In the Shadow of the Cold War: American Foreign Policy from George Bush Sr. to Donald Trump

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In the Shadow of the Cold War: American Foreign Policy from George Bush Sr. to Donald Trump by Timothy J. Lynch. Cambridge University Press, 2020, 262 pp.

To many in the foreign policy realm, the presidency of Donald Trump was a dramatic shift in the traditional ideals of how the United States conducted international relations. For example, Adam Garfinkle, a former Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argued, “The problem with the Trump foreign policy, in short, is that it spurns the norms, multilateral institutions and legal apparatus of the ‘international community.’ ”[1] However, Timothy Lynch, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Melbourne, presents a different interpretation of American foreign policy in his book In the Shadow of the Cold War: American Foreign Policy from George Bush Sr. to Donald Trump.

It shows the post–Cold War period to be a continuation of rather than a split from Cold War–era policy. Lynch makes two important points. First, the “shadow of the Cold War” continued to influence the foreign policy of presidential administrations after 1989, whether they realized it or not (p. 4). Second, American policy during this period was characterized by growth and successes, “owed to the adaption, not abandonment, of Cold War thinking in this supposedly new world” (p. 5). Lynch’s view is unlike that of many people who saw the US in decline since the end of the Cold War along with the rise of China and re-emergence of Russia and Europe on the international stage.

Lynch organizes his book into chapters corresponding to the presidential administrations discussed, with each four-year term receiving a separate chapter. Furthermore, a concluding section attempts to place Trump’s presidency into this model of foreign policy evolution. The chapters are organized by themes, with many of them—like Iraq, terrorism, Russia, and China—reappearing throughout the book, making it easy to chart changes in policy regarding these issues.

The book’s discussion features major events and themes in post–Cold War presidencies from the senior Bush to Obama. It includes George H. W. Bush’s “playing by the rules” and support of alliances (pp. 48–49) and Bill Clinton’s first term of internationalism and multilateral action and second term that Lynch views as mirroring traditional Cold War–era foreign policy. Lynch contends that the foreign policy response to the 9/11 attacks was not revolutionary but a continuation of Cold War strategies (p. 136), and George W. Bush’s second-term policy mirrored more the Truman model of protecting democracy from threats. It was successful enough to serve as the basis for Barack Obama’s foreign policy (whether it was admitted by the president’s advisors). Obama again represented an optimistic shift in policy but was a study of liberalism and realism (p. 196), and his second term, Lynch suggests, was a return to the concepts of containment. Finally, Lynch places Trump’s foreign policy into historical context. For example, while Trump appeared to go against democratic ideals by befriending autocrats, this was a common practice during the Cold War when the US allied itself with dictators and others. Trump continued the Reagan nuclear weapons policy with some evolution. Trump and his administration championed change from the status quo in American foreign policy, and the president scoffed at those who used historical evidence and knowledge to make policy. But Lynch claims that Trump—like the four presidents before him—met the most success when he relied on Cold War–era policy tenets.

In addition to his excellent presentation of American policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author also provides a detailed historiographical essay on the five presidents’ foreign policy that is useful for any student beginning to examine these issues. The essay is something I definitely will use when students are asking for a starting place when exploring these topics. Of course, many of the issues and events discussed are very recent, and things are open to changes. One small critique of the book is that the addition of maps and maybe a timeline of important dates might have been beneficial to the more novice reader.

Lynch’s book is an impressive entry-level study of America’s post–Cold War foreign policy and an important reinterpretation of the conventional wisdom of the decline of America during the same period. It would be useful in undergraduate courses on diplomatic history and have a place in graduate courses and on the bookshelves of those interested in national security studies. This debate on the continuity or changes in American foreign policy after the Cold War will continue in the halls of academia and the White House, but this book serves as an exceptional starting point for the discussion.

Edward Salo, PhD
Associate Professor, History Department
Arkansas State University

[1]. Adam Garfinkle, “The Real Problem with the Trump Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 17 September 2019, https://www.fpri.org/. For other examples, see Wendy R. Sherman, “The Total Destruction of U.S. Foreign Policy under Trump,” Foreign Policy, 31 July 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/; and Pierre Guerlain, “US Foreign Policy of Chaos under Trump: The Wrecker and the Puppeteers,” Revue LISA XVI, no. 2 (2018), e-journal, https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.10208.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."