Explaining the Durability of the Cold War System and its Sudden End


Courtesy of the outcome of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the US emerged as the two superpowers. Allies in the second world war, after the defeat of Germany, and the subsequent end of the war, the alliance between the USSR and the US was short lived, and soon found themselves competing with each other. Devastated and in tatters, Europe once again became the battle ground – this time between the two superpowers who viewed Europe as the focal point to global domination.

As a result of the rivalry, the world was divided into two superpower blocs: one the US led capitalist bloc comprising of the West European States, and the Soviet Union led communist bloc comprising of Eastern European nations. As Kenneth Waltz posited an order with a stable bipolarity. And so, the period from 1946 until the end of the Cold War marked an intense hostility between the two superpowers. Although, no direct confrontation occurred between the two great powers, the period was characterized by space, arms and ideological race but most importantly, the race for global domination. 

Development of the Cold War


Ideologically, there was a divide between the Soviets and the Americans. The capitalist US and its allies, and the communist Soviet bloc,were involved in an ideological confrontation regarding post-war configuration of Europe and the world. Here, in the ideological battle, the USSR wanted to spread communism whereas the US foreign policy (which had changed from isolationism to interventionism) was centred around its containment. This ideological confrontation meant that the ideological divide endured.

Domestic Political Structure

In the Soviet Union, there existed the lack of separation of power and the Soviet Leader Stalin was unchecked with his exercise of power which meant he could pursue whatever policy he saw fit and other domestic variables had no roles in restraining him. On the contrary, unlike Stalin, American President faced a disgruntled and hostile Congress, and in order to appease the Republican dominated Congress, President Truman was forced to change his policy towards the Soviet Union. He brought the now famous and a piece of masterstroke – The Truman Doctrine – to contain Soviet expansionism all over the world. This further divided the US and the Soviet leaders.

Role of Decision Makers

On one hand, after the arrival of President Truman in the Oval Office, he was more open to aggressive policy recommendation from his policy-advisors. He put into effect several hostile policies targeting the USSR. Among others was the discontinuation of indemnification to the Soviet Union from Western part of Germany. Likewise, aid assistance to Greece and Turkey at a time of communist uprising also didn’t bode well with Moscow. On the other hand, Stalin played a monumental role of his own on the evolution of the Cold War. He considered Capitalism antithetical to his communist beliefs. Additionally, his actions showed he was just as willing to expand Soviet grip outside Eastern Europe – his support of communist uprising in Turkey and Greece as well as Soviet action in the Turkish Strait crisis is a testament to this. Not to mention, Stalin’s support of the North Korean regime to attack its southern neighbour South Korea. In sum, both the leaders in the US and Soviet Union contributed more or less equally to the development of Cold War.

Durability of the Cold War 

Neorealist interpretation

According to Kenneth Waltz, an anarchic international system is stable if no changes occur in the system’s configuration. He has contended that in a world of bipolarity, two superpowers do not rely on their allies for economic and for material firepower. In such a system, whenever there occurs any disproportionate equilibrium in the system, both powers balance each other by virtue of internal balancing by relying on their own economic and military capabilities. And so, by this logic, it can be argued that a bipolar configuration of the international system is stable. In a bipolar setting, prime example being the Cold War, there was a clear delineation of friends and enemies. In this regard, the US was a threat to the USSR and vice-versa. This explains why, in the due course of the Cold War, when China and France acted on their own conscience, it didn’t destabilize the Cold War system. Similarly, in bipolarity, when there is an apparent conflict or a war looming anywhere around the world, it becomes a matter of prime importance to both the parties because by virtue of realism, the international system is a zero-sum game with binary outcome: either gains or losses. And so, bipolar system is also characterized by prompt response to unforeseen events. In a system of bipolarity, superpowers devise strategy keeping in consideration their material capability and self-interests, therefore, chances of uncertain actions and miscalculations are minimal, giving rise to the stability of bipolar system. In sum, Waltz posits bipolar system as the most stable in international politics which explains the Cold War durability. (The theory of International Politics by Kenneth Waltz)

Nuclear Weapons

Mostly, realist scholars have maintained the position that nuclear weapons contributed to the durability of the Cold War. They argue that it was the nuclear capability on both sides that deterred them from any major confrontation. According to Robert Jervis, nuclear weapon changed the dynamics of warfare. Equipped with most advanced of military technology, nuclear weapons have precision striking capability second to none. He posits that because nuclear weapons have Mutually Assured Destruction, it almost certainly guarantees that all parties to a nuclear war would be destroyed. With these things under consideration, from Jervis’ perspective, nuclear weapons provided nuclear deterrence and thus superpower war was averted. Likewise, structural realists, Waltz and Mearsheimer have also argued that the proliferation of nuclear arsenal became an instrument in preserving the stability of the Cold War system and they contend that further proliferation of nuclear weapons would make the international system more stable.


According to John Mueller, the world had seen two destructive wars and states had experienced the economic impacts and costs associated, not to mention the loss of life and property inflicted by the wars. Aftermath the Second World War, Europe was completely devastated and their economic revival needed assistance from the US. He contends that states had learnt the bitter lesson and this realization that wars are unworthy changed states perception towards great power conflict and thus, the cold war became durable.

End of Cold War

In the latter stages of the Cold War, United States was economically, politically and militarily more in a better position than the Soviet Union. According to structural realists, Reagan administration’s decision to increase military budget put pressure on the USSR to be in the arms race. This increasingly pressurized Soviet Union’s already strained economy which had significant investment in their military budget. It could be said that at a time when the US were making leaps and bounds in technology and funnelling more money in techno-military research and development, Soviet economy headed towards downward spiral.

Liberal scholars have focused the end of the Cold War on the easing of heated tensions and hostility between the two superpowers. As a result, people’s movement to the USSR increased and in due course of time the liberal norms also spread among the domestic public in the Soviet Union. Likewise, dialogues and meetings saw landmark agreements towards control of arms race. prime example being the SALT I and SALT II agreements. Similarly, the US perception of USS under Gorbachev changed from hostile communist state to “normal social democratic great power”. In addition, from the perspective of individual leader, Gorbachev also played influential role, among others, he made several changes in the Soviet Foreign Policy stemming from progressive appointments in key positions in the ministry. His pursue of foreign policy slowly transformed Soviet image abroad. Agreement with Reagan on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) showed Gorbachev’s commitment to ending arms race.

Thus, on account, it can be argued that economic woes, lagging behind in the advancement of science and technology and arms race coupled with the spread of liberal norms and the progressive role by Gorbachev resulted in the end of the Cold War.

Sirish Paudel
Sirish Paudel
The author is currently pursuing his Master's degree in International Relations from SIPA, Jilin University


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