The day, a few weeks ago, when America Between the Wars arrived on my doorstop also saw the arrival of another book via Amazon … Sebastian Faulks-as-Ian Fleming, The Devil May Care. The serious policy-history tome or the new James Bond novel? What to do, what to do? I idly picked up America Between the Wars, assuming that within nanoseconds I would get bored and flip over to Bond – but no, I found myself quite entranced with this book of 1990s history. I finished it before ever returning to Bond.
I spent the 1990s mostly in international NGO work – Human Rights Watch, followed by the Open Society Institute/Soros Foundations, mostly. I spent a lot of time on the landmines ban campaign, the Balkans, reform in the former communist countries, and issues related to global civil society. I was living in New York and spending much time abroad. Washington DC was a mystery to me, and the policy world of the USG, I now see from this book, unfathomable for me, even though I spent much time arguing about it. I have a vastly better idea, after reading this book, why it was so hard to engage the USG on Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, all the human rights situations that were metastasizing in those years. But also why it was so difficult-to-impossible for people like Soros, in the early 1990s, to get the US government to engage on things like the Russian economy – anyone remember the “ruble overhang”?
In later posts I will get into some of the fascinating policy questions raised by this book about the 1990s and especially their implications today. How much is the 1990s misunderstood in today’s policy-making? But to start out with, I just want to note what an impressive descriptive work this book is – I finally have a unified grasp on the 1990s from the standpoint of American policy. It’s a weird feeling – to have been, as NGO worker, on the edges, frequently out in the field, of the policies being argued and debated in Washington, but to read this book and understand what it was like from the perspective of the Clinton administration. As history alone, America Between the Wars brings it all together – I think it will be a standard account of the 1990s for a long time.