New book by SF State professor reexamines early 20th century

The world remade itself in the first half of the 20th century, and in his new book, "The Rise of Global Powers," SF State Professor of History Anthony D'Agostino takes a fresh look at why and how.

A photo of Professor Anthony D'Agostino.

Professor Anthony D'Agostino

The book covers the time between 1900 and 1949, including both World Wars and the Great Depression. The World Wars, D'Agostino said, were produced by the imperialist struggles that preceded them in the 19th century. After the world powers scrambled for control of Africa and for concessions on the China coast, a scramble for the world followed, he said.

In writing the "The Rise of Global Powers," D'Agostino said he wanted to take a more wide-ranging look at the struggles of the early 1900s, compared to other accounts that focus mainly on Europe. The book primarily explores what motivates alliances among countries.

"There are many mysteries in this idea of alignment," D'Agostino said. "It isn't always natural that powers end up siding with the people that they do."

A photo of Professor Anthony D'Agostino.

D'Agostino's book differs from others about the same period in three ways. First, he argues that the world's major powers pursued aggressive policies that caused World War I, rejecting the traditional security dilemma argument that says major powers stumbled into war. "Frequently we talk about national interest and one thinks it's very defensive actions, but often it’s appetites -- the desire to make gains at the expense of somebody else," he said. Second, he said other accounts of the period ignore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a player in the run-up to World War II; D'Agostino calls him a key actor. Finally, he rejects the argument that World War II was inevitable because many countries resorted to national rather than international economies in the face of the Great Depression.

The book offers several lessons for today's world leaders, mainly that they should not assume they know how global powers will ally with each other. "Nothing is on ice, and people might line up in ways you might not suspect." He also praised Roosevelt, saying he was the greatest diplomat of the 20th century and current U.S. leaders should try to emulate him.

-- Jonathan Morales