Offenbach on Byrnes, 'Disunited Nations: US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right'

Sean T. Byrnes. Disunited Nations: US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 278 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7528-6

Reviewed by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, CUNY) Published on H-FedHist (August, 2022) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

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Sean T. Byrnes’s Disunited Nations: US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right offers historians of US foreign relations a new perspective on how the United States responded to the rise of both decolonization and the growing power of the global South in the United Nations from 1968 through the early 1980s. The book helps demonstrate that Third World hostility toward the United States influenced “US visions of world order” (p. 3).

The Cold War has long dominated the historiography of US international relations in the postwar era. But with the rise of books such as Odd A. Westad’s The Global Cold War (2007), historians have begun integrating the role of the global South into the Cold War historiography. Byrnes’s Disunited Nations continues that trend as he examines the ways the American government responded to the challenges created by the growing power of the global South. Though focused on the role of the United States in leading the United Nations (as opposed to Westad’s focus on the global South), Byrnes explores how some leading American policymakers handled the evolving postwar international order.

With the rise of decolonization in the 1960s, the United States slowly found itself on the receiving end of criticism from various nations—criticism which it was not used to receiving. Disunited Nations follows various ways in which the United States government worked to styme the criticism and avoid a takeover of the United Nations by the G-77 (the UN Group of 77 least developed nations founded in 1964). Overall, leading American officials felt wrongly targeted and used various means to try to shape UN policy in the face of organized resistance.

To demonstrate how the United States responded to the UN, Byrnes uses a thematic approach. He focuses on leading figures: conservative commentator William F. Buckley, President Richard Nixon and his (and President Gerald Ford’s) secretary of state, Henry Kissinger; Ford’s UN ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan; President Jimmy Carter’s UN ambassador, Andrew Young, and national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and President Ronald Reagan and his UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. All eight of these individuals (seven of whom are white and seven of whom are men) had strong opinions about how the United States should lead the world. They all believed that the United States was a beacon of freedom against Soviet communism. What happened when the G-77 challenged this view of a benevolent United States? That question is at the center of this book.

Disunited Nations begins with Buckley’s anger at the UN’s expulsion of Taipei and seating of Beijing in 1971. Buckley, who was among the leading figures in the so-called China Lobby, was revolted by this decision. He argued that this discredited the UN as an irrelevant organization which was too sympathetic toward communism, cementing a long-term disdain toward the UN from conservatives that continues to this day. Buckley’s brother, James, who was a senator from New York, agreed and “immediately introduced [failed] legislation the day following the China vote to cut $100 million of the $139 million earmarked for the United Nations in the foreign-aid bill” (p. 55). This strong support from the American conservative movement toward Taipei is covered by other historians in works such as Joyce Mao’s Asia First (2015). The background about groups such as the Committee of One Million are only briefly mentioned, but Byrnes notes that they tracked closely to the ideas espoused by Buckley.

Less commonly discussed in the histography of right-wing foreign policy is how the conservative movement materially aided the white racist government in Rhodesia in the late 1960s by helping it skirt UN sanctions. Byrnes describes how Virginia senator Harry Byrd (then a Democrat), with the help of conservative columnists Buckley and James Kirkpatrick, painted Rhodesia in a positive light despite the oppression taking place there. Disunited Nations describes how, by going against UN sanctions on Rhodesia, the conservative movement helped drive a wedge between the US, the UN, and the G-77. This is an understudied topic which deserves more scholarly exploration.

The expulsion of Taipei and avoidance of sanctions on Rhodesia helped seal the fate of the UN in the minds of most American conservative leaders who believed the international organization was beyond repair. But to other (less conservative) Republicans, such as Kissinger and Moynihan, this was not the case. They are the focus of chapters 3 and 4. Both recognized that the United States needed to continue working with (and within) the organization. Disunited Nations focuses on how they pushed the UN toward American policy goals. Specifically, Byrnes covers Kissinger’s role in helping to create the G7 (Group of 7 most developed nations) in 1975 and 1976. The G7 was a response to Third World “radicalism” (p. 95) in the form of attempted natural resource and commodity controls (which was inspired by the oil embargo of the early 1970s).

Kissinger worked to unite the United States with its European allies to counter anti-Americanism among the Third World while also offering concessions to mollify the increasingly powerful G-77 nations. Simultaneously Moynihan called for the United States to stand up for its rights and ideology at the United Nations. Byrnes describes how Moynihan became the most popular figure in the Ford administration with his calls for more US aggression and fewer apologies to Third World demands (p. 103). In addition to strong public support, a broad range of Republicans supported Moynihan, including the moderate Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, neoconservative Robert Goldwin, and conservative Buckley. They believed that the US needed to push back aggressively against any charge that it was not a benevolent global leader.

After the Ford presidency, Disunited Nations turns to the “failure” of the Carter presidency. Byrnes writes that for Carter and Brzezinski, “US unpopularity in the Global South was a major problem. Unlike conservatives, who certainly agreed on the seriousness of the issue, these critics believed the country should become more conciliatory, not hostile, in response. They also tended to blame the United States (and Nixon and Ford) for the country’s falling out with the General Assembly rather than the Third World radicalism indicated by conservatives” (p. 140). Ambassador Young helped Carter execute this goal of accommodation of Third World demands within the UN. One example covered in the book is Carter’s signing the Panama Canal Treaty, which helped turn over control of the canal to Panama, a move that reduced Carter’s domestic popularity and unified conservatives in opposition to the treaty. Byrnes’s analysis about how conservatives united against Carter, in favor of future president Ronald Reagan, and wanted a more nationalistic foreign policy matches that of Adam Clymer’s 2008 Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch.

Disunited Nations does an excellent job of maintaining a neutral tone throughout the book about whether Third World critiques of the United States were fair and whether the US response was justified. Byrnes often finds fault in both sides while using language aimed at remaining nonjudgmental. For example, on page 9, he writes that “the historical record simply does not support the hyperbolic claims of those who argue that all the problems of the present world order can be blamed on Third World extremism or those who point the finger at US perfidy alone.” However, Disunited Nations makes it clear that Carter’s foreign policy was a “failure” (the quote is from the chapter 5 title). This is because Carter, Brzezinski, and Young were unable to calm the rising tide of criticism levelled from G-77 nations and they were unable to convince the American public that concessions were warranted. This led to the rise of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

That is how Disunited Nations brings in the Reagan presidency. Instead of focusing on the economic problems in the United States or the Iranian hostage crisis, which were both enormously important and which have been covered by scholars of the Carter/Reagan election, Disunited Nations focuses on the aforementioned Panama Canal Treaty and Kirkpatrick’s essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” published in Commentary in 1979. The essay referred to the idea that the US should hold its allies to a higher human rights standard than its adversaries.

Kirkpatrick’s article argued that the United States needed to stand by its allies regardless of their human rights records. “This policy, she believed, foolishly followed the double standard in the United Nations, where pro-American dictators came up for serious criticism of their human-rights violations, while communist or leftist Third World regimes did not” (p. 181). This focus on Kirkpatrick and Reagan’s views of anti-Americanism at the UN makes Byrnes’s analysis important and different. Kirkpatrick’s article helped spur her rise to prominence and helped provide a guide for Reagan’s presidency. The final chapter of the book is about Reagan’s attempts to “alter US policies toward the Third World and the United Nations” (p. 173). In short, Reagan and Kirkpatrick helped quash any rethinking or reorganization at the IMF and World Bank while also weakening the World Court and promoting a pro-American view of free trade. Unfortunately, this chapter, which has much promise, could have offered a lot more detail about both domestic US politics and the global South and how the latter either inspired or responded to Reagan’s worldview.

Disunited Nations does a wonderful job of examining how the top US officials responded to the growing power and discontent of the global South. Despite the subtitle of the book, “US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right,” it does not look at the conservative movement or the New Right. Outside of chapter 2, there is very little about the American conservative movement and the term “New Right” only appears in the index four times. Instead, the book comingles conservatives and Republicans, which is not always historically accurate, and focuses primarily on government officials rather than conservative ideas or people outside of government. The differences between Republicans and conservatives were especially great during the Nixon and Ford presidencies (for one example, see Donald T. Critchlow’s 2005 Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, chapter 8). The focus on government officials and the lack of discussion of internal conservative politics is not bad, but I do wish the final clause of the subtitle had been left off the book cover. The book is about US foreign policy and anti-Americanism; it is not about the New Right.

A main focus in Disunited Nations is the Third World and its role in shaping US foreign policy. Byrnes does an admirable job of demonstrating how the US failed to properly or effectively respond to the growing criticism from the Third World toward US economic policies. The least developed nations, via the newly formed G-77, were able to advocate for better economic conditions. At times the United States seemed sympathetic to those nations’ economic plight, but most of the time it responded with stern lectures about how the current system was optimal. Disunited Nations demonstrates many of the flaws in the United States’ response to this growing anti-Americanism.

Disunited Nations asks new questions and opens up promising paths for new scholarship. For instance, at the heart of US foreign policy in the post-World War II period was the question of what the international order should look like. Should the United States fight for a liberal international order or promote US nationalistic interests? Another problem was that US officials seemed uncertain of how vigorously they should fight for those interests. While Disunited Nations does a great job of exploring these questions, it also leaves room for more debate and scholarship.

Disunited Nations is a well-researched monograph that focuses on official government archives and primary sources. Byrnes cites information from the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidential libraries (though not the Reagan library), as well as the Moynihan papers, Kissinger’s published books, and various other collections at the National Archives and the National Security Council. In addition to those sources, Byrnes also relies on articles from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, his secondary literature is less robust. Only five books listed in the bibliography were published after 2012, and none after 2015. Instead, many were published in the early 2000s (and earlier). As Disunited Nations was published in 2021, that multiyear gap is glaring and helps explain why the book does not address some lingering questions about the role of domestic politics during this period, such as Mao’s Asia First, Critchlow’s Phyllis Schlafly, Kyle Burke’s Revolutionaries for the Right: Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War (2018), or Michael Brenes’s For Might and Right Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy (2020). The focus on abundant government sources instead of secondary works helps shape the book’s focus on official negotiations and statements. This is historically valuable while also leaving room for future historians to tie the ideas and arguments into the historiography.

Overall, Byrnes’s Disunited Nations will help historians better understand how international pressure shaped US foreign policy during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan presidencies. It examines the various strategies used by these presidential administrations to help promote American interests against the backdrop of a changing world opinion.

Citation: Seth Offenbach. Review of Byrnes, Sean T., Disunited Nations: US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL:

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