David Fromkin, 84, historian, author, and BU professor
In his 1989 book on the Middle East, “A Peace to End All Peace,” David Fromkin traced the roots of conflict in the region to the creation of unsustainable nations there through artificial mapmaking by European diplomats in the early 1920s, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
He concluded that those self-serving cartographers had grossly underestimated the indigenous population’s enduring faith in Islam as the foundation of everyday life, politics, and government, and that they had failed to account for the Middle East’s lingering resentment of Western imperialism.
“A Middle Easterner need not be especially cynical, considering the region’s oil and strategic situation, to suspect that America is pursuing its national interests rather than disinterestedly promoting democracy and the welfare of western Asia,” he wrote in 2005 in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
“One lesson of recent history is clear, however,” Mr. Fromkin continued, directing his advice to fellow Americans. “The prospects in the Muslim world would be brighter if both the tearing down and the building up were done by Muslims rather than by us. Berliners brought down the wall; yet it was we who overthrew Iraq’s dictator, not the Iraqis.”
A lawyer and investor, Mr. Fromkin became a published author only in his 40s and a professor in his 60s, teaching at Boston University from 1994 to 2013. Mr. Fromkin was 84 when he died of heart failure June 11 in New York City.
In “Kosovo Crossing: The Reality of American Intervention in the Balkans” (1999), Mr. Fromkin examined the conflict between American ideals and battlefield realities in the Balkans during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to stop atrocities in Kosovo.
In a Globe review, Dusko Doder called it “an elegant and provocative book that grapples with the question of whether America has the power to do good around the world, or indeed knows with certainty what good is. The United States has prevailed over Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by bombing Serbian-held cities and killing civilians — evils committed to achieve the higher good. But, Fromkin asks, ‘Are we sure the good is higher?’ ”
The book showed that Mr. Fromkin was “a man of unusual mind, capable of grasping the real facts of history that underlie minor events without losing touch with the picturesque aspect that is the principal fare of the weekly magazines,” Doder wrote.
In the book, Mr. Fromkin wrote that “as a general rule, the United States should go to war only to defend its vital interests.”
Whether or not the US intervention was altruistic, Mr. Fromkin wrote, “the Kosovo war raises the question of the extent to which America, in the world outside its borders, has the power to do good — or even whether it knows with any certainty what ‘good’ is.”
He lamented in 1994 in The New York Times Magazine: “Our record of leaving honest, decent, democratic new local leaders behind after we intervene is not a good one.”
David Henry Fromkin was born in 1932, in Milwaukee to Morris Fromkin, a lawyer, and the former Selma Strelsin, the sister of Albert A. Strelsin, the industrialist and arts patron.
Mr. Fromkin received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. He was the author of seven books, the first of which, “The Question of Government: An Inquiry Into the Breakdown of Modern Political Systems,” was published in 1975.
In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism. As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by [Theodore Roosevelt].”
“In the Time of the Americans” was “luminous . . . a compelling chronicle of the generation that moved the United States out of world isolation,” David M. Shribman wrote in the Globe.
Among Mr. Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), in which he “sees the war not in its unity but in two parts,” Shribman wrote in a Globe review. “The first was the war between Serbia and Austria, prompted by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and lighting the tinder that had been gathering in the Balkans and in metropolitan Europe for so many years. . . . There is a second war in there, and it is the one that Germany wanted to fight against Russia while it still was sure it would prevail.”
Mr. Fromkin also was the author of “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008), and he received the most plaudits for “A Peace to End All Peace,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Robert F. Worth, then a New York Times correspondent in Baghdad, wrote in 2005 that for journalists Mr. Fromkin’s book achieved “near-biblical status” for its sweeping colonial history of Iraq.
The book ranged from the collapse of empires at the end of World War I to the artificial boundaries imposed in 1922 and their consequences. Mr. Fromkin quoted an American missionary’s cautionary message to Gertrude Bell, the British Oriental secretary: “You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a country!”
Mr. Fromkin was already an accomplished author when he joined the faculty at Boston University, where he was director of the Center for International Relations, which is now part of the Pardee School of Global Studies. He taught international relations, history, and law, and was the founding director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Long-Range Future from 2000-2007.
“He combined the exact sensibility that our international relations program sought: rigorous scholarship combined with a nuanced sense of policy in the real world,” Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School, said in an e-mail to The New York Times. “To us, his being a ‘nonacademic historian’ was never an issue; maybe even an asset.”
Mr. Fromkin retired as professor emeritus in 2013.
To critics who thought that Mr. Fromkin did not fully appreciate vital American interests of the moment, William R. Everdell, a fellow author, offered a longer view: “Like many in political science — including Machiavelli himself among its long-ago founders — he is an unapologetic practitioner of his field’s parent discipline, history.”
Mr. Fromkin acknowledged, though, that history can be subjective.
“Life is a story that each of us tells to his or her self,” he wrote, “and it therefore is a tale told by an unreliable narrator.”
Mr. Fromkin leaves two sisters, Sari Fromkin Magaziner and Marcia Fromkin Prester.
Information about a service was not immediately available.
Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.