The Cold War was a prolonged conflict lasting nearly four decades that had little in common with warfare or wars before it. While the two principal adversaries, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States of America (USA) were locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball conflict that threatened to spill over and cause nuclear catastrophe, the armies of the two countries in question never faced each other. It was thus a battle of attrition, of nerves, and of aggressive diplomacy and rhetoric between the two superpowers, both of whom sought to draw other countries into their blocs. The conflict was given an ideological dimension by the fact that the USA was a liberal democracy while the Soviet Union was a Communist state. An analysis of the factors that ultimately led to the decline of the Cold War is inextricably linked to its causes and how different political scientists have viewed the conflict. The dominant trends of thought in international relations, each have their own perspective on the conflict, which then determines how they examine its end and the causal factors they attribute to that.

The realist view of the conflict was that the Cold War was a result of the power vacuum created in Europe in the post World War II phase. Some realists agree that the ideological nature of the conflict gave it an added dimension. Thus, a realist view of the Cold War would see the two superpowers that emerged at the end of WWII vying for supremacy over both the political and economic terrain of Europe. This explanation has however often been considered inadequate by those who argue that this conflict was driven by contending domestic institutions and the domestic political compulsions. Truman and Stalin are seen as key figures who used the conflict to promote their own authority. This explanation also focusses on the military industrial complexes of the two nations and the role they played in sustaining the conflict. A third approach is to see the conflict purely in ideological terms between two incompatible social systems. This is an idea that has recently been much discredited but cannot be entirely discounted. Finally, the Cold War is seen as an arena where individuals had a key role to play and it was errors of judgement and subjective understanding of different situations by key individuals ranging from Truman and Stalin to Reagan, Bush and Gorbachev that kept the conflict alive for so long.

It would also become clear from the brief summary given above of the different camps that political scientists are divided into that their view of how and why the Cold War ended would differ substantially. In fact, they differ not only about the causal factors but also about when the Cold War precisely ended. So while realists would see the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, one of the two key actors in the conflict as a crucial paradigm and hence focus on the events in 1991 which led to the disintegration of the USSR, others have argued that the significance of 1991 was the final abandonment of a Communist ideology, a process that was set in motion by the reforms of Gorbachev. Those who focus on domestic politics, on the other hand, would then see the end of the Cold War arising from shifting domestic coalition in both superpowers. Finally, those who believe that individuals played a key role, would then point to Mikhail Gorbachev and the reforms he introduced and argue that his role in ending the Cold War was crucial.

The question of the end of the Cold War brings with the usual debate about when exactly the Cold War ended. Again, as is evident from the above synopsis of the position of different political scientists, the arguments and conclusions are varied. There is a tendency to see the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the détente that began in the 1970s and gained momentum in the 1980s. Those who question whether there was a détente in this period at all might argue that the collapse of Soviet influence over Eastern Europe and the coming down of the ‘Iron Curtain’ formally symbolised the end of the Cold War. Finally, there are those who argue that it was not till the Soviet Union formally split up into its constituent parts in 1991, that the Cold War actually came to an end.

There is little doubt that the 1980s which began on an ominous note with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ended on a dramatically different one. Among the multiple explanations advanced for the end of the Cold War is the notion put forth by Paul Kennedy that the Soviet Union was a victim of ‘imperial overstretch’. It has been argued that its economy was strained to the limit and that the pressure of maintaining Soviet influence over Eastern Europe finally took its toll. The enormous Soviet defence budget began to affect other sectors of the economy.

There is little doubt that the Soviet economy in the 1980s was passing through a period of crisis. It was unable to respond to the rapid technological changes of the era. While in the initial phase of the Cold War, relative economic weakness of the Soviet Union was counterbalanced by its growing military strength, its nuclear arsenal, its strategic location and its Communist ideology and institutions. Crockatt argues that in the 1950s and the 1960s the Soviet Union was not doing badly economically and its GDP growth rate (even taking into account statistical manipulations) was well above that of the Americans. However, her autarkic system ultimately proved unstable, leading to economic decline in the 70s and 80s and the sharp crash of the 90s. But in the immediate years after the Cold War, there is little doubt that the Soviet Union’s economic success had many in the American administration worried because they felt that their calculations about the Soviets trying to compete with them militarily was wrong, and that in fact, they would be overtaken, or at least matched stride for stride in economic terms- a prospect that was considered more ominous than a mere building up of weapons. However, in the 1970s as East West trade grew, Soviet share of world trade declined. This was partly caused by a decline in exports to Eastern Europe while their imports rose steadily creating an imbalance in favour of the West. Soviet economic problems had important repercussions in its relations with both the West and with Eastern Europe. With regard to the former, rising defence expenditures were coupled with economic growth rates moving in opposite directions. The pressure to match the increased defence expenditure of Reagan came at a time when there was an equally powerful inducement to introduce economic and social reforms.

Relations with Eastern Europe were affected by a cut in energy deliveries to that region by the Soviets to offset the falling prices on the world market (these deliveries were traditionally made at a concessional rate) and by increasing sale on the world market to obtain hard currency. This affected the already battered economies of Eastern Europe quite significantly. Thus, it could be argued that the ‘stability’ that existed within the Cold War set up was disturbed as the Soviet Union’s own resources were insufficient to maintain military and economic control over its own domain. Once that came into doubt, the costs of its isolation were starkly revealed and no more so than when the effort was made to surmount it by increasing imports and borrowing from the West.

This economic explanation for Soviet decline raises a few interesting questions. It has been argued that the role of Reagan and his Star Wars programme in exacerbating the crisis by forcing the Soviets to increase the military budget was a crucial factor. In fact, while it would seem that the Soviet Union and its troubles were a key component of the end of the Cold War, it has been argued that the USA had a key role in pushing the Soviets to the brink. Such an explanation focusses on the key role played by nuclear weapons in sustaining the conflict and the concepts of containment and deterrence. It has been argued that US belligerence stemmed from a belief that Stalin would not be allowed to become a second Hitler and that there was to be no repeat of Munich. But other scholars such as Raymond Garthoff have argued that the role of containment was minimal. All it did was to hold Soviet power in check for four decades while the internal seeds of destruction within the Soviet Union could mature.

The theory that internal structural factors within the Soviet Union were responsible for its eventual decay can be traced to the argument made by George Kennan. He had argued that a build up of arms by the USA would not deter the Soviets from expanding into Eastern Europe and in this he was proved right. It could thus be argued that the Soviet system ended because internal failures and disappointments forced fundamental changes in the Soviet system. The Communist party lost its legitimacy once it was compelled to confirm the realities of Stalinist terror and to admit to the widespread corruption of its leadership. The disastrous war in Afghanistan and the dawning realization that the SU would never develop a strong economic base pushed Gorbachev down the road to glasnost and perestroika.

An examination of these structural arguments about the Soviet economy, polity and their inability withstand the pressures of the arms race and reform initiated by Gorbachev has often provoked many to ask whether the ideology had a role to play in all of this. The role of ideological compulsions in provoking foreign policy measures had for long been considered unfashionable in political science. Gaddis has argued that over time most political scientists while analysing factors such as the role of the powerful American military industrial complex, or the Soviet desire for expansion for defensive reasons, have tended to discount the role of ideology (one which Truman underlined in his eponymously named doctrine but which over time came to be seen as little more than propaganda to persuade the Congress to release the necessary funds). However, Gaddis argues that events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union demonstrate that while non ideological factors may have sustained the Cold War, for those who suffered from a denial of basic human rights and freedom, it was still a matter of importance. It has thus been argued that the growth of communication, that the reforms introduced by Gorbachev, opened the window into a new world, one that was quickly embraced first by Eastern Europe and then by the Soviet Union. Thus it could be argued that ideology, which may at the start of the Cold War been a part of the rhetoric, by the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union had become a rallying cry for many who were oppressed. It would thus seem that while it had no direct role in precipitating the end of the Cold War, it certainly demonstrated how tenous the Soviet position had become and eroded its legitimacy further.

The reforms introduced by Gorbachev can thus be seen either as a result of structural factors which gave him little choice, or as a result of a personal initiative on the part of a far sighted leader, who was acutely aware of the crisis facing the Soviet Union, but who in his attempts to repair the damage actually precipitated its collapse. Thus, the role of Gorbachev and his reforms in ending the Cold War must be examined in order to analyse the factors for the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev’s reform programme ought to have been three pronged- political freedom, economic liberalization and the question of nationalities. However, Garthoff has argued that he emphasised the former to the exclusion of the other two such that they eventually overwhelmed him. While on the political front, he focussed on the constitution of a popularly elected national Congress of People’s Deputies and a new standing legislature, his reforms in the economic and social sphere left much to be desired. By July 1989 he was faced by a huge budget deficit, a miners’ strike and an economic reform package announced by his PM Nikolay Ryzkhov that was deemed remarkably inadequate. Gorbachev, while aware of the need for economic reform, felt that a democratic political structure was more important as it would provide the backbone for more the privations that citizens would have to endure once reforms were introduced. There was also a rise in separatist and regional sentiments in the three Baltic states, Moldavia and the Transcaucasian states and there was ethnic friction in other regions as well. Gorbachev, and the leadership as a whole, greatly underestimated the revolutionary potential of the nationality issue.

While in the arena of domestic policy Gorbachev sought to bring about change, some of his more startling departures from traditional Soviet policy was in the area of foreign affairs. While he had declared that he was committed to ‘freedom of choice’ for all peoples with ‘no exceptions’, developments in Easter Europe would put that commitment to test. The critical case was East Germany. Erich Honecker was ousted by his own Politburo and his successor after consulting Gorbachev opened the Berlin Wall. On the same day, when Bulgarian party chief Todor Zhikov tried to fire his moder moderate foreign minister, Petar Mladenov, Zhikov himself was deposed. A week later, the Czechoslovak party chief Milos Jakes was ousted. The Eastern European bloc fell quickly, the last and the only one to end in bloodshed was the ouster of Ceausescu in Romania. At the same time there was concern over developments in the Baltic region with the three states there virtually declaring their independence.

Gorbachev made crucial concessions in his relations with the West as well. In 1986 he made clear his readiness to ban all nuclear weapons and in 1987 he signed the INF treaty eliminating not only Soviet and US missiles deployed since the late 70s but also the whole of the Soviet strategic theatre missile forces that had faced Europe. In 1988 he proposed conventional arms reduction in Europe under a plan that would abandon the Soviet Union’s numerical superiority. In 1988 and ‘89 he withdrew all Soviet forces from Afghanistan. At the same time he gradually withdrew the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe. By 1990 he had signed the CFE Treaty accepting Soviet conventional arms levels in Europe to the Urals that was considerably lower than levels for NATO. By that time he had also accepted the unification of Germany but also the membership of unified Ger in NATO. A year later he jettisoned the Warsaw Pact and the CMEA economic union and agreed to verified deep cuts in strategic nuclear forces.

The above account clearly shows that Gorbachev charted a new course in foreign policy. But the question that arises is: how crucial were his reform, both domestically and internationally for ending the Cold War? Gorbachev should first be seen not merely as a reformist but also as an astute politician. His desire to replace rather than reform communism stemmed from a clear understanding of the problems that had beset the USSR and its satellite states. However, he was both unfortunate and over cautious. His reforms snowballed into a movement that he could not quite control and his neglect of social and economic issues proved to be his undoing. Thus we ought to see Gorbachev not merely as a catalyst for change, but also as someone who unwittingly brought about the collapse of the very system he was trying to reform.

An interesting way of summing up the debate is to see the various approaches (as Lebow does) not as competing explanations, but as different entry points to understanding the same phenomena. In this light, the events between 1986-91 ought to be viewed as the end game of a duel which ends in checkmate in 1991 but is characterised by a number of sharp moves (such as the fall of the Berlin Wall) which bring the end ever closer. Lebow’s concept of ‘path dependency’ where causal factors are not viewed in isolation but as a sequence, with each successive factors being linked to the ones before it, could be used as a framework for analysing the end of the Cold War. Thus, one could begin by looking at the process of détente as the middle game where the actors in question where still wary of each other, and while there is a reduction in the arms race, the burden is still too heavy for the Soviet Union given other internal structural contradictions. All of this is eventually highlighted by Gorbachev’s reforms (in the course of which new ideas combined with structural maladjustments and a disaffected population form a potent combination) which open the flood-gates, but which do not merely change the nature of East West relations, but destroy the bipolar structure by leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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