Updated February 18, 2022

The Cold War: Apogee of International Order

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The Cold War: Apogee of International Order essay
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The Cold War refers to a period of hostility and tension between the Soviet Bloc and Western powers that began soon after World War two. The United States and USSR divided the world in two, creating a conflict between the two ideologies; communism and capitalism. The Cold War is characterised by the fact that the two superpowers never fought with each other directly, but rather used proxy wars and propaganda in order to perpetuate their ideology. When discussing international order, we are referring to the way in which all actors and institutions within the international system work and interact with each other. It has often been disputed whether the Cold War, rather than being a period of instability and conflict can in fact be understood as a period of international order and stability. This can be explained in terms of the balance of power. The Cold War is seen as the apogee of international order, especially when compared to the state of the international system pre and post Cold War. In the essay I will explain how The Cold War was the apogee of international order and discuss the reasons for this.

It is important to understand the state of relations of the world pre-Cold War. From the early 20th century, the world was already experiencing a break down of relations and saw conflict emerging. The first World War saw the breakdown of Europe and relations between actors in the world system. This created instability of the international system. The outbreak of World War I is evidence of the instability that multipolar systems create.

Political expert Raymond Aron perfectly defined the Cold War system with a phrase that hits the nail on the head: ‘impossible peace, improbable war’. A crucial aspect of the Cold War which challenges the idea that during this time international order was prevalent is the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962 the world came close to nuclear conflict and destruction. The crisis was over the soviets acquiring missiles in Cuba, a very near neighbour of the USA. U2 spy planes confirmed that nuclear missile sites had been built in Cuba for the Soviets. These missiles were able to target most US cities.

The strongest case for the Cold War being the height of international order is one which sees bipolarity as the most stable structural system. Bipolarity refers to the state in which there is an equal distribution of power between two states. In a multipolar structure there is more opportunity for powers to fight each other. However, in a bipolar structure there are only two powers meaning they only have each other to fight and compete with. more profitable form of the balance of power, as it limits the possibilities for qualitative revision of the status quo by the actor-States: the whole world space is divided between two centers and its satellites, and even local changes become unlikely, as the automatically its involves into the conflict two Superstates that are able to destroy each other, as well as the whole humanity under the direct nuclear collision.

In addition to this, the two great powers typically ask for allegiance from the smaller powers in the system, which is likely to create strong alliance structures within the international order. These smaller states are then protected from each other as well as from any attack by the opposing superpower. For Waltz it was bipolarity which made the Cold War a time of international order, he wrote; ‘In peacetime the bipolar world displays a clarity of relations that is ordinarily found only in war’ (Waltz, 1964). This suggests that a bipolar world makes for a system where relations are clear.

For Waltz it was the Cold War’s likeness to war which made it so stable. Furthermore, the order which was present during the Cold War meant that the result of any conflict between the two great powers affected the whole of the world and every country. This is a consequence of a world that is led by two powers. This in turn creates stability as it is made clear that any action taken by each state will affect all other countries. For example, if the soviets were to attack the US, under the law of NATO, all countries in NATO would then agree to be involved in helping the US defend itself. This structure means that the conflict between the superpowers is extended indirectly to all actors in the international system. This balance of power creates an equilibrium between the forces which again reinforces the stability and international order that the Cold War created.

During the Cold War it was evident where the world system stood, there was a balance of power between the Soviets and the Western Bloc as well as a balance of terror. The assurance of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) meant that both sides would not decide to attack one another due to the risk of MAD. The political climate today is unpredictable. Order was prevalent during the Cold War due to the distribution of power. As it has been discussed, a bipolar structure allows for a fairer balance of power. However, why the Cold War is a strong example of when international order was at its height is as a result of the equal balance of power.

Although throughout the Cold War the role of the strongest nation fluctuated between the US and the Soviet Union depending on different factors including; economic stability and where they stood in the arms race. There was an almost equal distribution of power between the two. Most world wars throughout history are usually characterised by the existence of a power inequality between the actor attacking and the actor receiving the attack Power inequalities are when war prospers most, because they increase an attacker’s prospects that they will win. NATO was an important factor in the Cold War for ensuring stability in the international system, this was an example of a military alliance which was formed out of the Cold War. NATO agreed that if there was an attack on one or more of the countries that are part of the organisation, this would be considered an attack on them all and if this happens, NATO will defend this country that was attacked as to maintain security.

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