Are there really such things as superpowers?
Prof. Dr. Bernd Greiner, historian, Americanist and political scientist; Lecturer at the University of Hamburg and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, long-time director of the Berlin Cold War College (www.berlinerkolleg.com). Numerous publications on the history of violence, US history, and international relations in the 20th century. Including: The Morgenthau legend. On the History of a Controversial Plan (1995); A. World at Total War (ed. Together with Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, 2003); War without fronts. The USA in Vietnam (2007); The Cuban Crisis: The World on the Cusp of Nuclear War (2010); 9/11: the day, fear, the consequences (2011) and since 2006 editor (together with Christian Th. Müller, Tim B. Müller, Dierk Walter and Claudia Weber) of a six-volume series "Studies on the Social History of the Cold War". Greiner is currently drafting an updated dossier on the Cold War for the bpb.
What was that - the Cold War?The Cold War can be described as an epoch in its own right for various reasons: Never before has a dispute over incompatible world views - in this case the dispute between state socialism and party dictatorship on the one hand, and free market economy and representative democracy on the other - been threatened with mutual annihilation carried out, more precisely with weapon systems, the use of which would have called the survival of all humanity into question. In Germany, East and West, too, both alliance systems had correspondingly extensive arsenals in readiness, but not only here.
Never before have whole alliance systems made their security dependent on the global multiplication of their own and a simultaneous bankruptcy of the competing social model, never before have they tried to drive the other from the furthest corner of the earth. Never before have modern societies invested so many resources in the military, business, science, education, science, propaganda and culture for the sake of a single goal - to demonstrate their superiority in an over-bred competition of systems.
In short: never before did world powers and their allies behave for decades as if they were at war without directly waging war against one another. That is why the second half of the 20th century is unique.
The "historic location" of the Cold WarBut not everything that happened worldwide during the Cold War happened because of the Cold War. Decolonization, globalization and modernization would also have come into play under different auspices, probably in a different form, but no less powerful. And the experiences of violence made during the Second World War, including the associated traumatization and fear, were already inscribed in the collective memory of numerous societies.
Many of the wars waged after 1945 were at best indirectly related to the power political competition of the superpowers, the same applies to domestic political turning points such as the civil rights movement in the USA, the fight against apartheid in South Africa or the rebellion of the "68er generation" in Asia, the USA and Europe - not to mention the worldwide environmental protection campaigns, which would have put the established politics under pressure even without the links to peace activists and other critics of the Cold War.
The role of nuclear weapons as "fuel" of the Cold War: armament, arms control and disarmamentWhen the USSR tested its first nuclear weapon in August 1949 and thereby broke the American monopoly, the essence of the Cold War emerged: the dispute over incompatible worldviews was now resolved by the threat of mutual annihilation - a world-historical novelty. In addition, a fatal thought prevailed: nuclear weapons are political weapons, and anyone who wants to be credible as a great power cannot do without them. The news of the Soviet atomic bomb accelerated the construction of a thermonuclear superweapon in the United States, which releases its energy not through nuclear fission, but through nuclear fusion. A hydrogen bomb tested in the spring of 1954, with 15 megatons, exceeded the explosive power of its predecessor, which was used against Hiroshima, by 750 times. Seven years later, the "Tsar bomb" tested by the USSR brought it to 50 megatons and a mushroom cloud piled at a height of 64 kilometers. By the mid-1980s, the arsenals of both superpowers had grown to over 60,000 warheads, enough to destroy the entire globe and with it mankind several times.
Nevertheless, there was no political disenchantment. On the contrary. More and more states strove to own nuclear weapons. France, Great Britain, the PR China and Israel were also nuclear powers until the end of the 1960s, later India, Pakistan and North Korea followed. Reliable household data are missing on all sides. Allegedly, the United States alone spent five trillion dollars on doomsday weapons during the Cold War. Apart from that, the psychological importance of nuclear weapons cannot be overestimated: They fueled mutual mistrust, nurtured fear of threats and solidified enemy images. Also and precisely for this reason they should be seen as the most important “fuel” of the Cold War.
“Hot Wars” in the Third WorldAfter 1945, probably 22 million people were killed in around 150 wars in the Third World. This record is not based solely on the rivalry between the superpowers. In many cases, regional power struggles, civil wars and tribal feuds were decisive - or the liberation from colonial rule. But in the majority of cases both East and West took political sides, supported their favorites with money and weapons, sent military advisers, mercenaries and sometimes their own troops. Because both blocs wanted to gain a foothold politically, economically and militarily in the Third World, local conflicts were intensified and artificially prolonged. The involvement of the superpowers often gave the recipients unimagined room for maneuver. The mere threat of switching to the opposing camp kept the respective protecting power in line and drove the price of the war up further. The legacies of hot wars in the Cold War will remain noticeable for the foreseeable future: environmental toxins and genetic damage (Vietnam), large-scale landmines (Angola), population losses (Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala) or political radicalization (Afghanistan).
Escalation and de-escalation of crises in the Cold War20 of the 40+ years of the Cold War were characterized by acute political and military crises. Troops were regularly mobilized, atomic bombers, ICBMs and submarines were put on alert and escalation scenarios were run through in order to put pressure on the other side, to make them insecure or even to confront them with incalculable risks. In some cases, the hegemonic powers of the USA and USSR gave the impetus, at times “small actors” such as North and South Korea or Cuba pushed the focus, and sometimes disputes between allies extended beyond the geographical and political boundaries of the west-east pact systems.
Some of the conflicts were fought on the European "central front" of the Cold War, some in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The causes and occasions were just as different as the participants and the locations. Factors typical of the time, owed to the international constellation after 1945, mingled with impulses from other epochs.
Despite the undeniable weight of the superpowers, the view should go beyond Washington and Moscow. That Mao escalated the war in Korea; that he started a border war with the USSR on the Ussuri in 1969; that North Korea was the driving force behind the attack on the south of the country and wanted to start another war of reunification in the late 1960s; that Fidel Castro never missed an opportunity during the Cuban Missile Crisis to sabotage a diplomatic settlement of the conflict, that in the event of an American invasion of the island of Khrushchev he even advised a first nuclear strike against the United States, and that he again 25 years later in Angola the confrontation sought - all of this shows the limits of the American-Soviet policy of deterrence.
Formulated in the expectation of always having to deal with a calculable and, in case of doubt, blackmailed opponent, they were faced with all too actors who did not want to be intimidated or even humiliated, who thus withdrew from the rationality expectations of the deterrent doctrine. In this respect, the politics of the “little ones” provides information about the possibilities and limits of taming the dispute between the “big ones”.
Relations between the hegemonic powers and their most important allies were surprisingly fraught with conflict. The main point to be corrected is the thesis that the Soviet leadership was able to use international tensions and crises consistently as an instrument to discipline the alliance. In many cases, of all people, it was those behind in Eastern Europe, especially the GDR, who saw Moscow's rapprochement with the class enemies in the West as a threat to their domestic political order and consequently thwarted it.
Nor could the United States be certain of the discipline of its political friends. Great Britain and France are well known for going it alone, not least their contribution to the “little thaw” in the mid-1950s. But Canada and the Scandinavian NATO members also repeatedly pushed for alternatives to the “politics of strength” in internal consultations. Whatever the case, whether crises and conflicts were fueled or contained depended on volatile constellations and interests that could hardly be predicted in their thrust.
Cold War microcosmsRecently there has been an increasing interest in a micro perspective of the Cold War. “De-Centralizing the Cold War”, the term leading the research, basically stands for the attempt to let the history of society have a say in addition to diplomatic and military history - more precisely: in addition to it. Questions are asked about social practices, cultural habits and economic relationships below the radar of “big politics”.
If one wanted to name a common denominator of these diversified approaches, one could speak of a thematization of “intertwined parallel worlds” - that is, of spheres that mutually influence one another and at the same time retain their own life in a strange way. "Top-down" or "bottom-up" analyzes are methodologically only of limited value; rather, one has to pay attention to processes of mutual appropriation and transformation.
Basically, it is about adaptation efforts, about a “translation” of political-ideological “framework guidelines” into everyday life, about the resulting frictional losses and reorientations. The range of relevant studies corresponds to this: studies on the history of the divided city of Berlin are alongside analyzes of highly secret research centers in East and West, which on the one hand were intent on extreme isolation and yet remained connected to their civil surroundings in a variety of ways, as well as observations on everyday life in cities A high proportion of foreign troops are supplemented by studies on civil protection and state-private bunker construction. Last but not least, it is about the production and circulation of knowledge and about imaginations of the present and the future.
End and Legacy of the Cold WarIt's not just amazing how unexpectedly and how quickly the Cold War ended. Above all, it is astonishing that the upheaval took place in most cases by peaceful means. This applies to Poland and Hungary, which have exceeded Gorbachev's zeal for reform since 1988, as well as to the GDR. The leadership there did not rule out a “Chinese solution” - the violent suppression of protests such as those on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in early June 1989. But because the backing from Moscow was missing and the mass protests swelled from day to day, they shrank back.
In Romania, however, the army shot thousands of demonstrators before the old regime had to resign. Even Michael Gorbachev deployed the military against the collapse of the USSR in 1990: in Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Latvia. Vain. The Soviet Union ceased to exist on December 31, 1991, ten months after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and not with a “big bang”, but quietly.
Nonetheless, the Cold War remained present in different ways - in East and West. Habits of thought, perceptions of uncertainty, images of the enemy and stereotypes do not disappear overnight, just as the institutions that had been built for the purpose of the Cold War and kept it going for almost half a century - with the bureaucratic self-interests and the persistence of military apparatus and intelligence services particularly important fall.
In the end, it doesn't matter whether this complex network of relationships is described as “statehood in transition” or “deep state”. It is important to investigate the question of how adaptable these institutions are or to what extent they try to continue to assert their own interests and powers of interpretation in a changed environment.
Places of remembrance and mythsThe memory of the Cold War is presented in museums at the locations where it happened, in museums or exhibitions. The interpretations are as diverse as those previously involved; they reflect national perspectives or political guidelines. In Vietnam, the focus is on war crimes committed by US troops. South Korea continues a narrative of innocent sacrifice and heroic resistance that has been valid since the 1950s - while in East Central Europe the period after 1945 is described primarily as a Soviet foreign rule.
In the USA and Great Britain, the Cold War is primarily staged as a race for the best aircraft, tanks and ships, sometimes also as a thrill at discarded missile launchers. Museums of the armed forces and virtual places on the Internet keep memories alive in Russia. In Germany you can visit nuclear bunkers, remains on the German-German border and tunnels built for the escape from the East, but mostly relics of state surveillance and detention in the GDR. Overall, one deficit is particularly noticeable: nowhere has the Cold War been told as a global story.
The Cold War also survived in the form of its clocking myths. Myths stand - regardless of the time and place - among other things for the more or less purposeful attempt to tame the misunderstood and the incomprehensible. Consequently, the spy advanced to become the mythological prototype of his time in both East and West. Everything and anything could be ascribed to his mysterious goings-on: the outbreak of wars, technological setbacks, domestic political unrest.
At the same time, the hunt for spies also nurtured the illusion of literally being able to get rid of reified evil. On the other hand, the fight against the mysterious presupposed strict secrecy. More precisely, the construction of apparatuses and institutions that demanded a tricky price for the promise of security: isolation, lack of transparency, exclusion.
But that closes the circle. If secure knowledge becomes scarce, the hour for political speculators and all those who declare fictional to factual and vice versa comes. They found their occupation in the production of conspiracy theories and a clientele that continues to grow to this day - because nothing serves the expectation of participation, revelation and knowledge better than the scandalization of the arcanum and the discourse about mythical conspiracies in politics, society or the economy. Of course there was something like that before 1945; but for conspiracy theories, the Cold War was like political doping.
How is the Cold War related to our present?A fundamental question that is largely underestimated is what contribution historical knowledge about the Cold War can make to a political diagnosis of the time? A considerable one - from several points of view:
Anyone who describes the Cold War primarily as an era of crises and the threat of war is telling an incomplete story. No less relevant - and just as revealing in view of current upheavals - are the attempts to moderate and contain this conflict. They mark junctions at which seemingly frozen patterns of thought and action are liquefied and the limits of what is said and feasible are tested, circumvented or even overridden.
For historians, this chapter of the Cold War is a technical challenge because of numerous research and knowledge gaps. Against the background of international relations that have been clouding over the years, it should also be of interest for political education and public discussion in general. In any case, such an approach appears to be more profitable than the ostensible search for similarities between old escalation patterns and a “new Cold War”.
In the northern hemisphere, the interstate moderation of crises and conflicts is referred to as détente or detente. Accelerated since the late 1960s, it reinstated the classic principles of diplomacy: Different values and apparently incompatible interests should not be an obstacle to negotiations, even stubborn enemy images can be broken down through personal conversations, regular contacts bring movement into the world in quiet times Politics and calm them down as soon as bad weather approaches.
So it was about the productivity of deceleration and communication as a value in itself. Those who resist the temptation to make quick judgments cool down emotions, give everyone involved the chance to correct themselves and open up room for maneuver. And values the balance of interests, compromise and respect for the legitimate security interests of the other side higher than ideological discrediting and political exposure.
We are talking about the gold standard of bilateral and multilateral relations - of trust. If the classic policy of the Cold War was to leave the enemy in the dark about one's own intentions and to make them insecure with continued pinpricks, i.e. to deliberately sow mistrust, the policy of détente refers to the mutual renunciation of such psychological wear-and-tear strategies. The new credo was based on the well-known leitmotif: As soon as opponents talk less about each other and instead talk more to each other, they put themselves in a position to judge disputes not only from their own point of view, but also from the perspective of their counterparts.
A learning process with an uncertain outcome was initiated, bolstered by the will to ideological detoxification. In any case, predictability and reliability became primary political virtues again. And empathy was no longer seen as a sign of weakness, but of enlightened sovereignty.
Borders, crossing borders and cross-border commuters
The supposedly hermetically sealed camps of the Cold War turn out to be surprisingly porous on closer inspection - not because the protagonists wanted it that way, but because they were not always in control of the developments they initiated. On the basis of this hypothesis, contemporary historical research has recently opened up topics that had been ignored for a long time: When, where, under what circumstances and by whom were the limits of what is said and feasible tested, circumvented or even overridden? When and where did the “Iron Curtain” become permeable? Which cross-block exchange processes - in business, science, politics and culture - got off the ground? Which hurdles could be overcome, which proved to be insurmountable or even irreversible?
Addressing opposing, persistent and opening-up issues during the Cold War sharpens the eye for their own dynamics and unintended consequences, in short: for the breakpoints in apparently firmly established orders.
At the same time, "border crossers" come into focus, actors from almost all political and social milieus who did not want to come to terms with the isolation, exclusion and speechlessness typical of the time and who questioned the fixed idea of the incompatible and non-negotiable within the scope of their possibilities. We are talking about entrepreneurs, bankers and scientists, representatives of political parties and churches, environmentalists, disarmament experts and lawyers, human rights activists, oppositionists and dissidents, in short: globally networked private individuals, non-governmental organizations or political advisory think tanks that offer parallel diplomacy operated below the state level.
Although “border crossers” in the East acted under much more difficult conditions than their Western counterparts and, in contrast to these, could not rely on the support of politicized civil societies, a story of the Cold War told from both perspectives makes sense. It can make encounters, mutual influencing or alienation processes visible and, above all, make it clear how permeable the borders actually were.
Civil society “counter-experts”: disarmament, human rights, environmental protection
With the “border crossers” of the Cold War, a new type of political activist entered the stage: experts in disarmament, human rights, the environment and international law. Beyond the established political life, they worked in citizens' committees or advised transnational peace initiatives run by doctors and scientists. Since the 1970s, foreign and military policy has increasingly become a concern of civil society.
In principle, it can be assumed that in the debates on peace, human rights and environmental issues, not only case-related expert knowledge was exchanged. Primarily, alternative political drafts and visions of the future beyond the Cold War were negotiated - be it in the form of cooperative security architectures released from the corset of military thinking, or in the form of democratic models of participation that do not conform to the logic of a system-compliant bloc thinking.
Against this background, it should be possible to continue a debate that has been virulent for years and days on a reliable basis: whether and to what extent counter-experts who cross the border could actually contribute to a loosening of frozen fronts and what part they played in overcoming the Cold War.
Non-Aligned and Neutral
Basically, the Cold War should be analyzed and described as a global history of interdependence. As important as the main actors in the conflict - the USA and the Soviet Union - were, the notion of a world divided into center and periphery, including the assumption that hegemonic powers could have moved others like chess pieces, depending on their taste and occasion, is outdated. Rather, it is about an ironic punch line: the further the competing power blocs of the north advanced into the global south and vied for allies, strategic bastions and economic resources, the more they risked overstretching their material and ideal resources. Nolens volens they had to fall back on the services of the supposedly weak in Asia, Latin America and Africa, sometimes also on motley and unpredictable "coalitions of willing".
In this way, small and medium-sized actors were able to expand their room for maneuver and reap profits that would probably have been denied them in other constellations - first of all in the financing of economic prestige objects or in the expansion of their secret service and military power apparatus. Sometimes it even looked as if the tail was wagging the dog.
Although most of the non-aligned groups in practice often lag far behind the self-imposed claims - i.e. violating human rights in their own countries, accepting military aid from the superpowers in order to upgrade their foreign policy status or, as India and Pakistan even waged war against each other - cannot be denied, that they tried again and again to mediate interstate conflicts and to establish regional security systems. Tito's talk of “active peaceful coexistence” in particular stands for the persevering attempt to break through the confrontational logic of action of the Cold War.
With Tito and his colleagues, the most important forum for the non-aligned, the United Nations, comes into focus. They were not the only place where the rhythmic dynamics of the time found their political language: globalization, decolonization and the cold war. Using the example of the UN, one can above all reconstruct how the balancing potential of the “global South” was in general.
Fears, enemy images, fear entrepreneurs
Diffuse fears were at the emotional center of the Cold War. Certainly fear is part of the basic psychological equipment of all societies; there has undoubtedly never been an epoch free of fear in human history. In the Cold War it was much more than a stone guest.
Fear and the search for means to contain it occupied the political imagination, as a cursory glance to East and West shows: In November 1952, the former General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Rudolf Slánský, was sentenced to death as the alleged head of a “conspiracy center”. It was the culmination of a series of show trials and waves of persecution in the Eastern Bloc that did not stop at anyone, including communists. The constant “cleansing” of society and its own ranks was an expression of political paranoia and at the same time an instrument for bringing all political life into line. When Slansky was executed in December, the opponents of the communists in the Eastern Bloc had long since fallen silent, emigrated, arrested or murdered.
Fear of "infiltration" was also rampant in the west. Since the late 1940s, there has been a real hunt in the United States for teachers, actors, and journalists who were vilified as followers of international communism. At this point in time, the CPUSA had long since ceased to play a role in public life. In the Federal Republic of Germany, too, the KPD had a shadowy existence when it was banned in 1956. The list of examples could be extended indefinitely - right up to the inflated fears of a nuclear war in the 1980s.
Covert and “hybrid” warfare
"Covert warfare" played a paramount role in the Cold War. What is meant is to destabilize the opposing side's zones of influence and to seal off one's own sphere of influence against "infiltration": with economic and secret service instruments, with ideological campaigns and mercenaries. Both East and West did not want to appear as masterminds. In addition to Africa, Central and Latin America was the main venue.
In Guatemala, the CIA enabled a military coup against the government under Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, in Chile the socialist President Salvador Allende was killed during a coup d'état in 1973 with the support of the USA, and Washington wanted to force a regime change in Cuba. Since the 1970s, the USSR and its allies have intensified covert operations in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique: the training of the military, police and guerrillas, weapon aid and murder plots were the means of choice here too. Cuba went to great lengths to do this - mostly without consulting Moscow. In order to prevent Havana from expanding further, the USA opened a secret front in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late phase of the Cold War.
After the end of the cold war: what went wrong?Since 1991, formerly frozen conflicts broke out again, for example in Yugoslavia and on the territory of the former USSR. At the same time, new sources of fire emerged - primarily in the Near and Middle East and Africa.
Clinging to old spheres of power and influence blocked a cooperative conflict resolution on the part of the great powers and, last but not least, blocked the path to a new security architecture in Europe and Asia - this was the price of expanding NATO and the EU to the east and the price of failing to build bridges Russia. On top of that, all nuclear powers invested and are investing billions in modernizing their nuclear arsenal, thereby undermining important arms control and disarmament agreements, such as the INF Treaty concluded in 1987. Its termination on February 1, 2019 by Donald Trump marked the end of a development that had already emerged among the predecessors of the unpredictable US president.
The renewed conflicts between the USA, China, Russia and Europe are even more worrying, not to mention the escalation of the ongoing dispute with Iran. Many threatening gestures are reminiscent of moments from the past Cold War. In the classic sense, the Cold War can be considered a closed epoch. However, the pursuit of power expansion and profit maximization at the expense of competition has survived - a result of the unwillingness or inability to make trust the key currency of international relations and thus to create the basis of a resilient peace.
Citation: "Traces and lessons of the Cold War", Bernd Greiner, in: Germany Archive, December 23, 2019, Link: www.bpb.de/302841
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