Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among many historians and political scientists to claim that America’s victory in the Cold War (1946-1991) was objectively predetermined by the inefficiency of Socialism, as the form of political governing adopted in the USSR (America’s main rivalry) throughout the era. This, in turn, presupposes that there is nothing incidental about the country’s current status as the world’s only “superpower.” Such a claim, however, is far from being considered indisputable. After all, America’s geopolitical stance during the Cold War never ceased to fluctuate to a significant extent while never ceasing to remain essentially “reactive”: all in full accordance with the Realist theory of IR. In its turn, this implies that it is specifically the spiral (as opposed to linear) model of history that provides us with the discursively appropriate methodological framework for assessing the events of the past and predicting political tribulations of the future. The author will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while expounding on what were the actual forces behind the making of America’s domestic and foreign politics throughout the historical period in question.
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As it was implied in the introduction, those who seek to acquire an in-depth understanding of politics must keep in mind the main theoretical premise of the Realist model of IR: international actors exist in a state of a never-ending competition with each other for territory and resources. The validity of this suggestion is particularly evident concerning the states commonly referred to in terms of “great power.” As Mearsheimer noted: “Great power… are always searching for opportunities to gain power over their rivals, with hegemony as their final goal”.1 Because the operative definition of a “great power” presupposes the concerned country’s ability to enjoy an unchallenged geopolitical dominance on a continental level, the term does apply to the US through the years 1946-1991. This simply could not be otherwise: the US became a hegemonic power in the Western hemisphere well before the outbreak of WW2.
What this means is that America’s politics as a “great power” during the Cold War cannot be discussed outside of how this country strived to expand its geopolitical influence over the world while simultaneously seeking to undermine the geopolitical might of its greatest rivalry: the USSR. After all, throughout the Cold War, both countries proved themselves equally committed to the idea that it was exclusively up to them to lead the world in the way of progress. Moreover, the forms of political governing adopted in the US and USSR (Capitalism and Socialism) were mutually incompatible: something that intensified the Soviet-American animosity even further. For its part, America was claiming to be the defendant of democracy and traditional values. As assessed from the American perspective, the actual indications that a particular country does have what it takes to be deemed a legitimate IR agent include: “liberal democratic institutions… capitalism… respect for human rights”.2 The Soviets, on the other hand, have made a point in building a classless society free of capitalist exploitation.
It must be acknowledged that the latter did succeed in pursuing their Communist/Socialist agenda to a considerable extent. For example, before the outbreak of the Cold War, the USSR was the only country providing its citizens with free education, free housing, and free healthcare. The Soviets also succeeded in eliminating unemployment and adopting the policy of gender/racial egalitarianism as the legal foundation of the country’s domestic policies. This, of course, represented a grave danger to the public discourse in America and consequently to the socio-economic stability in this country, especially given the fact that throughout the Cold War’s entirety, the Soviets have never ceased investing rather heavily in promoting the ideas of Communism/Socialism abroad.
Thus, after the end of WW2, there were indeed a number of objective preconditions for the US to begin perceiving the USSR in terms of a “natural enemy,” which in turn required American policy-makers to take active steps in the way of confronting the Soviets. Initially, these steps had to do with increasing America’s military capacity to an unprecedented height. After having tested the practical use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the American government
came up with the plan for the military attack on the Soviet Union: the so-called “Operation Dropshot” (1947). According to it, before 1950, at least 200 large Soviet cities were to be subjected to nuclear bombing. However, Americans had to part away with this plan in 1949, after having found out that in this year, the Soviets managed to acquire a nuclear bomb of their own.3
This substantiates the validity of yet another Realist provision: great powers are rational agents.4 Evidently enough, the Cold War between the US and USSR was not meant to be “cold.” Nevertheless, after having realized rationally that the Soviets were in the position to retaliate against the “pre-emptive” nuclear strike, the US government decided not to pursue it. Instead, the American government opted in favor of waging a “proxy war” on the USSR so that the latter would not have casus belli for declaring a formal war on America. Apparently, wars are not averted by the considerations of morality but rather by the considerations of self-interest on the part of the would-be involved international actors.5
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At the beginning of the Cold War, an integral part of the US-led “proxy war” effort was the deployment of the “containment policy” to address the threat of Communist expansion, which in turn called for the utilization of different military and economic mechanisms in the way of reaching this particular objective. In this regard, one must mention America’s participation in the Korean War (1950-1953) under the auspices of the UN and the introduction of the 1948 Marshall Plan, meant to help Western Europe to restore its economy after the end of the WW2. The USSR also decided to take practical advantage of the “proxy war” concept. Hence, the country’s post-war practice of supporting what the Soviets used to refer to as the “national liberation movement” in different parts of the world aimed at putting an end to Western colonialism in the “third world” countries.
For as long as the Cold War’s early phase (1946-1965) is concerned, America’s positioning as a “world power” had two distinctive characteristics to it. First, the US government actively strived to take advantage of just about every newly emerged opportunity to increase America’s military superiority over the USSR. To exemplify this suggestion, one can mention the State Department’s 1960 decision to station medium-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey. This decision prompted the Soviets to station their own medium-range missiles in Cuba: hence, bringing about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, which almost triggered the outbreak of a full-scale nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. Second, the US was aspiring to strengthen its ideological grip on society so that it would prove immune to Communist propaganda. The unofficial policy of McCarthyism came as a by-product of the government’s intention in this regard. During the McCarthyist period, it became a commonplace practice in America to subject citizens to different forms of public ostracism and even criminal persecution on account of the concerned individuals having been declared “Communist sympathizers” by the Media.6
Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s, it dawned on American policy-makers that the head-on approach to waging “proxy war” on the USSR was utterly ineffective, to say the least. After all, throughout the early sixties, the sphere of the Soviet geopolitical influence continued to expand rather rapidly. The Soviet Union also was also far ahead of America in advancing its space exploration program: all of this was having a strongly negative effect on America’s reputation as a “great power.” Therefore, under Kennedy’s administration, it was decided that America will be much better off deploying a “soft power” approach to winning the Cold War. This approach was concerned with increasing the objective appeal of the American style of living to the world and undermining the economic/ideological integrity of Soviet society from within.
First of the mentioned considerations is best discussed in conjunction with the success of the Apollo-11 Lunar mission and introduction of a number of economic and social initiatives that were meant to contribute towards the growth of the American middle-class, as well as to help to eradicate racially discriminative laws across the nation. The second consideration refers to the fact that, as of the mid-sixties, it became apparent to the CIA analysts that there were many objective deficiencies to the functioning of the Soviet economy and that the US was in the position to benefit from knowing how these deficiencies could be amplified to the extent of rendering the USSR economically unsustainable. In this regard, America’s objective could be achieved by means of destabilizing the international market of oil and providing funds for the intensification of people’s popular dissent with the Communist government.
Even though America suffered a major setback while pursuing this policy during the Vietnam War, it was able to regain the lost ground throughout the eighties. The unofficial agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia to drop oil prices during the late eighties had a strongly negative impact on the sustainability of the Soviet economy.7 Throughout the same period, the US government significantly augmented its propaganda effort directed at the Soviet citizens. It did not take too long for the resulting effect to become apparent to everybody. By the year 1990, the Soviet economy had effectively ceased functioning as a whole, with the overwhelming majority of Soviets citizens having been turned into committed anti-Communists. The following collapse of the USSR in 1991 signified the end of the Cold War, with the US being this war’s winner.
In light of what has been said earlier, it appears that there is indeed a good rationale to discuss America’s “great power” stance during the Cold War as such that adheres to the provisions of the Realist theory of IR. The reason for this is apparent: it confirms the full legitimacy of Clausewitz’s suggestion that the war is, in fact, nothing but the continuation of politics by other means and vice versa.8 In the aftermath of WW2, America came to realize that there is another “world power” on this planet (USSR) and that there is simply no room under the Sun for two. Because declaring a formal war on the Soviet Union was not optional, the US pursued the policy of weakening its major geopolitical rivalry from within.9 As it can be seen from the contemporary perspective, the chosen strategy to winning in the Cold War, on the part of the American government, was indeed thoroughly appropriate. In the 20th century’s early nineties, the US emerged as the world’s only “superpower.”
In the paper’s analytical part, it was shown that America’s positioning as a “great power” during the Cold War era and the country’s sub-sequential rise to the position of a “superpower” is reflective of the Realist outlook on IR. The reason why until comparatively recently, America was able to dictate its “rules of the game” to the rest of the world is that it never hesitated to do what it takes to win while confronting the Soviets during the Cold War. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that the very existence of another “world power” across the Atlantic Ocean had a unifying effect on American society, in general, and America’s ruling elites, in particular: hence, making America resilient to the geopolitical challenges. Unfortunately, America’s victory in the Cold War simultaneously signified the beginning of the country’s geopolitical decline as a “superpower”: the process that now has entered its final phase.
Fotopoulos, Takis. “Oil, Economic Warfare and Self-Reliance.” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy 10, no. 1-2 (2014): 48-65.
Garthoff, Raymond. Soviet Leaders and Intelligence: Assessing the American Adversary during the Cold War. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2015.
Gentry, Philip. “Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety: A Great American Symphony during McCarthyism.” American Music 29, no. 3 (2011): 308-331.
Heimann, Gadi. “What does it Take to be a Great Power? the Story of France Joining the Big Five.” Review of International Studies 41, no. 1 (2015): 185-206.
Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Murray, Michelle. “Identity, Insecurity, and Great Power Politics: The Tragedy of German Naval Ambition before the First World War.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 656-688.
Quester, George. “Crises and the Unexpected.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History XVIII, no. 4 (1988): 701-719.
Strachan, Hew. “Clausewitz for Every Season.” The American Interest 2, no. 6 (2007): 29-35.
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- John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 29.
- Gadi Heimann. “What does it Take to be a Great Power? the Story of France Joining the Big Five,” Review of International Studies 41, no. 1 (2015): 4.
- Raymond Garthoff, Soviet Leaders and Intelligence: Assessing the American Adversary during the Cold War (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2015), 14.
- Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 31.
- Michelle Murray. “Identity, Insecurity, and Great Power Politics: The Tragedy of German Naval Ambition before the First World War,” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 661.
- Philip Gentry. “Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety: A Great American Symphony during McCarthyism,” American Music 29, no. 3 (2011): 322.
- Takis Fotopoulos. “Oil, Economic Warfare and Self-Reliance,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy 10, no. 1-2 (2014): 57.
- Hew Strachan. “Clausewitz for Every Season,” The American Interest 2, no. 6 (2007): 32.
- George Quester. “Crises and the Unexpected,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History XVIII, no. 4 (1988): 703.