Cold War

It lasted for 45 years and suddenly ended.








An example of a bipolar power system. A similar system existed in 1914 and led to war. Every important state was aligned in either of two camps.

Bipolarity was also a feature of the ancient world when the Roman Empire was opposed for centuries by a Persian Empire. In the medieval world Christian Europe saw itself as opposed to the Islamic world (even though the two sides influenced each other).

In 1945 there were two large military powers, the United States and the Soviet Union - the superpowers. All other powers were exhausted militarily and economically by the second world war. The 1945 Yalta Agreement had divided Europe and the rest of the world between the two powers, partly with the intention of weakening Germany by dividing it, but also recognising that Stalin's Soviet Union already occupied eastern Europe. Thus the opposition between the two powers was not as absolute as it might appear.

In Europe Stalin was given control of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, part of Germany, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and Yugoslavia. The occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was not opposed. Finland was partly subservient to the Soviet Union with a Soviet military base at Porkkala. Did the Yalta leaders know what Stalin would do in these states? In every one a colonial government was installed answerable to the Soviet Union and to Stalin personally. That is, in each state a Communist government was installed, modelled on that of the Soviet Union itself. The leader of these "parties" was a General Secretary. In reality he was a governor, appointed from Moskva.

After Stalin the system may have loosened a bit. A small degree of autonomy was given to the subordinate governments but any sign of real independence was opposed by the presence of Soviet troops on the soil of each state. The commanders of local armies were also appointed from Moskva, even if they were local people. The states of eastern Europe were linked with the Soviet Union via COMECON, a sort of counterpart to the European Community, and by the Warsaw Pact, a counterpart of NATO.

From 1945 until 1990 these two superpowers were in a state of opposition which several times threatened to break out into actual war. Such times were the Berlin crisis in 1948-9, the Cuba crisis in 1962, the British and French invasion of Suez in 1956, the Vietnam war, the Soviet invasions of Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Afghanistan 1980.

Russia's colonies (usually known as "satellites") were organised in the Warsaw Pact. In practice the commanders were always Russian, just as the commanders of NATO were usually from the United States.

Andrew Alexander - America and the Imperialism of Ignorance

America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: US foreign policy since 1945

Review by Rory Stewart MP



Possible Solutions

The Cold War is thought to have come to an end on 19 November 1990 when the governments representing NATO, and those belonging to the Warsaw Pact, in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) signed a treaty of arms reduction between the two sides. This may have been the final act which began with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachov in the Soviet Union and his decision to reduce the state of hostility between the two sides. President Reagan also played a part - see this article

Peace between the west and the countries of the former Soviet Union may continue. These need to spend their resources on economic reconstruction rather than on weapons, and both sides need to invest in the means of solving the ecological crisis.

But the combination of two great powers, has frequently existed before and may be necessary to the balance of power, or to keep innovations flowing. It may indeed be necessary to prevent the formation of a single military empire which would tend to stagnate.

At present the former Soviet states have a need for investment in modern techniques. Even by reducing military investment most economists believe that these states cannot find the investment needed from their own savings. (That was written before the rise in the prices of oil and gas gave Russia and some of the other former USSR countries huge incomes.)

The former Soviet Union's strength, like many former colonial countries, is in raw materials. One possible outcome of the end of the Cold War is the integration of the former Soviet Union into the world economy as a supplier of raw materials to the United States, Japan and the European Community.

It also has a well educated population, which if allowed to innovate in a system with decentralized authority may become economically effective.

The break up of the Soviet Union has left Russia as the major power in the area.

However, the United States has also been left weakened by the Cold War. The huge government deficit caused by taxes being less than spending, the trade deficit, the low rate of savings and civilian investment, the low spending on civilian research and the lack of investment in infrastructure all compared with higher rates in Japan and Germany, suggest a declining power.

It was the 1956 Suez crisis which made the ruling group in Britain realize that the British Empire's independent power was finally over. Despite the victory of American weapons it may be that the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis will show that American hegemony is over too as the United States government could not pay for the war from its own resources. If true this points to a new world with many sources of power more like the traditional European world of the Concert of Europe - in which many powers had to work together. It may be time for a world authority of some kind to take over from national sovereignties and hegemonies. Until recently the United States appeared to be attempting to operate as a world overlord, but this may not be a sustainable role if the economy continues in its weakened state.

The coup against Mikhail Gorbachov on 19 August 1991 was led by Communists who had previously made anti-western remarks. But its failure makes renewed hostility much less likely. It was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its constituent nations. The existence of the 30,000 nuclear weapons remains a threat, mainly from accidental explosion as they decay or fall into the hands of nationalist revolutionaries or "rogue" governments such as Iraq, Libya and Iran.

The break up of the Soviet Union threatened to replace the Cold War by a New World Disorder - an unpredictable complex of civil wars and disturbances, similar to those which followed the ending of the European colonial empires in Asia, Africa and South America. Some commentators have observed that the Cold War represented a stable and predictable situation, analyzable mathematically; whereas the succeeding condition is very unpredictable. This may need a new type of politician and leader, with a history of making successful decisions, to deal with the problems rather than the allegedly dull managers who have flourished during the predictable period.

Some Effects
The end of the Cold War has had unexpected effects. In Italy the political situation changed as it was no longer acceptable to maintain the immobilist political structure merely to keep the Communists out of power. The possibility of political change and clean up of corruption arose - though no advantage was taken. The break up of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of the Balkan problems were also a result of the ending of Soviet power and the weakening of American forces. In Asia the relations of Japan to Korea, Russia and China are changing. The relations of Israel to its neighbors and South African politics are two fields where the end of the Cold War seems to have produced changes. Whether these are towards peace or more war remains to be seen. Korea will probably reunite (but in 2011still has not yet done so), Vietnam is becoming an economic Tiger, Japan may become a military power again. South Africa's minerals (and Zaire's) are no longer needed for the war (but are now needed by China for its rapid economic expansion). In Central and South America the military dictatorships which were allies of the western powers and claimed as their justification anticommunism have fallen. The last was Paraguay. (But in Indonesia the regime remained undiminished for some years until the fall of Suharto.)

In January-February 2011 the dictatorships in the Arab world, which were in part a legacy of the Cold War, suddenly collapsed in the face of popular risings.

In the Balkans and elsewhere, will we come to believe there are worse things than Communism? Fortunately, the worst seems to be over, but peacekeeping forces may be needed for the foreseeable future.

Does the rise of Militant Islamic groups such as Al Qa'eda indicate a new Cold War? (Probably not, as although they exploit the grievances of the excluded parts of the world they are still very small, even if destructive) and their popularity such as it was is diminishing in the new democratic situation after the 2011 revolutions.

The rise of Putin has seen an increase in the power of Russia, mainly through its control of oil and gas supplies. Is the Cold War about to resume? Probably not but surely the Putin regime is also vulnerable to popular discontent with its authoritarianism and corruption.

Interesting reading

Edward Lucas - The New Cold War

The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West

Der Kalte Krieg des Kreml. Wie das Putin-System Russland und den Westen bedroht

Norman Stone - The Atlantic and Its Enemies

The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War

Jonathan Haslam - Russia's Cold War
From the Soviet archives

Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall

Last revised 16/02/12


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