Theories Of Why The Cold War Ended
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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017
The Cold War was a term coined by George Orwell in 1945 that refers to the, “Extended worldwide conflict between communism and capitalism that is normally taken to have begun in 1947.” The end of the Cold War came about through two measures, the first being no friction remaining between the USSR and the USA and the second being the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are four main international relations theories that aim to shed light on the reasons for the Cold War coming to a halt. The first theory, put forth by liberal thinkers, examines the role of world leaders in ending the war. The second theory holds economic pressures on the USSR, due to competition with the USA, culpable for the end of the Cold War. The third theory illustrated by realists analyses the contribution of internal factors leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final theory illustrates the “peace through strength thesis  .” I believe that all the theories are strongly linked with each other; however it was due to the decisions made by the world leaders that the Cold War ended.
The theory that Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan played a central role in ending the Cold War has been put forth by Liberal theorists. President Reagan, through popular belief, is seen as the individual that accelerated the process which led to the end of the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher quoted in one of her speeches, “â€¦for fighting and winning the Cold War it is Ronald Reagan deserves the most credit  .” Reagan used an upfront and confrontational method in dealing with the, “the evil empire  .” Reagan’s aim was to win the arms race against the USSR in order to restore US supremacy in the global society. Furthermore Reagan increased the military to a scale that is unrivalled in U.S. history. In 1982 defence spending rose by 13% and then 8% in each successive year; Reagan also poured millions of dollars into the development of the nuclear stealth bomber trident submarine. Thirdly Reagan issued the Reagan Doctrine which stated that assistance would be sent to any anti-communist insurgents and governments. This build up of arms and effort to halt soviet influence in the third world was used to put pressure on the USSR. This pressure forced Gorbachev to address the Politburo on a change of strategy, regarding the United States, and also hold talks with Reagan in Geneva and Reykjavik. Gorbachev realised that the USSR could not keep up with the United States and therefore in order to maintain Soviet security, Gorbachev decided to desert the arms race and instead focus on reforming the Soviet economy. This Soviet policy was known as Perestroika  . Additionally Gorbachev recognized that soviet control over the empire in Eastern Europe was costing immense amounts of money each year (approx. $40 billion  ). Thus he put an end to the Brezhnev doctrine, which meant that countries could now leave the Warsaw Pact without any repercussions from the Soviet Union. Consequentially the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the USSR’s power and influence, was torn down by unopposed protesters. Gorbachev intended to reform communism but he could not hide from the fact that the USSR simply could not compete with the USA on economic and military grounds. Thus when no hostility remained between the two super powers due to the reasons stated above, the Cold War came to an end. As a result of the actions on the part of Reagan and Gorbachev the Cold War came to an end.
Economic issues areseen as a core factor in ending the Cold War. The Soviet Union entered the 1990’s with the possibility of economic collapse around every corner. This fear of economic collapse paired with the steadily declining economy is posed as another theory as to why the Cold War ended. The burden imposed upon the Soviet Union due to hegemonic competition with the USA had escalated to a level at which the USSR could no longer compete. Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative caused the USA to take a lead in the arms race thus leaving Gorbachev and the USSR with limited options. As mentioned above, Gorbachev saw a great need to reform the Soviet economy. This was because the immense military spending, of the Soviet Union, was resting on the back of a broken economy. Secondly the United States was benefitting immensely from its imperialist expansion whereas the Soviet Union was making catastrophic losses with its expansion causing a economic deficit. As the USSR could not produce as many goods and therefore Soviet exports, to Eastern Europe, began to rapidly decline and the reliance on imports began to increase; this led to a trade deficit in the economy. Additionally all consumer products, such as clothes and shoes, produced within the Soviet Union were being sent to the army which forced consumers to rely on imports for their daily needs. Hence the pressures of the market economy continued mounting on the Soviet Union. Gorbachev realized that the race against the United States simply wasn’t worth continuing and consequently chose to negotiate terms of a peace settlement with the USA. It is clear that there are several links present between the two theories discussed to this point; therefore it can be argued that the economic factors led world leaders to end the Cold War.
Internal factors, especially public opinion, had a major contribution to the end of the Cold War. The internal factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and ultimately the end of the Cold War, were largely due to Gorbachev’s actions. When Gorbachev came to power in March 1985  his first orders of business were accepting the realities of the atrocities against the public under Stalin and addressing the widespread corruption of several Soviet leaders. This acceptance of problems led to the alienation of the public and thus caused the government to lose legitimacy. Furthermore the disastrous war in Afghanistan, which was draining the soviet economy and causing social unrest, led the public to lose faith in their government. They felt as though the Soviet Union would not develop a strong economic foundation under Gorbachev and thus wouldn’t be able to compete with the USA. Several historians believe that Gorbachev unleashed too many reforms at inappropriate timings which opened a floodgate that ended in the collapse of the USSR. The most relevant reform in this context is glasnost  which gave Soviet citizens freedom of speech and expression. The Soviet public began openly criticizing the government, issues of economic backwardness, inefficiency and shortages were openly discussed. The message from the Soviet public was clear, they wanted change. Historian Dr. Crockett once said, “Once given rein, the direction of the newly released force of public opinion could not necessarily be controlled  .” This quote clearly illustrates the immense amounts of damage the glasnost policy had on the Soviet government. It can be said that once the Soviet government had lost the support of their public they could no longer afford to focus all their resources on external conflicts and were forced to reallocate their resources to solve internal conflicts. Ultimately the turn of public opinion in the Soviet Union caused it to crumble, thus leading to the end of the Cold War.
The peace through strength thesis is, “a doctrine, issued by Ronald Reagan, that military strength and a system of alliances is primary or necessary for peace  .” This theory is predominantly a realist one. In previous paragraphs the build up of the United States military has already been covered in great depth therefore this paragraph will focus on the role of the west’s military alliances. Heading into the 1990’s the west had built up a solid network of alliances. The USA attracted economically disadvantaged countries by offering them aid and arms in return for alliance. Furthermore the USA took a leading role in creating the North Atlantic Trade Organisation (NATO) whose primary purpose was collective defence in response to an external attack and in the case of the Cold War it also served to contain communism. The countries allied to the West, encircled the USSR in a cordon sanitaire which is defined as a “quarantine line  .” The system of alliances additionally served to deter the Soviet Union from creating conflict. These systems of alliances have proven to be successful due to the fact that there has not been a World War since April 4, 1949  , when the treaty was signed. In 1989 George Bush said, “Containment worked because our alliances were and are strong  .” It can be argued that the west’s persistent efforts to quarantine the spread of Communism paired with their massive alliance system, served to overwhelm the Soviet Union forcing them to accept peace rather than risk a third world war.
One can argue that the economic backwardness, public opinion and the peace through strength thesis are the factors that led to end of the Cold war and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union. However I believe that these three theories are weak on their own and must therefore rely on the all encompassing theory of world leaders to find their foundation. It was Reagan’s confrontational methods that led Gorbachev to sign peace agreements with the United States and it was Gorbachev’s reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus on both fronts the Cold War ended largely due to the involvement of world leaders. I believe the liberal argument of world leaders ending the Cold War is the most convincing and is the locomotive that drives all the remaining theories.
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