History of Cold War and International Law

As of today, the world continues to become ever more unstable, in the political sense of this world. The most recent escalation of the geopolitical tensions between the US (collective West) and China/Russia contributes to this process more than anything. At an initial glance, such a situation may appear as such that makes very little rational sense. After all, as opposed to what it used to be the case during the Cold War, the conflicting parties in question do not experience much of an ideological antagonism towards each other. This, however, does not seem to be helping to reduce the intensity of irrational hostility between the three while making many people believe that it is only a matter of time before they witness the outbreak of WW3.

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Therefore, it is fully understandable why more and more political analysts come to recognize the Cold War period as such that was not merely reflective of the ideologically driven confrontation between the US and USSR, but as such that holds the key to understanding the origins of geopolitical stability/instability on a global scale. The author will strive to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length while promoting the idea that during the Cold War, there were indeed a number of fully objective reasons for both the US and USSR to be equally interested in preserving the integrity of international law, as the main regulatory mechanism of international politics on this planet. The paper will also aim at answering the question as to why in the 21st century this has effectively ceased to be the case.

Even throughout the Cold War era (1949-1991), the world has seen the outbreaks of a number of regionally bounded military conflicts between different countries (such as the Arab-Israeli Wars), the historic period in question is now commonly regarded as having been geopolitically stable to an unprecedented extent. The most logical explanation to such a seeming phenomenon is best formulated within the framework of the Realist theory of IR. Specifically, concerning the realist notion of the “concert of powers”, which dates back to the mid-19th century, and the notion of geopolitical “multipolarity”/”bipolarity”, which came into being through the concerned period’s initial phase. The reason for this is that the very term “order” can be well seen referring to a balanced state of energetic potentials. What this means is that, instead of being regarded as a result of rational decision-making, on the part of state actors, stability and order are the functions of “anarchy”, in the realist sense of this word.

As Haas aptly observed, “Ideologically bipolar systems create incentives for effective balancing against threats based on stable alliance systems”.1 This observation contains yet another clue as to why the Cold War has never escalated into the WW3, in the first place: throughout the era, both the US and USSR did have what it takes to be deemed “world powers”, in the full sense of this world. The reason for this is that both countries were offering the conceptually incompatible but equally legitimate models for humanity’s development: Capitalism and Socialism. After all, to be considered as “great power”, a particular country does not only need to be economically and militarily powerful, but it also must exert a “soft power” appeal to the rest of the world. If this is indeed the case, the international community will be willing to recognize that the country that claims to possess the “world power” status does have a discursively legitimate reason to be doing it.

The establishment of the UN Security Council in 1946 is perfectly illustrative, in this regard. As Bull argued, “Recognition of the special rights and duties of great powers by the accord to them of permanent membership of the… United Nations Security Council is not the source of these rights and duties, but has rather been made possible by the fact that such rights and duties are recognized”.2 What has endowed the US with the right to be included as the UN Security Council’s permanent member?

The answer to this question has a few dimensions. First, the US has contributed heavily in bringing about the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Second, as of 1946, America was already in control of at least 60% of the financial transactions taking place across the world: all due to the sighing of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944. Third, after the end of the WW2, the US has declared its commitment to helping to restore the economies of Western European countries: this refers to the introduction of the Marshall Plan in 1947. Fourth, America was seen leading the cause of resisting the spread of Communism and promoting democracy, which legitimized even further its status as “great power”.

America’s main adversary, the USSR, was also fully qualified to be deemed “great power”, especially after having acquired a nuclear bomb of its own in 1949. In this regard, one must mention the fact that the USSR’s contribution to the Allied victory in WW2 was the greatest of all and the fact that, as of 1945, the Soviet Union was in the position to enjoy nothing short of the hegemonic status in Eurasia. Nevertheless, it was specifically the fact that the USSR was offering the world an alternative developmental paradigm that resulted in bringing about the two seemingly incompatible outcomes: rendering it America’s sworn enemy and simultaneously making the eruption of a full-scale war between the two nations a very unlikely scenario. Let us not forget that, as of the end of WW2, the USSR was the only country providing its citizens with free education, medical care, and housing.

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The sub-sequential developments that followed the beginning of the Cold War between the US and USSR, are best discussed within the context of what accounts for the distinctively Anglo-Saxon and Russian conceptualizations of “great power”. In its bare essence, the former can be formulated as follows: “great power” is the country in the position to give orders to other (weaker) countries and expect full obedience from the latter.3 If “client states” refuse to comply, they are declared to be lacking democracy and the military invasion usually follows, “Force will be

used to support norms (of “great power”) in straightforward ways. Weak states whose behavior the great power seeks to change are likely targets for the use of force”.4 Russians conceptualize “great power” somewhat differently. According to how they view the matter, to be “world power” is to be in the position to refuse taking orders from any other country, without having to face any negative consequences, whatsoever. If taken into account that the Russian outlook on what it means to be “great power” does differ from the Anglo-Saxon one rather substantially, there is indeed a certain rationale for referring to it as being “revisionist”.5

The above-mentioned helps to explain the particulars of America’s initial strategy to containing the USSR, specifically its aggressive nature. That is, throughout the Cold War, it was namely the US in charge of instigating the arms race. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, concerning the founding of NATO in 1949, America’s 1960 attempt to station medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey, and the fact that America has always been ahead of the USSR in developing new military technologies. While being essentially reactive, the Soviet strategy to dealing with the US relied on the unconventional ways of tackling the newly emerged military threats, as well as on establishing the objective preconditions for America to never cease perceiving the USSR as being capable to inflict intolerable damage on the mainland US. This, in turn, required the USSR to invest heavily in the development of new military technologies as well: something that had a negative effect on the sustainability of the country’s Socialist economy.6

Because it represented a matter of crucial importance for the US and USSR to be seen in favorable light by the rest of the world, both countries were genuinely interested in adjusting their stances on international politics to be consistent with the provisions of international law and the main conventions of diplomatic ethics, upheld by the UN Security Council. The “proxy” wars that have taken the place between both countries, such as the Vietnam and Afghan wars, were of a comparatively low-intensity to pose much threat to international peace. Nevertheless, it was due to the fact that the US and USSR agreed to play by the same “rules of the game” while confronting each other that ultimately contributed towards preventing the Cold War from turning “hot”. Even though these rules have not been formalized, they go back to the provisions of the 1648 Treaty of Versailles, which is now regarded to be the initial cornerstone of international law as we know it.7

In plain words, the foremost of these informal conventions can be outlined as follows: do not be trying to take away from me what is mine and I will pay you with the same token of respect. On a more formal level, the concerned realist principle of IR refers to the notion of the sanctity of national borders: the driving force of “concert politics”.8 During the Cold War, both America and the Soviets have proven themselves equally committed to trying to preserve it as the key to ensuring world peace, as well as to gaining more allies across the world. The very existence of a state of “balance of powers” between these two rivalries (and not any moral considerations, on their part) predetermined the lasting geopolitical stability in the world throughout the Cold War’s entirety. The Caribbean Crisis of 1962 stands out as the only notable exemption, in this regard.

Nevertheless, since the early nineties, the world began to grow increasingly destabilized, in the political sense of this word. The reason for this is that, after having won in the Cold War with the USSR, the Americans concluded that it was no longer necessary for the US to be playing by the long-established “rules of the game”. The US-led partition of Kosovo in and the invasion of Iraq, which took place in a gross violation of the most fundamental canons of international law, as well as the country’s blatant support of the pro-American “orange” revolutions throughout the world, signified the rise of the “new world order”, in which the US was to enjoy an undisputed dominance. However, it did not take too long for America to realize that it is no longer in the position to dictate its will to other international agents, as a part of maintaining the “new world order”.

Such an eventual development was brought about by the fact that, as it is argued earlier, “world power” is above all a morally sound and socially responsible power, at least as perceived by the less influential/developed countries. However, the way in which America has been positioning itself in the arena of international politics during the last decade is far from being deemed morally sound. In this regard, one can mention America’s support of the Ukrainian far-right nationalists during the “democratic revolution” of 2014 in Ukraine and the fact that, until very recently, the US continued to provide much needed diplomatic and military “cover” to the Islamic fundamentalists from the “moderate opposition” in Syria: all for the sake of toppling the government of Bashar Assad.9

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Because of it, more and more people around the world begin to perceive America’s commitment to the protection of democracy in just about any country that happened to be resource-rich as being strongly hypocritical. Many of the current President’s public statements, in which he refers to America’s traditional allies as being nothing but lowly “client states”, work to speed up the process. And, as the historical practice indicates, “world power” that relies on military/economic coercion as the only tool of preserving its hegemonic status is doomed to sustain a fiasco. The fact that the US continued to sustain setback after setback since 2014 while confronting Russia in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela, and trying to weaken Russia economically, should be seen as a “wake up call”, in this regard. Ironically enough, America’s success in becoming the “superpower” in the early 1990s signified the beginning of this country’s geopolitical decline.

Thus, it appears that there used to be a strong systemic quality to the Cold War-driven geopolitical stability in the world that has lasted for at least four decades after the end of the WW2. That is, the reason why the Cold War did not lead to the outbreak of the WW3 is that the very existence of geopolitical “bipolarity” at the time enabled the US and USSR (and later China) to keep their geopolitical agendas well balanced against each other and the surrounding political environment. In other words, contrary to what the Constructivist model of IR insists upon, stability and order in the domain of international politics have very little to do with people’s conscious willingness to make this world a better place. Rather, it is the function of a properly functioning system of checks and balances on a worldwide scale: just as it was suggested in the introductory part of this paper. The author believes that this conclusion is fully consistent with both the paper’s initial hypothesis and the deployed line of argumentative reasoning.


Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Catley, Bob. “Hegemonic America: The Arrogance of Power.” Contemporary Southeast Asia 21, no. 2 (1999): 157-175.

Clunan, Anne. “Russia and the Liberal World Order.” Ethics & International Affairs 32, no. 1 (2018): 45-59.

De Nevers, Renee. ”Imposing International Norms: Great Powers and Norm Enforcement.” International Studies Review 9, n. 2 (2007): 53–80.

Elrod, Richard. “The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System.” World Politics 28, no. 2 (1976): 159-174.

Haas, Mark. “Ideological Polarity and Balancing in Great Power Politics.” Security Studies 23, no. 4 (2014): 715-753.

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Harrison, Mark. “The Soviet Economy, 1917–1991: Its Life and Afterlife.” The Independent Review 22, no. 2 (2017): 199-206.

Korchevska, Liliya. “International Experience of Forming the Institutional and Legal Framework of Security Studies.” International Economic Policy no. 24 (2016): 72-101.

Paasche, Till and Michael Gunter. “Revisiting Western Strategies Against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” The Middle East Journal 70, no. 1 (2016): 9-29.


  1. Mark Haas. “Ideological Polarity and Balancing in Great Power Politics,” Security Studies 23, no. 4 (2014): 716.
  2. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (London: Macmillan, 1977), 202.
  3. Bob Catley. “Hegemonic America: The Arrogance of Power,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 21, no. 2 (1999): 163.
  4. Renee De Nevers. ”Imposing International Norms: Great Powers and Norm Enforcement,” International Studies Review 9, n. 2 (2007): 61.
  5. Anne Clunan. “Russia and the Liberal World Order,” Ethics & International Affairs 32, no. 1 (2018): 50.
  6. Mark Harrison. “The Soviet Economy, 1917–1991: Its Life and Afterlife,” The Independent Review 22, no. 2 (2017): 202.
  7. Liliya Korchevska. “International Experience of Forming the Institutional and Legal Framework of Security Studies,” International Economic Policy 5, no. 24 (2016): 77.
  8. Richard Elrod. “The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System,” World Politics 28, no. 2 (1976): 170.
  9. Till Paasche and Michael Gunter. “Revisiting Western Strategies Against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” The Middle East Journal 70, no. 1 (2016): 16.
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