Interview: Arne Westad

18 May 2012

Arne Westad talks to Iravati Guha about the Cold War, the rise of China and what it means to be a historian.

Arne Westad is a Bancroft Prize-winning Norwegian historian, who specialises in Cold War contemporary East Asian history. Most famous for his 2005 book The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, which has been translated into fourteen languages, Professor Westad’s most recent book is a history of China’s foreign affairs since 1750. He is currently Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and codirects LSE IDEAS, the university’s centre for international affairs, diplomacy and strategy. Having taught at institutions all over the world, Professor Westad himself studied history, philosophy and modern languages at the University of Oslo before receiving a PhD inhistory from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

You come from Norway, a country that, despite having a population of less than 5 million, has shown a strong interest in international cooperation, and has mediated peace in Sri Lanka and Israel. What is it about Norwegians that makes them such influential peace makers?

I’m not so sure it’s anything in particular about the Norwegians. Norway is a young country; it was set up in 1905. It’s been influential because it’s been trying to find a role internationally. The idea of mediating conflict goes back to the origins of the Norwegian state, which broke away peacefully from an enforced union. Norway isn’t particularly well equipped, but it is very good that they are so internationally engaged – although their attempts to create peace are often unsuccessful. I wish that Norway would learn more about the outside world before telling people how to behave. This would make their efforts less unsuccessful.

In The Global Cold War, you talk about how Asia and Africa were the great theatres of the Cold War. Do you think that similar battles exist today between India and China, and are being played out in places such as Africa and Burma?

Yes. It depends on the region. India and China are rising powers within their own regions. It may be a while before we see another global cold war, but in local areas such as Burma you see a strong attempt to exert influence. India and China have their backs turned upon each other; they’ve had no direct interaction in the last 200 odd years. Theirs is a crucial relationship for the future as they are both very important powers. It’s a problem at the moment that they have a difficult relationship, in part because of the border issues but also because they’re very different in terms of politics and composition of society. The uncertainty in their relationship could lead to conflict.

Why do you think the subject of The Global Cold War was previously neglected?

This happened because of the centring on Europe and the preoccupation with the Soviet Union and the USA. Very few people looked at the process of decolonisation in a Cold War context. In academic studies, some were studying decolonisation, and others Cold War politics, but very few combined these studies. I think that The Global Cold War has been influential as it looks at these two things together.

Do you think the book has changed how scholars see the Cold War?

I’m not so sure about that, but younger people have found the book to be interesting. It was a new angle for explaining contemporary international history. Some criticised it for over-emphasising the world outside Europe. My defence is that I set out to emphasise an argument about the postcolonial role. Sometimes you need to emphasise hard in order to make a point.

Moving on to your next book – how did you first get interested in China?

I was there as an exchange student when I was your age. I spent a year in Beijing studying the language. It was 1979, which was a very exciting time , but there were still remnants of the old system. I remember having to wake up every morning and shout Maoist slogans in Peking University. Today, the exact spot where I used to shout slogans has become the tennis courts of the university – this says a lot about change!

There has been much discussion about the implications of the rise of China for the Western world. But what are some of the challenges for Chinese society and politics?

China has two main challenges domestically. The first is the growing inequality within society which has become much worse. There are some very underdeveloped regions, and very poor people are coming to the cities. China is the best exemplar I know of where economic growth is happening but some people are falling behind. The second problem involves governance, and the inability that ordinary people have to influence their own lives through politics. In order to function better, China must become much more pluralistic than it is today. By contrast, India has many problems but does not have this problem of a lack of political freedom. If the Chinese government does not tackle these two problems, they could ruin the spectacular economic growth of the last generation.

You’re familiar with the academic systems of both the West and of China. Can you tell us about some of the differences between them?

China has been very influenced by the West in terms of academics. However, its origins lie in when China was part of the same system as the Soviet Union. It is very hierarchical and not as open in terms of discussion and academic freedom as it used to be, and that is holding China back. There are academics trying to change this and we are seeing quite a bit of progress.

Can you tell us about your own writing process? Do you do all the research first, or do you begin writing in the middle of researching?

It’s hard. What I do is to start by reading a lot, sometimes in archives and sometimes what others have written. Then I start writing and feeling my way – and then I discover how little I know. At this point I go back to reading. There is a symbiotic relationship between reading and writing. It is important to realise how little you know. In my case, archives are extremely important – and they have only recently started to open up. One of the problems in Britain and the USA, and even in Scandinavia, is that it is possible to be an expert on a field without having a sound grounding in its culture and language. I believe that China should be studied from within.

What are the benefits and dangers of academics such as yourself advising governments and becoming involved with policymaking?

I’m incredibly lucky in what I’m doing. I come from a non-academic background; neither of my parents went past primary school. It’s still hard to convince them that what I do earns money. Working with governments is a secondary benefit that is always enjoyable. It is a way of attempting to give back. The dangers of working with governments depend on how you contribute. If you tell them what you think is important rather than what you think they want to hear, you should be alright. You should have a very critical approach, but should also appreciate how difficult it is for those in government. Unlike academics, policymakers don’t have just one issue to deal with but many. Academics don’t always consider this – they wonder why policymakers aren’t listening to their points of view – but they don’t see that policymakers have to make a hundred decisions about things in completely different fields.