How realists see the Cold War.

Over the past decade, realists have been repeatedly attacked for failing to predict the end of the Cold War. Beyond noting that their critics did not predict it either, structural realists have responded that they never intended to explain or predict change. As Waltz put it, a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, his theory “explains continuities . . . recurrences and repetitions, not change” (1979: 69). The end of the Cold War has made many people more aware of the limitations of this focus on continuity. But structural realists do have a point when they complain of being attacked not for what they have done but for what they have not tried to do. While they have failed to predict its end, Realism offers intellectual justification for America’s actions during the Cold War.  By the mid-1950s realism had become the leading paradigm in international relations and persisted so until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.    Realism, to this day, arguably remains a leading frame of reference for policymakers.

The Cold War was a sustained state of political and military tension between powers in the Western Bloc (the United States with NATO and others) and powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies in Warsaw Pact). Historians have not fully agreed on the dates, but 1947–1991 is common. It was “cold” because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, although there were major regional wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany, leaving the USSR and the US as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences over capitalism and democracy. A deliberately neutral grouping arose with the Non-Aligned Movement founded by Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia; this faction rejected association with either the US-led West or the Soviet-led East.

 The two superpowers never engaged directly in full-scale armed combat but they each armed heavily in preparation of an all-out nuclear World War III. Each side had a nuclear deterrent that deterred an attack by the other side, on the basis that such an attack would lead to total destruction of the attacker: the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD. Aside from the development of the two sides’ nuclear arsenals, and deployment of conventional military forces, the struggle for dominance was expressed via proxy wars around the globe, psychological warfare, propaganda and espionage, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.

 The first phase of the Cold War began in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War. The USSR consolidated its control over the states of the Eastern Bloc while the United States began a strategy of global containment to challenge Soviet power, extending military and financial aid to the countries of Western Europe (for example, supporting the anti-Communist side in the Greek Civil War) and creating the NATO alliance. The Berlin Blockade (1948–49) was the first major crisis of the Cold War.

 With victory of the Communist side in the Chinese Civil War and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–53), the conflict expanded as the USSR and USA competed for influence in Latin America and decolonizing states of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was brutally crushed by the Soviets. The expansion and escalation sparked more crises, such as the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Following this last crisis a new phase began that saw the Sino-Soviet split complicate relations within the Communist sphere while US allies, particularly France, demonstrated greater independence of action. The USSR crushed the 1968 Prague Spring liberalization program in Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War (1955–1975) ended with a defeat of the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam, prompting further adjustments. 

By the 1970s both sides had become interested in accommodations to create a more stable and predictable international system, inaugurating a period of détente that saw Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US opening relations with the People’s Republic of China as a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union. Détente collapsed at the end of the decade with the Soviet war in Afghanistan beginning in 1979.

 The early 1980s were another period of elevated tension, with the Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983), and the “Able Archer” NATO military exercises (1983). The United States increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressures on the Soviet Union, at a time when the communist state was already suffering from economic stagnation. In the mid-1980s, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the liberalizing reforms of perestroika (“reorganization”, 1987) and glasnost (“openness”, ca. 1985) and ended Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Pressures for national independence grew stronger in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Gorbachev meanwhile refused to use Soviet troops to bolster the faltering Warsaw Pact regimes as had occurred in the past. The result in 1989 was a wave of revolutions that peacefully (with the exception of the Romanian Revolution) overthrew all of the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself lost control and was banned following an an abortive coup attempt in August 1991. This in turn led to the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991 and the collapse of Communist regimes in other countries such as Mongolia, Cambodia and South Yemen. The United States remained as the world’s only superpower.

After Republicans won the Congress in the 1946 elections, President Truman, a Democrat, made a dramatic speech In March 1947, he requested that Congress appropriate $400 million in aid to the Greek and Turkish governments, then fighting Communist subversion.  Truman pledged to, “Support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This became known as the Truman Doctrine. Portraying the issue as a monumental butting of heads between “totalitarian regimes” and “free peoples,” the speech marks the adoption of containment by the United States. Congress appropriated the money. This is often used to mark the beginning of the Cold War.

Realism is a theory that explains how nations relentlessly struggle for power and security, prestige and most of all autonomy. Realism is a custom of international theory based on four factors.  One: realism believes that the international system is anarchic;  there is no actor above states capable of regulating their interactions; states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity. The international system exists in a state of constant antagonism. Three: states are the most important actors.  Two: all states within the system attain as many resources as possible.  Three: the primary concern of all states is survival.  States build up military to survive, which may lead to a security dilemma .  And four: all states within the system are unitary, rational actors that tend to pursue self-interest.

Americans believe that the United States, is a highly moral country and that she works according to a different code of conduct than most other states. In the eyes of the United States, the Cold War had good guys and bad guys.  The US was the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys or in Truman’s words: “totalitarian regimes” and “free peoples”. Liberal internationalists, often tend to look at conflicts in this manner.   Realists, on the other hand, don’t discriminate between “good” states and “bad” states.  To realists, all states are just states. A realist explanation of the Cold War would say that the United States and the Soviet Union were both equals, and they behaved according to the same guidelines, because the framework of the system left them with no other options. Thiss a viewpoint that most non realists flinch at.

Under unipolarity, realism predicts that states will band together to oppose the hegemon and restore a balance of power. Although all states seek hegemony under realism as the only way to ensure their own security, other states in the system are incentivized to prevent the emergence of a hegemon through equalizing.

The vital point to remark was that during the Cold War the Soviet counterweight worked as a source of self-control—i.e. it functioned to discipline United States’ policy in vital ways.  Kenneth Waltz  the American Political scientist  wrote in 1979: “one may fear the arrogance of the global burden-bearers more than the selfishness of those who tend to their own narrowly defined interests” the disappearance of the Soviet  counterweight has created a certain imbalance. It is possible America has  become too powerful for the world’s good, and probably for its own good as well


Waltz, Kenneth N. Man, the state, and war; a theoretical analysis.

New York, Columbia University Press, 1959.

Ending the Cold War [electronic resource] : interpretations, causation, and the study of international relations / edited by Richard K. Hermann and Richard Ned Lebow.

New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004..

Kaplan, Robert D., 1952-

The coming anarchy: shattering the dreams of the post-Cold War / Robert D. Kaplan. New York : Vintage Books, 2001.

Author Craig, Campbell, 1964 Glimmer of a new Leviathan [electronic resource] : total war in the realism of Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Waltz / Campbell Craig. New York : Columbia University Press, c2003.

Realism reconsidered [electronic resource] : the legacy of Hans Morgenthau in international relations / edited by Michael C. Williams.  Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007.


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