Moving Beyond the Cold War

The Cold War ended twenty years ago, but it remains the preeminent focus of historians of U.S. foreign relations. The disappearance of the Soviet Union also prompted few changes in U.S. national security policy. One could chalk up both phenomena to inertia. Once a field begins to focus heavily on a period or question, subsequent scholarship tends to gravitate to similar questions and debates. After over four decades of Cold War that transformed both the government and the economy, adapting existing structures to new challenges is easier than building new structures from scratch. Yet this explanation is not wholly satisfying. The first Bush administration pushed for deep cuts in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and found a willing partner in Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Talk of nuclear abolition by the turn of the 21st century and the benefits of a broader peace dividend from reduced defense spending promised a break from the Cold War past. Countervailing trends emerged almost immediately, with some analysts crowing about a “unipolar moment” and the Pentagon preparing a report that called for perpetual American strategic supremacy and a strict policy of preventing any new rivals to U.S. power from emerging. Nuclear arms control stalled and the Pentagon budget remained at or near Cold War levels.

These policies resulted from conscious decisions, not mere habit. The Clinton administration issued national security documents that explicitly rejected nuclear abolition in the short and near term, and top policymakers dubbed the United States the “indispensable nation.” The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 confirmed these choices and led to even larger defense expenditures in the name of a global war on terror and homeland security. The continuities in U.S. national security policy between the Cold War and post-Cold War eras raises important questions about how historians use the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as an interpretive lens. To what degree did the Soviet threat shape U.S. policy and to what degree, in the words of the authors of NSC-68, did Washington pursue a policy that would have developed “even if there were no Soviet threat.” What initiatives would fall under this rubric? NSC-68 groups them under an effort “to develop a healthy international community.” Would the Marshall Plan have been pursued even in the absence of a Soviet threat? Fear of renewed global depression clearly concerned both U.S. and European policymakers and could have prompted an American reconstruction program even without a fear of a military rival in the region. Even the Truman Doctrine specifically aimed at blunting communist insurgents in Greece who were backed by Tito’s Yugoslavia rather than Moscow. Truman and his advisors deliberately exaggerated the threat of Soviet penetration of the area to beat back neo-isolationism in Congress. The early Cold War period is filled with other examples of policies motivated by deeper, privately accepted objectives that were publicly justified as necessary to blunt Moscow’s global ambitions. The collapse of European empires and the Asian power vacuum created with the Japanese surrender provide many of these examples. How much of postwar policy flowed from a competition between rival ideologies and how much can be attributed to other types of national interests and perceived threats. Separating the Soviet rivalry from other motivations is hardly a scientific enterprise but such a thought experiment could provide productive ways of thinking about the growth of American power over the last seventy years without reflexively attributing it to outside forces.

Scholars have already produced works that encourage us to revaluate some of the field’s common assumptions about the Cold War. Matthew Connelly has urged the field “to take off the Cold War lens” in analyzing North-South conflict in general, and more specifically, the Algerian Civil War. Others have tackled world economic development and world health issues without casting the issues in a traditional Cold War paradigm. Another group has tracked the domestic political and economic roots of policies that were publicly justified on national security grounds. More important, many of the issues that these scholars highlight have persisted and grown in importance in the wake of the Cold War’s collapse. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry may ultimately be regarded as a distraction from larger forces shaping the post-World War II world, such decolonization and globalization. Just as many in the field have incorporated transnational and cultural history into their methodologies and pushed traditional diplomatic history aside, scholars now need to contemplate whether it is time to move beyond the Cold War as an interpretive framework for the post-World War II period and how the field might benefit from such a refocusing of its efforts.