Excerpt from article written for the Naval Postgraduate School, October 2012.

Why the Cold War Ended, according to current International Relations Theory.

October 2012.

        The answer to the question, “Why did the Cold War end?” is not a relatively simple one.  In the context of international relations, several theories can explain exactly why this course of events took place rather than any other course of events.  The realist theory suggests that the international community is in a state of anarchy and states solely exist to ensure survival and maximize power.  In the liberalist theory, democracy is spread; countries form economic bonds and international organizations, such as the United Nations, help keep the peace in the international community.  The individual actor theory states that certain leadership directs certain behavior for each state.  For instance, the Cold War would not have ended the way it did if someone other than Gorbachev was in power.  In the constructivist theory, or idealism, international relations is founded on shared values, culture, ideals, and social identities.

        The Cold War ended because the USSR was on the path to no longer having the economic and military means to sustain their empire.  Gorbachev recognized this fact and directed the Soviet Union toward a path that allowed this nation to bow out gracefully instead of fall flat on its face.  These different theories can offer an insight into the end of the Cold War, but the best theory to describe what happened is the Individual Actor theory.  This theory shows that Gorbachev was responsible for the policy and actions that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.  It was an intentional move done by a competent and intelligent man.  The end to the USSR would most likely not have happened in the manner it did if not for Gorbachev.  The theory least likely to describe the fall of the Soviet Union is the realist theory.  The Soviet Union did not eventually fall because they were trying to maximize power or keep the balance of power in the international community.  Instead, it purposefully bowed out of the international arena and moved toward a mode of self-defense rather than superiority.  

III.  Individual Actor Theory

        The Individual Actor Theory offers the most insight into the end of the Cold War.   Without the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of the Soviet Union would not have occurred as peacefully or as smoothly as it did.  Gorbachev helped the Soviet Union transition into a stable state, that, although still had a weak economy, still possessed the infrastructure and the capability to function as a state.  Through his advisors and his inherent curiosity, Gorbachev was able to introduce policies that no other leader had done before him.  His open mind and thirst for knowledge helped Russia and the world see an end to the Cold War.

        The first facet of the influence that Gorbachev had was the roots of his office and advisors.  While Brezhnev grew up in the time of Stalin, Gorbachev and his advisors came to age during the thaw under Khrushchev.  This generational difference could be seen in many aspects of policy, but particularly foreign policy.  Stalin was an isolationist while those that grew up during the time of Khrushchev tended to be more on the liberal side.  They believed in peaceful coexistence and leaned toward western policy preferences.  In fact, there were many political scientists and theorists who were ostracized before Gorbachev came into power because of their western leanings.  When Gorbachev rose to power in 1985, he tapped the unrealized potential of these people to conduct studies for him.

        In 1979, after working in the provinces, Gorbachev became a member of the Politburo.  Immediately he asked experts to conduct studies for him in various affairs and policies so that he may better understand the working of the Soviet Union’s own policies.  No other member of the Politburo had done this before.  Then, in 1985 when became General Secretary, he immediately began to put policies into practice that were a dramatic shift from those that existed in the past.  One of the greatest changes was a shift from military superiority to defensive sufficiency.  Even before the budgetary crisis in 1988-9, when he was restrained by economic concerns, Gorbachev took the viewpoint that the USSR should be able to defend itself rather that having to be superior in all regards. [1] 

        As well, Gorbachev started introducing sweeping changes to the face of military power in the USSR.  Not only did he consider withdrawing from Afghanistan, but he also realized that by maintaining a small number of strategic bombers and ICBMs, he could be more efficient and cost effective than maintaining armor divisions.  Right upon arriving in office, Gorbachev advocated cost effective changes.  He also realized that foreign policy was deeply rooted in domestic policy.  For example, after a meeting with Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev stated that the USSR needed to change because she still saw the USSR of the Brezhnev era – one that would interfere in Eastern Europe.   Interestingly enough, Gorbachev was not the beginning of a movement.  He was not elected in order to produce sweeping change.  He was intended to be slightly reformist and maintain the status quo.[2] 

Gorbachev, however, was the one to implement many changes and it would be hard to imagine anyone else doing the same.  Gorbachev’s predecessors, Andropov and Cherenkov, had the same access to produce studies as Gorbachev did, but they chose not to do so.  Gorbachev was capable of more cognitive complexity than other leaders.  He was more aware of the context in which policy was made and was able to measure nuances in situations that others saw as black and white.  He also had a curiosity that could not be matched by other.  This is what makes the individual actor theory apply so well.  The Cold War would not have ended if Gorbachev had not made the leaps in policy that he did.  It is not just generational and it cannot be just about learning. It has to do with how the individual reacts to different events as well as how different leaders learn.  Without Gorbachev’s specific style and ability to deal with nebulous, ambiguous situations, the end of the Cold War could have been disastrous for the entire world.  The individual actor theory fits so well because no one but Gorbachev could have let the USSR fall as gracefully as it did.[3]        

IV.  Realist Theory

        In the realism theory, balance of power between states is a core foundation.   The balance of power depends on having more power than the other states in an international system.  This international system is one of chaos.  During the Cold War, the USSR could be seen as the hegemonic states in Asia.  There existed a bipolar system – one with two regional hegemons – the USSR and the United States.  Although realism can explain the theory behind the actual Cold War, it does little to understand what exactly happened at the end of the Cold War.  

        When Gorbachev came into power, he and his advisors were advocating a peaceful coexistence rather than struggle for power.  This is seen in Gorbachev’s outreach to the international community.  Not only did he meet with Margaret Thatcher (as mentioned above), but he also met with other world leaders and even Reagan to understand the USSR’s position in the world.  He regularly asked for help among the international community in both domestic and foreign policy.   A state that asks for help does not seem to be one that is struggling to be a potential hegemon.  As well, in 1985, the Soviet Union switched from a military stance of superiority to one of defensive sufficiency under Gorbachev.  By reducing the military to only what is necessary to defend itself, the Soviet Union went directly against one of the main tenets of realism – power maximization.  Instead, the USSR was using its military power to deal with non-military problems, such as the Chernobyl disaster.  Gorbachev was no longer worrying about making more weapons than the United States or even extending its reach in the East.  In fact, Gorbachev pulled troops out of Afghanistan and began to decrease the amount of armored units even before he faced the financial crisis with the budget in 1988.   These moves were not about grabbing at power, but rather at self-defense.[4]

        Another tenet of realism is that weaker states will ally with other weaker states to ensure the balance of power is maintained.  This tenet does not describe exactly what happened at the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.  In fact, the bipolarity that the United States and the USSR had established for decades no longer existed.  In realism, there is no guarantee that an ally state today will be an ally state tomorrow.  The balance of power is about making sure there is a sense of uncertainty. The international system should not let one side get too powerful.  All countries use policy to balance power.  During the end of the Cold War, the USSR did not follow this model.  Gorbachev spent much time with studies conducted by experts in policy to learn about US policy and the Soviet Union’s own changing policy.  He used domestic policy as a foundation for foreign policy that did not necessarily have to do with balancing power in the international system.  The USSR was not balancing internally to maximize power.  Again, this is evidenced by the decrease in military power and the withdrawal of military forces from foreign conflicts.  While realism may explain some of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, its tenets do not seem to apply to the course of events that happened during the last six years of its existence.[5] 

        

V.  International Relations in General

        In the field of international relations, it is impossible to apply just one theory to a situation or an event and cover all aspects completely.  In fact, it is nearly impossible to describe every aspect of international relations with just the theories that are in place today.  The core beliefs of the four major theories in international relations, Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, and the Individual Actor theory, vary greatly from one another.  While realism is focused on state and balance of power, liberalism describes more a desire for an increase in democracy and peace.  Further still, the individual actor theory shows the importance of one or a small group of people in the international realm and constructivism brings in the last part that no other theory covers – the cultural and value based aspects of state interaction.

        Based on the explanation above, it is obvious to see that one theory cannot explain the end of the Cold War.  While the individual actor theory does a decent job of describing Gorbachev’s contributions to the end of the Cold War, it does not explain exactly how he affected his state’s policy for this to happen.  Individual actor theory shows that Gorbachev was an intelligent man, open to learning and applying new policies to both domestic and foreign policy.  However, this learning has to be instituted at a higher level than the individual in order to reflect in the international community.

 This is where the levels of international relations come into play.  These include the systemic, state, and individual levels.  The systemic level indicates the international community level of interaction while the state level is the internal policies and the individual describes the effect leadership has on the foreign policy of a state.  It is important to note that these levels are inherently woven together with each other, as are the theories in international relations.  While realism is more at the international level, liberalism and idealism tend to explain the state more than the interaction in the international community.  Obviously, the individual actor theory focuses more of the individual level.  

But again, one of these theories cannot explain every single aspect of international relations fully.  They must be applied together, or at least in a way in which they can complement each other and analyze all levels of a situation.  Not all theories will always apply and there may exist situations in which these four theories do not apply at all.  It is the matter of looking at international relations from different perspectives and different levels in order to avoid narrowing the view of the world too much.  Sometimes realism simplifies the situation too much and does not take into account the state itself, only the interaction between states.  Liberalism may not explain a situation completely either.  For example, in the post 9-11 environment, if liberalism were to apply completely, why does the United States not work with other democratic nations through international organizations?[6]


[1] Robert English,  “The Sociology of New Thinking: Elites, Identity Change, and the End of the Cold War,”  Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 7 No 2, 55-56; Class Notes. NS3400, International Relations.  Professor Twomey. 15 November 2012.

[2] English, 55-58.

[3] Stein, Janice Gross. "Political Learning by Doing: Gorbachev as Uncommitted Thinker and Motivated Learner," from International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, Richard Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen, eds (NY: Columbia U. Press, 1996): 11-14.

[4] Jack Snyder, "International Relations: One World, Rival Theories." Foreign Policy, no. 145 (2004): 3-5 on printout; Class Notes. NS3400, International Relations.  Professor Twomey. 4 October 2012.

[5] Realism. Class Notes. NS3400, International Relations.  Professor Twomey. 4 October 2012.

[6] Snyder, “International Relations,” p 5 (of printout).