Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ryan M. Irwin's "Gordian Knot"

Ryan M. Irwin is Assistant Professor of History at the University at Albany-SUNY and was previously Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the final page of Gordian Knot’s third chapter and everything is building toward the last paragraph. In the preceding pages, I’ve explored how U.S. elites responded to the changes of the early 1960s, when the number of nation-states in the international system almost doubled. This was a crucial moment in world history, and U.S. leaders were walking a fine line, criticizing racism and underdevelopment—signaling that they could be trusted partners after decolonization—without relinquishing American economic and military interests. This last paragraph on page 99 comes at the end of a longer discussion about U.S. actions toward Southern Rhodesia and it’s designed as a transition within the narrative:
Mennen Williams had resolute views on [the Rhodesian] question, but he refrained from lobbying the president [in] spring [1966].... For Williams, the time had come to rebuild the alliance between blacks and unions that had propelled his political career in the 1950s. Eager to reenter the national arena someday as a viable presidential contender, he wanted badly to prove that New Deal liberalism could still solve the problems facing contemporary America. The debate about South Africa and apartheid’s contested place in the world now rested on the shoulders of other politicians.
The answers to the obvious questions—who was Mennen Williams, and why should I care?—are wrapped up in the previous 27 pages. The gist: on the chessboard of postcolonial affairs, Williams wasn’t ├╝ber powerful—he spent 1961-1966 heading the State Department’s African affairs bureau—but he was well connected and very opinionated, and he successfully pushed some influential colleagues to (1) blur the line between civil rights and decolonization and (2) deepen U.S. support for international law and the United Nations. Williams’s experiences anchor this chapter, and these last sentences on page 99 are meant to jolt the reader. At this critical period after the 1965 UDI crisis, when the direction of Washington policy seemed genuinely up for grabs, the most committed anti-apartheid bureaucrat in the United States just ... stepped aside.

The paragraph sets up some of the changes that unfold in the book’s second half. If you flip through Gordian Knot’s other sections, a story about the larger apartheid debate will emerge. The book uses this fight to explore how different actors—U.S. elites, Third World diplomats, Afrikaner leaders, NGO activists, and many more—responded to the imperatives that accompanied African decolonization. Some people, like Williams, attempted to bolster international institutions and racial equality; others tried to shift the nexus of transnational discourse away from the U.N.; still others encouraged the creation of entirely new networks and institutions. The book’s central argument is that the 1960s saw the culmination (and collapse) of long-standing arguments about territoriality, development, and pluralism. From this moment emerged a much different sort of apartheid movement—the one we associate with the 1980s—and a postmodern international system that continues to shape global politics today.
Learn more about Gordian Knot at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue