Introduction to the USA Soviet Union Rivarly
Before declaring anything “inevitable”, one must speak on the idea of inevitability. “Inevitable” is in one sense ideological; to declare an event as destined to happen is as much an ideology as the ideologies of capitalism or communism in East versus West discourse. There are some who, through theoretical international relations frameworks, declare some events as inevitable, whereas others see chance and randomness as primary factors in determining outcomes. Some realist scholars of international relations (Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz) believe the state to be the focal unit of analysis for IR. Constructivists understand the world differently, placing emphasis on individuals, leaders, personalities and their actions. Thereby, realists would understand the post-World War Two situation in very simple terms, wherein there was a power vacuum, as no authoritative world power was instated with the fall and decline of Germany. The two most powerful states by far would resultantly begin a conflict for dominance over the world.
Regarding this world, constructivists would disagree, instead highlighting several developments that showcase the strength of diplomacy, Soviet-American collaboration during World War Two, and the potential that this might carry forward. These developments are: the November-December 1943 Tehran Conference (the main outcome being the Allies’ commitment to launch a second front against Nazi Germany); the July 1944 Bretton Woods Conference (the principal accomplishment being the creation of the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development); the February 1945 Yalta Conference (which cultivated in an agreement to prioritise the surrender of Nazi Germany. Subsequently, Germany underwent demilitarisation and denazification); the July-August 1945 Potsdam Conference (which incited discussions on how to handle Germany, secure the fate of Poland, and quell Japanese military power). Constructivists would argue that natural conflict between states is not inevitable, as their leaders can discuss and come to terms. This point is illustrative of how we must understand inevitability as part of our ideological discussion – what is inevitable, and why?
“Inevitable”: Arguments That The Cold War Was Going To Inevitably Rise
In terms of economic ideology, the US and USSR were, decades before fascism’s defeat in Europe, set on very contrasting economic paths. While the 1917 Revolutions, Bolschevism and Leninism had placed the USSR on a trajectory of socialism and communism (collective farming and shared economic success, in the vision of Marx), the US was far different, beginning to prosper economically and even outshine the British in capitalist, free market innovation. These economic ideologies opposed one another to a large extent. When these two states became the world’s most powerful, without close rivals, the microscope was almost inevitably placed on them exclusively. Which economic system was better? Which system would other countries choose (Korea, Vietnam, countries in Africa – all sources of proxy conflict)? And most fundamentally, whose economic theory, given the inherent paradoxes, possessed the accurate or more truthful amount of morality? Capitalism allowed people to freely innovate and rise to the top if they worked hard, but Communism deemed that all were equal and able to live with enough. These structures are more than purely economic systems, but also ideological and moral approaches to the world: if the amount of morality each side claims is contradictory, this generates intrinsic tension and rivalry, and perhaps (given their world statuses) inevitable world conflict.
To understand the USA Soviet Union Rivalry, one must understand that the US and USSR both held different political strategies: democracy, voting and constitution versus the authoritarian, dictatorial nature of Soviet Communism. These different styles, combined with economics, were a likely source of friction. Who would join who, and would citizens become envious of each other’s government?
It is important to now contemplate the historical context in which these economic and political ideologies were literally colliding, in World War Two Europe. As Nazism and fascism fell, pushed back by East and West, a clear vacuum arose in the USA Soviet Union Rivalry. The Nazis had nearly overrun Moscow and destroyed the nation’s infrastructure. The story was similar for the West, but not as severe. The French, Belgians and Dutch were decimated, their cities reduced to rubble, with millions of theirs also killed. London was hollowed out by Nazi bombs; the nation, once a great empire, was now a shell. For the US, for whom the war was very economically positive, the situation for Europe was a cause for anxiety (as it was for the USSR too). As such, both countries, being the sole dominant powers, were extremely keen to exercise control over the region, to prevent further losses as in World War Two, and also to further self-benefit. Generally, it is accepted that the USSR wanted a buffer of states in Eastern Europe between Germany and herself, and also wanted to nurture these countries into Communist states. The US, however, wished to avoid the spread of Communism, and re-establish strong European states to serve as trading partners for their booming economy, as well as powerful states who could fight. Inevitability is an interesting construct here; after both sides (East and West) lost so much in the war, it seems only logical that the US, as victors, would want future guarantees of land, territory and power.
Realist IR theory plays into this USA Soviet Union Rivalry dynamic heavily in the postwar period. Realists perceived states as unity actors which are entirely selfish, self-interested and concerned with security. Realist states believe the only way to gain security is via power. In this way, they assess the world and security as a zero-sum game. There is a finite amount of security in the world, so if the US gains more weapons (by extension, gaining more protection, and more security), they become stronger and more powerful, therefore the USSR directly becomes weaker. This “selfish” realist state is crucial to the situation following World War Two, a situation that might otherwise be described as a security dilemma. Effectively, the vacuum left after World War Two left both the US and USSR viewing each other in a realist lens, assuming that the other state is self-interested, and seeking as much power as possible. Therefore, they grapple for land in Europe and further afield, namely: East and West Germany, Vietnam, Korea, Greece. They then feel insecure about the other’s power, and gain more weapons. The US observes that the USSR has more weapons, so seeks more weapons; the USSR responds with more weapons. The cycle continues to the extent that both states have become less safe, not more, and are now overly armed with weapons.
Also worth considering is polarity in IR, which refers to how power is distributed among the most powerful states. Generally there are three types of polarity understood in IR: unipolar (the US in the 2000s), where one dominant global power acts freely; bipolar (US-USSR relations in the Cold War): where two main states are in conflict, and others rally behind each side; multipolar (pre-World War One): where lots of powerful states (the US, UK, France, Russia, Germany, Austria) all wield enough power to challenge each other. Within these polarities comes a certain security and stability – there is an established pecking order; the “system” and power dynamics are a known quantity. The periods of change between these systems can be very unstable. If we adopt this realist view, both states would like unipolar, hegemonic control, but this is not entrenched – thus, it is inevitable that they would fight for it.
Arguments Against Inevitability
When arguing against the inevitability of the Cold War, we will generally be drawing from more complex IR theories beyond realism. Liberalism and constructivism are important in this vein.
Constructivists argue for the importance of individuals (elites) in the path of IR.
Potsdam, Yalta, Tehran and other conferences serve as prime examples of this. These conferences existed to discuss the division of land in Europe, in the postwar world. Many argue that should Stalin, Truman, Churchill and others have wanted to form more peaceful negotiations, they might have done it here. The leaders maintained largely distrustful relationships, spying on each other (for instance: the U2 spy plane, flown by Gary Powers, was shot down when hovering over USSR airspace), hiding innovations (the Manhattan Project, whereby the US kept their development of the atomic bomb secret from not only Germany and Japan, but also the USSR). Glimpses of USA Soviet Union Rivalry mid-war propaganda paint an alternative future, where both nations might have, through their leaders, found constructive dialogue and friendship. Important to this theoretical “productive” relationship was the Manhattan Project, initiated to end World War Two, but which also latterly became the key protagonist of the Cold War. The USSR was not notified about the project, though they became aware because of Soviet spying in the programme. Perhaps a unified, allied Manhattan Project could have paved the way for cooperation on science and space, rather than channelled efforts toward nuclear warfare.
During the 1947 Truman Doctrine, President Harry S. Truman pledged to politically, militarily and economically assist all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces. The USSR felt deliberately slighted. The doctrine makes sense to realist IR, but liberals (John Locke, Jeremy Bentham) might have deemed it unnecessary. The liberal view is that through institutions, agreements, norms and procedures, states can be brought closer together. The US and USSR instead organised exclusionary clubs (NATO and the Warsaw Pact, respectively), and generally tried to minimise each other. The UN (founded at the close of World War Two, to forge global unity) and other global institutions suggest that both the US and USSR had a choice to create and act through institutions, which move all toward commonalities and peace.
The US and USSR remained very distrustful of each other, perhaps to the detriment of both nations’ security and economy. US politicians, it can be argued, massively misunderstood the goals of the Soviets in global politics. They judged the Soviets as sinister, threatening, and a risk to the American way of life. This was certainly untrue in the earlier days, when the USSR maintained a barely functioning economy postwar, and the East of their country had been reduced to rubble. On the contrary, after 1945, the US was in control of over half of the world’s GNP, the majority of its food and financial supplies, and also owned an unparalleled navy and airforce. American economic power had grown to approximately $200 billion at this time; meanwhile, Soviet economic power had dropped by 25%. The US realised it was in a position of strength, an advantage it hoped to capitalise on in order to undermine the Soviet Communist revolution (which, if successful, would stifle the US’ own ability to propel itself on an international stage). The USSR was desperate for a security buffer to protect herself. She wanted a divided Germany, to keep her weak – a demand hardly unreasonable given that it was also being demanded by the French. Equally, for reasons of ideology, the USSR officials reiterated the evil nature of Americans and capitalism as enemies. In fact, both nations compared one another to the Nazis they had worked collaboratively to defeat.
In this sense, many argued that more communication and discussion could have created a better US-USSR understanding and relationship which, if both understood each other’s intentions, could have brought peace. A quote, widely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, in the sentiment of this point is “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.
Meet the Author
I’m Lucy, a 21-year-old liberal arts student at Durham University, specializing in history and sociology, with a focus on Chinese 20th-century history. I’m also passionate about sociology, particularly in the context of mental health and psychiatry. Journalism, especially in areas like social justice and international affairs, is my future aspiration after graduation. Currently, I’m on a study abroad year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, where I’m expanding my horizons in global politics. My goal is to combine my academic background with international relations theories to better grasp and analyze current events.