Armed Hostilities

The Cold War: International Relations between 1945 and 1989


International relations refer to an academic field that focuses on the nature of the relationships that exist between states (Sutch & Elias 2007 pp. 33-34). One of the major historical events that shaped international relations between 1945 and 1989 was the Cold War. The Cold War was a war of ideologies and propaganda. The United States of America advanced the capitalist ideology, whereas the Soviet Union (USSR) was for communism. This war was fought between two blocs namely, the Western bloc which was led by the USA and the Eastern bloc which was led by the USSR (Sutch &Elias 2007, pp. 123-124). The Cold War resulted from a long period of conflicts between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. This war later spread to other parts of the world. This paper examines how the Cold War enhances our understanding of international relations.

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How the Cold War Affected International Relations between 1945 and 1989

The Cold War greatly influenced the relationship between countries in the international arena. These influences can be explained as follows. First, the Cold War led to the division of the international system into three major camps. The United States of America led the Western camp which consisted of countries with democratic systems of governance. The Eastern camp which was made up of countries with communist governments was led by the Soviet Union (USSR). The non-aligned camp comprised of countries which were neutral to the Cold War. Initially, most African countries belonged to the non-aligned camp. However, the Cold War ideologies and rivalry eventually spread to the third world countries.

Most third world countries at that time were under colonial control. These countries yearned for freedom from their colonial masters. Consequently, their desperation made them to side with either the USA or the USSR in order to get financial, as well as, military help from the two superpowers. As a result, new states emerged during the Cold War. These new states had to adopt either a communist approach to development or a capitalist model. However, some of the newly formed states embraced a blend of the two ideologies, that is, capitalism and communism. Therefore, the international system to a large extent was bipolar.

Second, international relations were influenced by the capitalist and communist ideologies during the Cold War period. Capitalism was advanced by the United States of America. Capitalism allows individuals to own property, and to accumulate private wealth. It also allows owners of businesses to make profits for their own benefit. Therefore, in a capitalist state the government plays an insignificant role in the economy. On the other hand, communism was advanced by the Soviet Union. Communism advocates for communal ownership of wealth and property.

In a communist state, the government directly controls the economy by ensuring that wealth is equally distributed. Hence, countries related as either capitalist or communist states during the Cold War. This division was the genesis of the rivalry between the two superpowers and the international community at large. On one hand, the USA considered communism as an ideology that denied people their freedom, whereas the Soviet Union saw capitalism as a form of individualism and an ideology that only aimed at promoting class division in the society.

Third, international relations during the cod war period were characterized by alliance systems. The USA formed the NATO alliance, while the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact. The United States of America also influenced other nations in different parts of the world to form their own regional alliances (Baylis, Smith, & Owens 2008, pp. 233-235). For example, the CENTO alliance was formed in the Middle East, while the SEATO alliance was formed in South East Asia. The United States of America and the Soviet Union used the alliances to spread their ideologies (Baylis, Smith & Owens 2008, pp. 223-224). The military alliances and the nuclear weapons which were owned by the USA and the Soviet Union led to a high tension in the international system. As the Cold War became a global event, international stability was jeopardized. Therefore, between 1945 and 1989 international relations were characterized by tension and rivalry between the two superpowers and their foes.

The Cold War also led to the protection of spheres of interest by the United States and the Soviet Union across the globe. For instance, in 1956 the Soviet Union intervened in the Hungarian uprising because they were opposed to the idea of Hungary pulling out of the Warsaw Pact. The United States of America also showed similar interests in Latin America. The USA was opposed to the communist ideology which was being advanced by the Soviet Union. Therefore, the USA got involved in Latin America as a way of hindering the spread of communism in the region. For instance, the USA government provided military assistance to anti-communist groups in Latin America.

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It also used force in order to prevent the spread of communism in Latin America. The rivalry between the superpowers was also witnessed in Africa (Griffiths, O’Callaghan & Roach 2008, pp.167-176). For instance, the Soviet Union and Cuba supported the Angolan government. On the other hand, the USA in collaboration with South Africa supported the Angolan rebels who were opposed to the government. The civil wars led to massive loss of lives in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Thus, the Cold War had severe impacts in the third world countries. Thus, international relations were characterized by the desire to safeguard self interests by the superpowers.

The Cold War period was also characterized by nuclear arms race. The arms race was a nuclear war competition between the USA and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers sought to gain supremacy in terms of nuclear warfare. Later, the arms race led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis “was the most dangerous moment the world has ever had since the end of World War II” (Wenger & Zimmermann 2003, pp. 46-48). The Cuban Missile Crisis almost culminated into a major nuclear conflict. This event increased the tension between the Soviet Union and the USA.

The tension was also increased by Operation Able Archer. This operation was a move which “facilitated a coordinated nuclear attack against the Soviet Union” (Wenger & Zimmermann 2003, pp. 51-52). Consequently, the Soviet Union began to re-arm its military with nuclear weapons. The re-armament of the Soviet Union’s army increased the chances of a nuclear war. It is against this backdrop that the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction was formulated (Wenger & Zimmermann, pp. 69-70). This policy was meant to restrain the two rival superpowers from attacking each other. Any attack by the superpowers could have resulted into a total destruction of the entire world since the two countries owned deadly nuclear weapons.

Finally, the Cold War led to the formulation of the realist theory. This theory provides important insights that can help us to understand the evolution of international relations during the Cold War. The theory remained dominant during the Cold War period. “Realism dominated in the Cold War years because it provided simple but powerful explanations for war, alliances, imperialism, obstacles to cooperation and other international phenomena” (Brown & McWilliams 2001, pp.106-108). According to the orthodox realists such as Hans Morgenthau, states behave like human beings because they always seek to dominate each other. As a result, the inherent desire for supremacy is what makes states to wage wars against each other.

Morgenthau also noted that the bipolarity of the international system was more dangerous as compared to the balance of power which existed before the Cold War. However, other scholars have put more emphasis on the anarchic nature of the international system (Griffiths, O’Callaghan & Roach 2008, pp. 57-59). The lack of a central authority in the international system has made states to seek ways through which they can survive. The opponents of the orthodox realism believed that a bipolar international system was more stable (Brown & McWilliams 2001, p.111). Therefore, the realist theory helps us to understand the relationships that existed between states during the cold war.


The Cold War significantly influenced the nature and the evolution of international relations between 1945 and 1989. During the Cold War period, international relations were characterized by rivalry, tension, self interest and the competition for nuclear supremacy. Therefore, the major elements of the Cold War are very important in the study of international relations. This is because they highlight the fundamental details of the relations that existed in the international system. The collapse of the Soviet Union eventually led to the end of the Cold War. As a result, the United States of America emerged as the world superpower. Most international organizations and states have been shaped by the Cold War. The lessons learnt from the Cold War continue to play a significant role in modern day politics, especially, in the process of making or formulating foreign policies.


Baylis, J, Smith, S & Owens, P 2008, International History, Oxford University Press, London.

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Brown, C & McWilliams, J 2001, Understanding International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Griffiths, M, O’Callaghan, T & Roach, C 2008, International Relations: The Key Concepts, Taylor & Francis, New York.

Sutch, P & Elias, J 2007, International Relations: The Basics, Rutledge, New York.

Wenger, A & Zimmermann, D 2003, International Relations: From the Cold War to Globalized World, Lynne Rienner, Sanfransisco.

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