The Cold War

One of the key questions about the concept of polarity is to do with how stable the international system is/was during a certain power dynamic. In particular, historians have debated how stable the international system was during the Cold War. The Cold War provides a classic example of a bipolar system, in which there were two key and equally matched superpowers competing for global influence. During this period, the UN became largely redundant, since the Soviet Union and the US, as permanent members of the UNSC, would veto any perceived threats to their own interests. Each superpower also had its own military alliances and client states whose support it could rely upon. The US was the leading member of NATO and the Soviet Union dominated the Warsaw Pact. In addition, Israel had close ties with the US and Cuba with the Soviet Union, while both superpowers continually sought to reduce the other’s influence in non-aligned states, such as Egypt, India, and Indonesia.

Liberals and realists have very different opinions on whether or not this system of Cold War bipolarity created global stability. According to realists such as Kenneth Waltz, the Cold War promoted peace, since the existence of two evenly balanced powers meant that neither side was capable of eliminating the other. As a result, both sides appreciated the limits of what they could achieve, so a balance of power was established, which was not in either side's interests to try to undermine. If one side had risked war, the results for both would have been catastrophic.

Therefore, this created an equilibrium that neither side was prepared to break, since destabilizing the equilibrium would have created conflict due to the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Indeed, some political commentators have even argued that Cold War bipolarity actually encouraged understanding and conflict resolution, since both sides understood that often the best way of advancing their own interests was by working with the other. For example, following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, diplomatic relations briefly improved between the secretary-general of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, and President Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1959 in Moscow, Khrushchev and Vice-President Richard Nixon engaged in an informal and jocular exchange about the relative merits of their two world views. Soon after, Khrushchev visited Eisenhower in Washington, DC to further try to develop trust between the two sides. During the 1970s, President Richard Nixon and Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev established a period of détente between the US and the Soviet Union.

One consequence of this was the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (1972), which slowed the arms build-up between the two powers. The 1975 Helsinki Accords, which were signed between Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, and Leonid Brezhnev, provide the best example of the sort of cooperation that can be achieved in a bipolar world. Not only did Helsinki involve each side, guaranteeing the borders of the other, it even included commitments to increase economic, technical and cultural relations between them.

However, according to liberals, bipolarity is destabilising and dangerous. This is because both sides will continually be advancing their military, diplomatic and economic interests at the expense of the other, so creating fear, suspicion, and latent hostility. It, therefore, does not provide the conditions for lasting or meaningful peace. According to the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides, it was the inherent dangers of bipolarity that led to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431 BCE–404 BCE), since ‘what made the war inevitable was the growth of the Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta’. Therefore, liberals claim that the Cold War was much more defined by very long periods of mutual distrust and antagonism, as illustrated by US paranoia about a ‘missile gap’ in the 1950s or the ease with which the Cuban Missile Crisis could have provoked nuclear war as the Soviet Union sought to pull ahead in the arms race by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The early 1980s were also profoundly unstable as President Ronald Reagan dramatically increased spending on nuclear weapons to prove US superiority over the Soviet Union. In 1983, as we have seen, the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean airliner, which could have provoked a military response from the US. In the same year, the Soviets came close to a military strike on the West when they made the mistake of thinking that the NATO military exercise Operation Able Archer was the real thing. How both events came very close to provoking direct military confrontation was, of course, due to the profound distrust between the two adversaries. Indeed, according to Robert S. McNamara, who served as US defense secretary from 1961 to 1968, ‘Cold War: hell it was a hot war!’

During the Cold War, both sides also tried to extend their global influence at the expense of the other through ‘hot wars’. In the Vietnam War (c.1963–75), the Soviet Union and the US were not in direct combat, but they took opposing sides and backed these sides (North Vietnam and South Vietnam respectively) to win. Each saw a victory as furthering their position in the superpower rivalry.

The key events of the Cold War

Was the Cold War system a stable system?


■Realists mostly hold this view. The balance of power between the Soviet Union and the USA created a stable equilibrium, which meant that neither side would gain from waging all-out war against the other.

■In his 1987 book The Long Peace, key realist proponent John Lewis Gaddis argued that the Cold War was a time of relative stability because although there were lesser conflicts, there was no direct conflict between the two main powers. Conflicts between other powers were also ultimately less likely because all states revolved around the two main ideologies (communism and capitalism).

■The principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) meant that neither power would launch a military or nuclear attack on the other. Both sides therefore had an incentive to avoid war.


■Liberals generally hold this view, since they see the Cold War as a dangerous and turbulent time.

■ Although avoiding direct conflict throughout the entire period, both sides tested the resolve of the other through global proxy wars.

■ MAD was far from stable — it nearly ended in nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. According to Robert S. McNamara, who was John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary at the time, ‘We lucked out. It was luck that saved us.’

■ There were no stabilising checks and balances on the superpowers, given the UN’s ineffectiveness at this time.

What kept the Cold War Cold?

William Taubman

Bertrand and Snell Professor of Political Science, Amherst College; Author, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era

Graham T. Allison

Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Jeremi Suri

Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin; Author, Henry Kissinger and the American Century