The Cold War: Causes & Consequences

What is a Cold War?

A Cold War is a state of conflict between nations that does not involve direct military action but is pursued primarily through economic and political actions, propaganda, acts of espionage, or proxy wars waged by surrogates.

In International relations literature, it is the period between shortly before the end of World War 2 till the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990 which is known as the Cold War. During this period, the old rivalry between the West, led by the USA, and the Soviet block, led by the USSR resurfaced souring the relations.

During this period though there was no direct war between these opposing groups, there was no peace also. Both superpowers, the USA and the USSR gathered allies around them who attacked each other with propaganda and economic measures, and with a general policy of non-cooperation. Whatever one bloc suggested or did was viewed by the other as having ulterior and aggressive motives.

Causes of The Cold War

Like every momentous historical event, the Cold War was the cumulative result of multiple trends and events and had multidimensional perspectives. Some of these could be listed as follows

1. Struggle for Hegemony/Resources

Ultimately all wars, hot or cold, are for establishing your hegemony as well as accessing global resources like hydrocarbon resources, access to markets, gaining a foothold of a geostrategic location, etc. Of coua use, all such adventures are camouflaged under the name of high moral values. Cold War 1 (1945–1991) was no exception.

It started soon after the first world war between a resurgent USSR and the USA which had recently emerged as the superpower of the day. When civil war broke out in Russia in 1918, the USA, Britain, France, and Japan sent troops to Russia to help the anti-communist forces. This was the first signal of the start of the Cold War.

The communists won the war, but Joseph Stalin, who became Russian leader in 1929, was convinced that there would be another attempt by the capitalist powers to destroy communism in Russia. The German invasion of Russia in 1941 proved him right. The need for self-preservation against Germany and Japan caused the USSR, the USA, and Britain to forget their differences and work together, but as soon as the defeat of Germany was only a matter of time, both sides began to plan for the postwar period.

2. Clash of Ideologies

The basic cause of conflict lay in the differences in principle between the communist states and the capitalist or liberal-democratic states.

• The communist system of organizing the state and society was based on the ideas of Karl Marx; he believed that the wealth of a country should be collectively owned and shared by everybody. The economy should be centrally planned and the interests and well-being of the working classes safeguarded by state social policies.

• The capitalist system, on the other hand, operates based on private ownership of a country’s wealth. The driving forces behind capitalism are private enterprise in the pursuit of making profits, and the preservation of the power of private wealth.

Ever since the world’s first communist government was set up in Russia (the USSR) in 1917, the governments of most capitalist states viewed it with mistrust and were afraid of communism spreading to their countries. This would mean the end of the private ownership of wealth, as well as the loss of political power by the wealthy classes.

3. Stalin’s foreign policies contributed to the tensions

Stalin wanted to take advantage of the military situation to strengthen Soviet influence in Europe. As the Nazi armies collapsed, he tried to occupy as much German territory as he could and acquire as much land as he could get away with from countries such as Finland, Poland, and Romania. In this, he was highly successful, but the West was alarmed at what they took to be Soviet aggression; they believed that he was committed to spreading communism over as much of the globe as possible.

4. Western Politicians’ hostility to the Soviet government

During the war, the USA under President Roosevelt sent war materials of all kinds to Russia under a system known as ‘Lend-Lease’, and Roosevelt was inclined to trust Stalin. But after Roosevelt died, in April 1945, his successor Harry S. Truman was more suspicious and toughened his attitude towards the communists. Some historians believe that Truman’s main motive for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was not simply to defeat Japan, which was ready to surrender anyway but to show Stalin what might happen to Russia if he dared go too far.

5. Stalin’s Fears

Stalin suspected that the USA and Britain were still keen to destroy communism; he felt that their delay in launching the invasion of France, the Second Front (which did not take place until June 1944), was deliberately calculated to keep most of the pressure on the Russians and bring them to the point of exhaustion. Nor did they tell Stalin about the existence of the atomic bomb until shortly before its use on Japan, and they rejected his request that Russia should share in the occupation of Japan. Above all, the West had the atomic bomb and the USSR did not.

Which side was to blame?

It depends upon what side of the fence you are.

Western Version

During the 1950s, most western historians, such as the American George Kennan, blamed Stalin. He argued that Stalin’s motives were sinister and that he intended to spread communism as widely as possible through Europe and Asia, thus destroying capitalism. Kennan advised a policy of ‘containment’ of the USSR by political, economic, and diplomatic means. The formation of NATO and the American entry into the Korean War in 1950 was the West’s self-defense against communist aggression.

Soviet Version

On the other hand, Soviet historians argued that the Cold War ought not to be blamed on Stalin and the Russians. Their theory was that Russia had suffered enormous losses during the war, and therefore it was only to be expected that Stalin would try to make sure neighbouring states were friendly, given Russia’s weakness in 1945. They believe that Stalin’s motives were purely defensive and that there was no real threat to the West from the USSR.

Moderate Americans version

Some Americans who became critical of American foreign policy, especially American involvement in the Vietnam War, claim that the USA should have been more understanding and should not have challenged the idea of a Soviet ‘sphere of influence in eastern Europe. The actions of American politicians, especially Truman, provoked Russian hostility unnecessarily. They believed that the Cold War was mainly caused by the USA’s determination to make the most of its atomic monopoly and its industrial strength in its drive for world hegemony.

Third View

Later a third view — known as the post-revisionist interpretation -was put forward by some American historians in the 1980s. Based on the new evidence available, they maintain that the situation at the end of the war was far more complicated than earlier historians had realized; this led them to take a middle view, arguing that both sides should take some blame for the Cold War.

  1. They believe that American economic policies such as Marshall Aid were deliberately designed to increase US political influence in Europe.

Thus, they maintain, with their entrenched positions and deep suspicions of each other, the USA and the USSR created an atmosphere in which every international act could be interpreted in two ways. What was claimed as necessary for self-defence by one side was taken by the other as evidence of aggressive intent. But at least open war was avoided because the Americans were reluctant to use the atomic bomb again unless attacked directly, while the Russians dared not risk such an attack.

End of Cold War

Although the Cold War formally ended on 25th December 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, resulting in the creation of more than two dozen independent states, it was ‘detente’- a permanent relaxation of tensions between East and West, which paved the way for its eventual end.

A. Détente as a cause of the end of the Cold War

Starting after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, there developed a sort of thaw in Soviet-American relations which accelerated in the 1970s leading to the end of the Cold War at the d of the 1990s. There were multiple reasons for this easing of tensions such as

  1. As the nuclear arsenals built up, both sides became increasingly fearful of a catastrophic nuclear war in which there could be no real winner. Both sides were sickened by the horrors of Vietnam.

How did Détente progress?

They had already made progress with the ‘hotline’ telephone link and the agreement to carry out only underground nuclear tests (both in 1963). The first breakthrough came in 1972 when the two countries signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT I, which decided how many ABMs, ICBMs, and SLBMs.

Presidents Brezhnev and Nixon had three summit meetings, negotiations opened for a further treaty to be known as SALT 2 and the USA began to export wheat to Russia.

However, the most important step was the Helsinki Agreement (July 1975), in which the USA, Canada, the USSR, and most European states accepted the European frontiers which had been drawn up after the Second World War (thus recognizing the division of Germany). The communist countries promised to allow their people human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom to leave the country.

B. Break up of the Soviet Union as a cause of the Cold War

While “détente” played a crucial role to end the Cold War, it was the breakup of the Soviet Union that put the final nail in its coffin. There were many structural and managerial causes of the fall of the Soviet Union. Here are a few theories

1. Conventional Wisdom Theory

The majority of the Russians hold Gorbachev responsible for failing to prevent the collapse by force. To them, it was his policies of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”) which led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to introduce fundamental structural reforms in the economy, polity, and society simultaneously. However, he failed to assess the powers of the status quo, the enormity of the task, and most importantly, resistance by the conservative establishment

2. Arms Race with the USA

Many scholars believe that among other factors, the arms race between the USA and the USSR in the 1980s was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. The moribund Soviet economy failed to produce enough surplus which could maintain a military system at the superpower level and at the same time, give its people a good standard of living.

3. Empire Theory

The Soviet Union was an empire, trying to exist in an age that was not an age of empires. It had 100 distinct nationalities and nations under its fold all aspiring for independent nation-states of their own that it was not possible to suppress. Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the soviet yoke on the countries of Eastern Europe created an independent, democratic momentum that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Afterward, it was unstoppable

4. Imperial Overreach Theory

Paul Kennedy in his book about the reasons for the fall of the great powers maintains that the great powers start declining when they overstretch themselves. It fits perfectly in this case; the USSR had stretched itself too much but did not have the luxury of having a currency like a dollar which could give it liberty to print it with impunity to cover the costs of this imperial burden.

5. Erosion of Instrumental Legitimacy

The Soviet state just lost its instrumental legitimacy or raison d’être i.e., the reason for being. It became irrelevant to the common citizen of its failure to help them maintain a decent standard of living. Remember those pictures of long queues of aged Russian ladies outside the bakeries to get a loaf of bread? It was this dysfunctionality of the communist system which failed the Soviet Union.

6. Capacity Deficit of Leadership

The Soviet Union, unlike China, lacked capable leadership. Their leaders weren’t properly vetted by the system because no such system existed; luck catapulted them to positions for which they could not perform. Leadership capacity deficit in a dysfunctional socio-economic set-up was a lethal combination

Consequences of the End of the Cold War

It will take decades and decades to finally assess the impact of the end of the Cold War. However, some of the most visible consequences are as follows

1. International Relations returned to their default function of peace

Whether peace is a norm in international relations while war is an aberration or it is another way round, is a controversial topic. To me war is not a default function in international relations; rather it is peaceful co-existence with some hiccups here and there. The Cold War was one such hiccup.

The most immediate result was the end of the Cold War that had marred international relations was the sense of relief people felt all over the world. The Block Politics was over; the former USSR and its allies were no longer seen by the West as the ‘enemy’, but the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact signed a treaty agreeing that they were ‘no longer adversaries’.

2. Independence Explosion

The breakup of the USSR brought into existence more than two dozen independent nation-states previously known as the republics of the Soviet Union. By the summer of 1990, all of them had been replaced by democratically elected governments, setting the stage for the region’s reintegration into Western economic and political spheres.

4. The Emergence of a Unipolar World

The dissolution of the USSR left the U.S. as the only true world superpower, freeing its government from the constraints imposed by the existence of any threat from a powerful rival. However, it had an unintended consequence; it gave free hand to its erstwhile rival, the USA to implement its long-term dream of ushering in Pax Americana. This allowed the U.S. government to intervene militarily and otherwise in foreign countries without fear of major retaliation. The Gulf War would have never happened in the previous bipolar set-up as the USSR would have blocked it.

5. Accelerated Globalisation

The end of the Cold War led to greater interaction among the states and the people accelerating the globalisation process and completely altering the way nations communicate, negotiate, and interact with each other. Consequently, globalisation improved and expanded global commerce, brought more Foreign Direct Investment to developing countries, built infrastructure, and advanced literacy, inspired democratic movements via social networks, and created emerging middle classes all over the world.

6. Global Geopolitical Realignment

One of the inevitable results of the end of the Cold War was the geopolitical realignment of countries all over the world. The first casualty was the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) which lost its relevance as there were no more two blocks. The Soviet Union’s collapse also prompted the European Union to extend its influence into areas that Moscow once controlled. China replaced the Soviet Union to become a major world superpower taking a keen interest in global politics and creating its sphere of influence. Similarly, the reunification of Germany enhanced its position in the EU and NATO.

6. New conflicts, Crises, and Wars

Although the world returned to its default function of peace, there were isolated wars in different parts of the world. During the Cold War, the USSR and the USA had kept tight control, by force if necessary, over areas where their vital interests might be affected. Now, a conflict that did not directly affect the interests of East or West would probably be left to find its solution, bloody or otherwise. Most tragic of all was Yugoslavia, which broke up into five separate states. Soon a complex civil war broke out in which Bosnia, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims fought each other in an attempt to set up states of their own. This increasingly bitter struggle dragged on for almost four years until a ceasefire was arranged in November 1995.

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