is an artefact
of war, or perhaps a series of war. Similarly, not one mistake but the amassing of mistakes,
call misjudgments, brings about war, which is anti-welfare. Consequently, the accretion of
miscalculations founders imperialism. Instead of lamenting (over) the errors, Sir Robert
Cooper pursues a retreat in evolution and the conjoined pretexts.

Cooper writes:

“The history of the past was all that the men in this book had to go on as they made the
history of the present. They invented as they went along, and changed their policies as the
facts changed. The evolution of institutions, like that of plants and animals, takes place by
trial and error, with this difference: that where men are making decisions they can recognize
errors more quickly, and make trials of new methods as they go. But the reference point
was their understanding of the recent past. That is what this book is for” (p. xi-xii).

As an embodiment of change, evolution is disreputable for offering refuge to fatalists.
Contrarily, Man mastered free rein over the earth by his agency of abstract thought, the
faculty that distinguishes him from lesser creatures such as plants and animals. No one can
refute the potency of trial and error, but no one can negate the might of abstract thought to
discern what others flounder to descry. By being wise after an event, anyone can recognize
errors and improve upon. There is nothing special in this faculty, even if men at the wheel
possess it. The point is simple: when mortals hogging the corridors of power are shorn of
foresight, their coming generations reach for evolution to rationalize their plight, read
deprivation of influence. The vicissitudes of life bear their own realities. Nevertheless,
promoting the cause of international relations, Sir Robert Cooper remains obsessed with
the theory of chaos, and posits that what is incomprehensible to him is also inconceivable
to others.

Cooper writes:

“And what happened after 1989, and the end of the Cold War? We enlarged the institutions
of the 1940s to bring Central Europe into Western institutions. But the real chaos of this
postwar moment was inside the Soviet Union; and neither we nor they knew how to handle
it. And at the end they found themselves excluded, or self-excluded from important parts of
the international system”(p. xii).

Capitalists think that they are in possession of the panacea for all economic ills. The
delusion befogs their thinking and renders them clueless. What happened with the (former)
Soviet Union after 1989 was analogous to what happened with (Western) Europe after
1945: withdrawal to their core. Western Europe dropped its colonial extensions to address
the indigenous essentials, and the same was the attitude of the former Soviet Union after
1989. The difference in recovery, however, was that Western Europe look towards its west
to seek the Marshall Plan (1948-52) whereas Russia, the reduced version of the former
Soviet Union, looked towards its east not for financial help but for reconciliation.
Consequently, in 1991, to the utter consternation of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry
Kissinger, through the Sino-Soviet border agreement, Russia initiated the plan of settling its
disputes on the border and islands with China and, from October 1995 to October 2003,
Russia resolved all the differences. Interdependence ensued. In June 2001, the bonhomie
graduated to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The story is simple: as Western
Europe braved the challenges of the post-1945 age, Russia also overwhelmed the
challenges of post-1989. In March 2014, Russia retrieved Crimea from Ukraine. In
September 2015, to express its relevance in the Middle East and to support its former ally,
Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict. Contrary to the belief of Sir Robert Cooper, Russia
is all included in and has been asserting itself on the international system.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 deprived Europe of its strategic importance, since post-
1989 saw the end of the balance-of-power system in Europe. Nevertheless, Sir Robert
Cooper thinks that the challenges of the current age merit an improved version of
international security.

Cooper writes:

“We still live today with the institutions whose beginning is described in this book. They
have served us well but they belong to a different time. War or no war, it is time to think
about their renewal”(p. xii).

This point is relevant and valid. Time has changed, so should the international institutions.
Both humanitarian crisis and asymmetric war have outmaneuvered the international
security system, and both invite international intervention under a new credible formula.
This point reverts the discussion to Sir Robert Cooper’s theory of a new liberal imperialism
calling for intervention on humanitarian grounds even at the cost of a state's sovereignty.

Switching to the preface of the book, I find that, given Richard Crowder's ability to
concinnate ideas, he has written the book in a novelist narrative manner. Apparently, he
seems to be an ardent admirer of the Churchillian school of thought. Posing a challenge to
the twenty-twenty hindsight, he has rewritten history to flatter his own genius.

Richard Crowder writes:

“This book is about the moment of renewal. It begins with the summer of 1941, when
Churchill met with President Franklin Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland. The
declaration which they agreed at that meeting, called the Atlantic Charter, was intended as
a beacon to mark the course towards a better world. It ends with the signing of the North
Atlantic Treaty in 1949 – a moment which ensured that the transatlantic alliance would
endure in peacetime, but which also symbolised the breakdown of the wartime partnership
with the Soviet Union into the division of the Cold War” (p. 3).

This “moment of renewal” is distinct from the renewal emphasized earlier by Sir Robert
Cooper. Nevertheless, the span of the moment of renewal, described by Crowder, was from
1941 to 1949: beginning with the signing of the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 and ending
with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 1949. Ironically, entirely distinct
circumstances surrounded both events. Clubbing them together, even for theoretical
purposes, needed a lot of mettle.

Crowder's opinion that the moment of renewal began in August 1941 begs a clamant
question: why did British Prime Minister Winston Churchill take a voyage to meet President
of United States (US) Franklin Roosevelt?

There must be something convincing Churchill to see Roosevelt. Overlooking this point
would induce the rest of the narrative adopting a varied course. Crowder opines that what
invited the attention of Winston Churchill to sign the charter with Roosevelt was the date of
6 January 1941 when Roosevelt rearticulated the American commitment to human rights
within Four Freedoms – the freedom of speech and worship, and the freedom from want
and fear – in his State of the Union address. Crowder asserts that the charter was to
reaffirm the Wilsonian principles of freedom of the seas and national self-determination.

If this were the case. Crowder’s argument could be convincing if there had been no world
war ravaging Europe. The American commitment to human rights within Four Freedoms
was already there but that had failed to convince Churchill to enter into any such
declaration to reaffirm the Wilsonian principles. Indeed, World War II changed realities in
Europe and compelled European countries including Great Britain to seek the US help for
their rescue.

A plausible reason for the Churchill’s journey was extant. There was a history of the
participation of the US in European affairs. In April 1917, the US repudiated the European
facet of the Monroe doctrine, that had embodied isolationism, and entered World War I
(1914-1919). For Europe (including Great Britain), the moment of revival was the time
when, in his speech to Congress, US President Woodrow Wilson presented his 14 points in
January 1918 to introduce peace in Europe. In light of his 14 points, Wilson negotiated the
Treaty of Versailles ending the war in 1919. The last point of the treaty founded the League
of Nations in 1920. The organization could not survive the test of time without the presence
of the US as its member and, hence, collapsed with the start of World War II (1939-1945).
This whole chunk of history exuded certain messages.

First, acting as an arbitrator, the US had introduced peace in Europe and made the
European powers sit together at the platform of the League of Nations. Second, Europe,
the hub of colonial powers, was incapable of resolving its differences on its own. Third, the
League of Nations collapsed in the absence of the US as its member. Hence, the US was
needed again.

Europeans could not sit together without a mentor. The process would be the same: the US
would enter the war, win the war for its European allies, establish peace in Europe, and
found an international organization. This time, in 1945, however, the US was encumbered
with the task of performing two additional tasks: first, the US would make its presence felt
permanently in Europe to forfend it against falling into another abyss of war, World War III.
Second, the US would be a member of the international organization, the successor of the
League of Nations, the United Nations. The implied message was that the US would have to
renounce the Monroe doctrine lastingly.

Besides engaging the US in the European affairs, the Atlantic Charter of 1941 was to
ensure the safety of Great Britain. By 1941, Great Britain had assessed that Soviet Union
was of no use. Hence, the breakdown of the wartime partnership with the Soviet Union was
the casualty Great Britain was prepared to afford – to ensure its own survival – by clinging
to a power external to the continent of Europe. The intent to secure its own borders is
evident from the treaty’s terms wherein Great Britain agreed to do away with its colonial
presence around the world. It was a great moment of expense. The signing of the charter
might have marked the beginning of the moment of renewal for Great Britain, but it was
certainly a moment of doom for British Imperialism. In general, European monopoly over the
world through colonialism survived the thud of World War I, but it could not withstand the
bang of World War II.

From a dissimilar perspective, whereas the Atlantic Charter proffered a moment of renewal
to Great Britain, the charter offered a moment of resurrection to colonies in the world. The
charter was a great equalizer. Under the rubric of the right to self-determination, colonies
relished independence sprouting from the resurgence of sovereignty and territorial

The circumstances of the signing of the Atlantic Charter of August 1941 were poles apart
from those of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 1949.

The treaty was an extension of the resolve of the US to keep Europe in peace. The treaty
was an afterthought to the instant when the Communist threat reared its heads in Europe.
In February 1946, through a long telegram of George F. Kennan, Deputy Chief of US
Mission in the former Soviet Union, had cautioned US President Harry S. Truman of the
impending threat of Communist expansion, the US Congress did not issue the financial
assistance (amounting to $ 12 billion) to initiate the Marshall Plan until February-March
1948 when Czechoslovakia turned Communist. Hence, contrary to the belief of Richard
Crowder, the moment that symbolised the breakdown of the wartime partnership with the
former Soviet Union was March 1948, and not April 1949 when the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) was signed, though April 1949 marked the formal beginning of the
Cold War.

Anyway, the moment of renewal that ended with the signing of the NATO in April 1949 left
two main impacts. First, Europe dipped into perpetual insecurity, both physical and
financial, without the presence of the US forces on its land. Second, despite all apparent
differences between European Union and Great Britain (actuating Brexit), both could not
escape the aegis of the US. The stage called for another responsibility on the US to mount
a rampart ensuring the protection of its European allies. This was how, adopting a
facultative approach, the US also became a member of the NATO.

Above all, taken both the moments (the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and the North Atlantic
Treaty of 1949) together, one can see that Great Britain willingly submitted to a role
subaltern to the US. This point is substantiated by a myriad of evidences such as the way
former British Prime Minister Tony Blair poodled the line of US President George W. Bush in
the wake of September 2001.  

In short, the book offers an interesting read to explore the way the Churchillian school of
thought looks at the world's history. Though Crowder highlighted the moment of renewal, he
was found searching for the moment of revival – restoration of the bygone days.

Back to columns in 2020
Richard Crowder