Legacy of Leadership: How US Diplomacy During the Cold War Shapes Today’s Geostrategic Landscape

The “Cold War” era, which began with the end of World War II, was marked by “strained” relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as their allies.

During the Cold War, open conflicts prevailed alongside international political, ideological, and economic rivalry.

The United States used diplomacy to encourage democracy while striving to limit communism’s influence and expansion around the world. Communism posed threats to individual liberty, free business, and free elections.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons raises the threat they pose.

This period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union shaped American foreign policy significantly.

“Chess Game”

After over fifty years of play, this extraordinarily sophisticated “chess game” had enduring repercussions that may still be felt today.

The formal Cold War lasted from the end of World War II in 1945 to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

I say officially because, even after that period, tensions between the East and West remain very much evident.

It is hard to argue that the Cold War era was either a “cold peace” defined by concord and collaboration, or a “hot war” marked by open military conflict.

During this time, there was severe political and economic struggle, as well as periods of extreme tension and even the possibility of a new war.

The conflict between capitalism and communism

The ideological clash between capitalism and communism was at the centre of this global conflict.

The Soviet Union, as head of the communist bloc, advocated for state control and equality of results, whereas the United States, as leader of the capitalist bloc, advocated for free markets and individual liberty.

Both superpowers believed that their philosophies were superior and worked tirelessly to spread them over the world.

This ideological confrontation has degraded into an unending struggle for dominance over non-aligned countries. One of such countries is the former Yugoslavia, where I grew up and witnessed directly how each of the main powers attempted to expand their own areas of influence while shrinking the others’.

The Cold War had several fronts:

  • Politically, through coalitions and agreements.
  • Military tactics include proxy conflicts and an arms race.
  • Financial support through sanctions or help.
  • The cultural impact extends to all aspects of society.
  • The competition to colonise space contributes to scientific advancements.

The world was divided into two blocs: western and eastern. According to the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, both countries are in a dangerous power balance due to their large nuclear arsenals.

However, the danger of a response that would result in full devastation stopped either side from launching a nuclear first strike.

The fear of nuclear war, which persisted during the Cold War and is even more so now.

The conflict’s most important tipping points

Several notable events occurred during the Cold War that had a significant impact and affect on US foreign policy.

Diplomatic tensions and military clashes characterised ties between the United States and the Soviet Union.

So, we can discuss:

  • The Cold War and Iron Curtain led to worldwide divide.
  • The space race represented rivalry and dominance over others.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis symbolised the threat of nuclear war.

During this period, efforts were made to stop the arms race and restore the balance of power through detente and the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT).

US Foreign Policy During the Cold War

During the Cold War, the United States devised and implemented a number of foreign policies aimed at slowing the rise of Soviet communism and protecting the free world.

American diplomacy in this century is defined by proactive participation.

The Truman Doctrine
Containment doctrine became the cornerstone of American Cold War strategy. This programme attempted to prevent the spread of communism by providing military and economic aid to countries at risk of Soviet influence.

The Truman Doctrine, established by President Harry Truman in 1947, reinforced this strategy by offering American support to anyone who refused to “submit” to communism.

In the next months, I will go into greater detail about the Truman Doctrine.

The Marshall Plan
The Marshall Plan, a fundamental economic policy implemented by the United States to reconstruct Western European economies devastated by WWII, is now officially known as the European Recovery Programme.

By bolstering these economies, the US aimed to make communism less appealing to European nations, thereby limiting Soviet influence.

In the near future, I will go into greater detail about the Marshall Plan.

The resulting deterrence strategy, known as Mutually Assured devastation (MAD), was supposed to prevent nuclear war by ensuring that any initial strike would result in the attacker’s utter devastation by reprisal.

The Role of NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), formed in 1949 with the goal of stopping Soviet aggression in Europe, was an important part of American foreign policy. During the Cold War, the United States’ commitment to collective security was reflected in this military alliance that linked North America and Europe.

The rush to acquire weaponry
One of the most notable aspects of the Cold War was the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which both countries accumulated substantial nuclear weapons stockpiles.

CIA’s clandestine activities

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a major role in US foreign policy.

The CIA’s mission was to weaken communist groups and governments wherever they existed, from Afghanistan and Cuba to Guatemala and Iran.

Naturally, comparable operations continue to be carried out by all of the world’s intelligence services today.

The Cold War era’s accomplishments, losses, tragedies, and lessons learned continue to impact the US approach to international relations today. These insights have implications for national security doctrine and strategic decisions.

The Cold War weapons race considerably reinforced the US military-industrial complex, and this strengthening may still be seen today.

What remains a basic component of American security policy is a reliance on strong defence as a deterrent to adversaries.

Furthermore, the United States’ response to developing countries perceived as threats, particularly China, Iran, and North Korea, has reignited the containment strategy.

As a direct result of Cold War thinking, the United States has the right, and frequently the necessity, to intervene in specific situations, particularly when a threat to global security is recognised. This is especially clear today, as we have been witnessing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine for the past year and a half, as well as Israel and Palestine, Israel and Iran, and China and Taiwan.

The past, current, and future

We are witnessing a distinct upsurge in competition among the superpowers, particularly amongst the United States, China, India, and Russia.

Although this is analogous to the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War era, the ideological conflict of today is more about democracy vs authoritarianism than capitalism versus communism, particularly in terms of governance systems and the role of technology in society.

A bipolar world was common throughout the Cold War era.

However, the current global order is growing more multipolar as emerging countries such as Brazil, India, and others gain prominence.

Furthermore, non-state players are growing more prominent in international politics. These include multinational corporations, international organisations, and even influential individuals.

During the Cold War, the two blocs competed primarily in the space race and other areas of technology.

This competition is still ongoing today in sectors such as cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence.

Cybersecurity is emerging as a crucial battleground in the conflict.

Global concerns such as pandemics and climate change necessitate teamwork and provide opportunities for collaboration rather than competition. And with the rise of the COVID outbreak, we were able to watch this in action.

We may examine history, analyse it, and apply it to current events and happenings, as I have always emphasised in my texts and podcasts.

It remains to be seen whether we are capable, willing, and bold enough to do all of that.

This post was written by Mario Bekes