With the recent drastic shift in the balance of global power due to COVID-19, it’s worth taking a look at how superpowers such as the United States and Russia came to acquire that power in the first place.
Although the World Wars have undoubtedly played a major role in shaping contemporary alliances worldwide, no event in history manifests the abuse of power like the Cold War does, with its proxy wars fuelled by extensive nuclear stockpiles, worldwide disputes over territorial borders, and constant interstate tensions.
Between 1946 and 1991 (after World War II), the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a long, tense geopolitical conflict known as the Cold War. With both countries afraid of the other's ideological domination (communism for Russia and capitalism for the USA), resorting to competitions of every format was the new norm in 1947 - whether it be through the form of a race to space, stockpiling nuclear missiles, or even within entertainment to beat out the other.
In a "hot war," nuclear weapons are likely to lead to mutually assured destruction - so instead, both sides fought each other indirectly by fuelling other countries into conflict, resulting in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Major causes of this state of geopolitical hostility included US President Truman’s initial dislike of Stalin and his dictatorial policies. On the other hand, Russia feared that the Americans would launch a missile strike.
In addition, territorial expansion was a key propeller of both sides' actions - Russia was aiming to expand in Eastern Europe, while the Americans pushed back in the exact opposite direction. The two forces eventually collided in the center of Germany, and today the division goes by the name of the Berlin Wall.
Fig 1.1: A diagram illustrating the main causes of the cold war.
Without a doubt, the most significant of post-cold war alliances is an organization named The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which is an intergovernmental military alliance between 30 North American and European countries - it was established in 1949 as a form of collective security against Russia whilst ensuring that any blockade by Russia of significant trade routes did not disrupt their economic/monetary system.
“NATO constitutes a system of collective defense whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.”
Essentially, NATO's ultimate purpose is to guarantee the security of its members through political and military means, as well as promote democratic values over communism in the world - perhaps predictably, this hasn’t sat well with China and Russia, given that their expansion towards the West and socialist influence is severely threatened.
But what makes NATO different from any other geopolitical alliance?
It enables smaller countries to join hands with a global superpower to gain protection and power which places it as a strategic alliance in the eyes of the United States. In 1990 (and possibly even today), very few Americans could find tiny Montenegro on a map. Fewer still could offer a cogent description of the differences between Slovenia and Slovakia.
Even so, NATO assured Montenegro that any invasion from the Russian Federation on their 2400-strong army will be backed by millions from 30 other countries - in return, the United States gains valuable strategic access to its natural resources as well as docking points for its troops.
While some argue that this is simply a way for superpowers to take advantage of these nations using the organization as a cover-up, the end of NATO would deprive Europeans of an important framework of legitimacy for the use of military power.
Without NATO, the military stamina required for dangerous and long-term stabilization missions, such as Afghanistan, could not be generated.
Of course, an alliance targeted at the Western Nations meant that the Eastern bloc lacked communal power. In retaliation to the formation of NATO, the Soviet Union signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955.
NATO and the Warsaw Pact were ideologically opposed and, over time, built up their defenses, starting an arms race that lasted throughout the Cold War. The Warsaw pact was the first step in a more systematic plan to strengthen the Soviet hold over its satellites.
Although the treaty has been declared as non-existent today, one will find that many contemporary conflicts such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Arab Spring are often indirectly fuelled by nation states in NATO against nations within The Eastern Bloc.
As mentioned, the Syrian Civil War is a prime example with the USA, Saudi Arabia, and the European Union fuelling weaponry on one side and Russia, Iraq, China, and North Korea on the other.
Fig 1.2: An image of the nations allied with NATO vs The Warsaw Pact
Denuclearisation & New World Order - Rise of the UN
By definition, “the term denuclearization is used to describe the process leading to complete nuclear disarmament” (Nuclear Disarmament, Wiki).
When both the Soviet Union and the United States started stockpiling endless amounts of nuclear weapons to assert diplomatic dominance (from 1975-1980 in particular), they eventually realized that regardless of who detonated one first, the severity of nuclear warfare would ensure absolute destruction on both sides.
The US and the USSR never actually got around to denuclearizing; they required a third-party to interfere - one that was stronger, more powerful and didn’t think for their personal benefit. In short, the United Nations, an international organization founded in 1945 after the Second World War by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security,
Unfortunately, the UN quickly became a Cold War battleground between communist and non-communist countries - since both the United States and the Soviet Union held vetoes, the Security Council could not act without their joint permission. If it ever did go forth with a decision, it would often act against Soviet interests due to the dominance of democratic institutions.
What we needed was a new world order that was fair to all nations regardless of power - and thus the UN Peacekeeping doctrine was announced. United Nations peacekeeping, established during the Cold War (1948 onwards), became the preferred method of international conflict intervention.
A dramatic increase in the number, size, and scope of peacekeeping ensued, resulting in a variety of reconceptualizations - with the main aim being to balance the amount of power in the world. Although the Cold War brought forth a plethora of complications with nuclear warfare and ideological conflicts, it effectively proved to the world that regardless of a nation's prosperity and affluence, excessive power given to one hand was never a good idea.
Written by Aiswarya Rambhatla
McDougall, Walter A. “The End of the Cold War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Aug. 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/20th-century-international-relations-2085155/The-end-of-the-Cold-War.
History.com Editors. “NATO.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Apr. 2010, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/formation-of-nato-and-warsaw-pact.
Nato. “Why Was NATO Founded?” We Are NATO, www.nato.int/wearenato/why-was-nato-founded.html.