Faculty Q&A | Arne Westad

Arne Westad is a scholar of modern international and global history, with a specialization in the history of eastern Asia since the 18th century. Originally from Ålesund on the Norwegian coast, he studied history, philosophy, and modern languages in Oslo before doing a graduate degree in US/international history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Westad has published 16 books, most of which deal with twentieth century Asian and global history. In the first part of his career, Westad was mainly preoccupied with the history of the Cold War, China-Russia relations, and the history of the Chinese civil war and the Chinese Communist Party. He published two monographs, Cold War and Revolution, which deals with US and Soviet intervention in the Chinese Civil War in 1944-1946, and Decisive Encounters, which is a general history of the Chinese civil war and the Communist victory in the period from 1946 to 1950. He also edited several books on Sino-Soviet and Cold War history topics. Since the mid-2000s, Westad has been concerned with more general aspects of post-colonial and global history, as well as the modern history of China. The three key works from this period are The Global Cold War, which argues for ways of understanding the Soviet-American conflict in light of late- and post-colonial change in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean; Restless Empire, which discusses broad trends in China’s international history since 1750; and The Cold War: A World History, which summarizes the origins, conduct, and results of the conflict on a global scale. Today Westad is mainly interested in researching histories of empire and imperialism, first and foremost in Asia, but also world-wide. He is also trying to figure out how China’s late twentieth century economic reforms came into being and how their outcomes changed the global economy.

Professor Westad sat down for a Q&A with us in Fall 2019.

Your past scholarly work has focused on the history of eastern Asia and the modern history of China. How did you first become interested in this region?
I was in Beijing at Peking University as an undergraduate forty years ago, and that’s when it started. When I arrived, my Chinese was not very good, and I had to improve on it. It was a great time to do it because China was just opening up and it was very easy to make friends. It was a remarkably open period in China and it was also a really fascinating time — just one year after the Cultural Revolution. You could see changes happening almost from week to week.

Quite a bit later, when I went to graduate school, I decided I should try to make use of some of this for studying Chinese history. That’s also when the materials I wanted to look at were available. It wasn’t quite as easy back in the 70s.

Arriving in Beijing in the midst of all the upheaval, it was not easy. But I found it endlessly interesting, particularly interacting with people who had had these tremendous experiences going through the Cultural Revolution and who were just getting started on the reform period afterward. You could see how people’s minds started to change and to open up.
In the spring, you’ll teach one of the three required courses for our MA students, “Power Shifts: Understanding Global Change Through History.” What do you hope will be the key takeaways for the students?
The purpose here is to look at 12 historical cases of power shifts – quite dramatic shifts in terms of how people organize international affairs, or organize their society, or organize their economy, or organize their religious practices or legal practices. So, fairly concentrated instances when power and the ability to use power changes quite dramatically. The purpose is to try to prepare our students for examining this today and in their future careers. By studying history in this way, you can actually try to understand not just the challenges that decision-makers have had to face in the past, but also prepare yourself better for the choices that you might have to make in the future.
You have written extensively about Cold War history and its global impact. In your view, what’s the most important lesson from the Cold War and how can it be applied in this particular moment in history?
That’s a really big question. I think it’s important to realize that all historical eras are different. You can’t automatically draw lessons from one to the other. You can, and you should, look at what’s happened in the past and figure out what went right, what went wrong, what could be learned from it, without any doubt. But circumstances and practices change. So, in many ways, we are living in a very different world today from what was the case during the Cold War.

There are two main lessons that stand out to me. The most important is that when you’re dealing with a situation where there are an enormously large number of weapons of mass destruction that exist on opposing sides within an international system, the only way in which real change can happen is through negotiations. Some form of agreement – not necessarily agreement in terms of what the future will hold—but agreement on how one can deal with the immediate issues that are there. That’s how the Cold War ended. I think that’s a tremendous lesson for our own time. So many people believed that wasn’t possible given the kind of conflict and confrontation that was there. And in the end, it was the only resolution that was possible, because war was not an alternative. The other lesson is to realize that when you’re dealing with countries that have political systems or international orientations that are in conflict with your own, then applying what you can call ‘strategic patience’ is sometimes a really good idea. The idea that on the Soviet side, it would take time for things to change and that they would primarily change from within. That was a key American strategic concept during the Cold War, and I think the same strategic concept is of great use today.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be prepared for all eventualities or that we should be accepting of whatever comes out of authoritarian regimes in terms of their behavior. But it probably means that for these countries, change does take time. And trying to force that kind of change, from an American point of view, when you’re dealing with very large countries like China or Russia, is probably not a good idea.
You have taught at several universities in the U.S. and in the U.K. What makes Jackson students and the Jackson community stand out?
I think what’s important here is that this is a much more hands-on kind of program, in terms of faculty involvement and practitioners, than any of the other programs I’ve been involved in. In part because it’s smaller, but also because of the way it is set up. Students here have much more freedom to make use of the tremendous resources that are within the university and to connect that to their own interests and to connect it to what they’re being taught in the core courses here at Jackson. So, I think that’s Jackson’s unique strength. Now that we’re becoming a school, it is becoming purpose-built in a form that reflects where we are at the moment, both in the study and the practice of global affairs. That’s what attracted me to come here, to be part of that build-up.
Tell us something about you that doesn’t relate to your academic work – a unique hobby or pastime?
Maybe the most important thing is that I’m a soccer fanatic. I’m a very strong supporter of the Arsenal Football Club – they are from north London. I used to work and live in that area. But I’ve had a passion for soccer since I was a young boy. I do see some similarities between soccer or any kind of team sport, and international and global affairs. It’s very much about team play and it’s about preparation. It’s about what you do before you go out on the pitch. That’s how I think about soccer and how I think about international affairs as well.