Cold War, Collapse of the Soviet Union and International Relations Theory

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The occurrence of conflict on an international scale may take various forms, ranging from a complete engagement in military war or differences in ideology. Different factors influence the willingness of states to indulge in military conflict. Reviewing the Cold War reveals the possibility for conflicts to manifest even where the involvement of the actual warring parties seems uncertain. This paper reviews the progression of the Cold War, contextualizing the proxy wars amid the conflict between the superpowers and applying international relations theory to follow the events of the war and those that followed its ending.

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Defining Cold War

According to Gaddis (2005), the term Cold War refers to a conflict between nations that lacks the typical military conflict of a normal war. This type of war is characterized by the use propaganda, economic actions, political actions, and espionage acts as the primary forms of conflict (Gaddis, 2005). Notably, however, while the states that are actually in conflict never engage in military engagement, proxy wars are possible approaches to their escalating the conflict to a show of military might. The proxy wars take place using states affiliated to the nations, stand-in countries-so to speak, whose relations may be in the form of allied interests or they are under the political influence of the states involves in a Cold War (Gaddis, 2005).

In modern history and politics, Cold War typically refers to the conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA beginning 1945 to 1991. Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the USA remained as two superpowers with immense economic might and equally profound ideological differences. While the USA represented the capitalist and democratic West, the Soviet Union stood for a Marxist Leninist ideology that was strongly in support of communist rule (Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2016). While the Soviet Union made deliberate plans to consolidate its control over the Eastern Bloc, the USA challenged these efforts by providing military aid and economic assistance to nations in the region (Gaddis, 2005). The formation of NATO was one of the bold moves by the USA to challenge the perceived power of the Soviet Union (Gaddis, 2005).

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The actions of both the Soviet Union and the USA differed over the course of the Cold War. Both nations were armed and ready for a nuclear war, but the conflict never escalated to actual attacks (Griffiths, 2007). The countries were also in competition to secure the support and affiliation of nations in South America, Asia, and Africa following their newly found independence. It is this quest for global control and international strength that primarily highlighted the involvement of both nations in the proxy wars of the Cold War.

Proxy Wars

One of the proxy wars in the course of the Cold War was the Angolan crisis. The crisis broke forth in 1974, following the signs of the country finally gaining independence. Agostinho Neto led the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), while the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was under the leadership of Holden Roberto (Day, 2016). The FNLA had a supporting group, The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA under Jonas Savimbi and the Ovimbundu- country’s largest ethnic group (Day, 2016). The three leaders had instigated a coup against the Portuguese rule, resulting in the signing of a three-way power sharing deal that granted Angola independence (Day, 2016). However, the leaders soon conflicted over power, which then escalated into armed conflict.

The Angolan crisis became a proxy war due to the involvement of the USA and the Soviet Union in either sides of the conflict. The FNLA operated in close alliance with Mobutu of Zaire, which then gave them access to military help from the USA (Gaddis, 2005). The country provided arms and military training, as well as strategic advice. On the other hand, the Soviet Union trained the MPLA and provided them with military equipment. The MPLA secured the capital, taking further action by negotiating with Cuba for military assistance (Day, 2016). FNLA sought additional assistance from South Africa. While the combination of the South African forces and the USA could have defeated the MPLA and the Soviet Union, the entrance of Cuba into the foray halted the advance of the former (Day, 2016). The USA was compelled to withdraw support due to the unpopularity of the apartheid rule in Congress, resulting in the victory of the MPLA and the Soviet Union- in extension.

The realist view projects that due to the interaction of anarchist forces on the international platform, violent conflict is inevitable. Both the Soviet Union and the USA were anarchist forces, but the reluctance of risking complete obliteration suppressed the instinct to engage in complete war. Realist theorists accept that conflict is a valid instrument to assert the position of a state (Griffiths, 2007). In this case, the countries were both in pursuit of power as an ultimate goal. They, however, recognized the risk associated with a full nuclear war. The pursuit of the proxy wars, therefore, enabled the states to use these surrogate parties as their representatives in the battle for power. The actions of the Soviet Union and the USA in supporting the sides of the Angolan crisis allowed them to express, acquire, and maintain power.

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Collapse of the Soviet Union

The collapse of the Soviet Union began with Gorbachev’s rule and his decision to allow for democratic rule. Most Communist regimes in Eastern Europe had collapsed, and Baltic States and the Caucasus now also wanted independence (Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2016). Violence in Lithuania and Latvia, as well as a coup by hard-lined communists revealed the weakened position of Gorbachev, pushing him to resign as party leader (Gaddis, 2005). Days after the coup, Belarus and Ukraine declared their independence; and the Baltic States sought the recognition of their independent status. Following the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Soviet Union was considered officially over (Day, 2016).

The main outcome of the collapse of the Union was the USA remaining in the position of a sole superpower. This position caused multiple incidences of chaos, such as the occurrence of the Gulf War without the USSR to stop it (Ikenberry, et al, 2016). Countries like Cuba and Vietnam dwindled into recession and poverty as Russia could not support the interests of these countries. Russia also experienced a dwindled economy, which resulted in the growth of gangster capitalism and the eventual emergence of leaders like Vladimir Putin (Griffiths, 2007). The USA also now had to contend with all the conflicting positions of the world; balancing a growing China and an increasingly volatile North Korea against the threat from Islamist radical nations (Griffiths, 2007).

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The realist view recognizes that the contentions at the international level are zero sum games, and gains are usually at the expense of others (Griffiths, 2007). The fall of the Soviet Union revealed the shortcomings of relying on another state for survival. The collapse of economies such as Cuba and Vietnam contextualizes the self-help principle. While external balancing may give a nation some degree of power, alliances are vulnerable and may collapse, resulting in the failure of the state- such as in Russia (Gaddis, 2005). Other international players are also likely to experience negative effects from such collapse. Consequently, the realist view recommends that band-wagoning never occurs in international relations (Griffiths, 2007).

Impact on Theorists

The collapse of the Soviet Union no doubt presented a dilemma to the theorists of international relations. Some previous conceptions of the realist and behaviourist camps had been confirmed, including that alliances rarely assure states of security and conflict is the ultimate form of engagement between states (Griffiths, 2007). Nevertheless, new position had emerged, including the need for clear power disparity in order to sustain peace. Bipolarism proved unpredictable, with theorists unable to affirm its capability to propagate peace or otherwise (Griffiths, 2007).

With regards to foreign policy, there was a deliberate shift by the USA where its international policies focused more on human rights and democracy as opposed to countering communist influence (Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2016). The support for right and left wing leaders by countries like the USA and Cuba also declined from foreign policy crafting, as states focused on forging more amicable economic relationships. New capitalist markets emerged in Eastern Europe, compelling the American approach to foreign policy to focus on benefiting from these opportunities.

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The collapse did substantially influence current foreign policy by the USA. Primarily, the country has been persistent about the protection of human rights in all the countries with which it engages (Griffiths, 2007). Violations of democracy often result in economic action such as sanctions, with incidences including Russia’s conflict with Ukraine exemplifying the practice. The USA’s policies are also more diverse, with its interests per country being different and thus the approaches to cementing amicable relationships also varying.

The Cold War, while not absolutely similar to the war on terror, has some elements that are akin to the latter. The main element is the involvement of the USA, and the actions of this state being a deliberate attempt to demonstrate its power and superiority (Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2016). The wars also have the similarity of their having been waged due to the USA protecting its ideology of capitalism and democracy, and countering what is perceives as a potentially dangerous ideology internationally (Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2016).


The events of history undoubtedly influence current events. The progression of the Cold War and the proxy wars determined the eventual rulers of Angola, and also partially contributed to the global attention on apartheid in South Africa. The collapse of the Soviet Union not only determined USA’s position as a single superpower globally, but also inherently determined the economic practices of Russia and the eventual rule of Vladimir Putin. International relations, as a practice, are dependent on the historical outcomes of the interactions between states. In cases of actions resulting in the propagation of war, international relations dictate that such actions be avoided to maintain peace. However, some of the aspects of international relations like bipolar positions are difficult to predict.

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The Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union result in several theoretical bases. These include the position that alliances are inadequate approaches to increasing state security, and while the likelihood of war is minimal in the current world of super-weaponry, its occurrence would be more drastic. Practically, international relations in the current world context should focus on the propagation of democratic elements. Efforts to solidify ideological positions of one nation are likely to be inconsequential, and more likely to result in conflict than actually enable the achievement of power.

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  1. Day, M. (2016). The Cold War. London: Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. Gaddis, J. L. (2005). The Cold War: A new history. New Haven: Penguin Press.
  3. Griffiths, M. (2007). International Relations Theory for the twenty-first century: An Introduction. New York: Rutledge.
  4. Ikenberry, J., Mastanduno, M., & Wohlforth, W. C. (2016). International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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