Chapter Summary with Learning Objectives

Chapter 4

In early 1946, George F. Kennan – a young diplomat at the US Embassy in Moscow – sent Washington what became known as the Long Telegram, which gave a prescient analysis of a coming confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two most powerful victors of World War II. Throughout the document, Kennan weighs two alternative explanations for Soviet behavior and argues that power politics, not Soviet ideology, provide a better explanation. Given that he forecast major dynamics of the Cold War – including its end – was his explanation accurate? Did it select the right facts, order them correctly, and draw causal arrows in the proper direction?

Each perspective makes arguments on the causes and end of the Cold War at the systemic, domestic, and individual levels of analysis. At the systemic level, they look at the relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union, either in terms of a static relationship (or structure) or a dynamic relationship (or process). At the domestic level, they focus on the characteristics and behavior of either the United States or the Soviet Union. At the individual level, they examine the characteristics of individual leaders. The perspectives differ on whether those factors were based on power; institutions, interactions, or interdependence; or identity.

The realist perspective argues that, at the systemic level, the Cold War was a result of a security dilemma that forced the two superpowers to fill the power vacuum in Europe with spheres of influence, and that it ended because of the successful use of containment and deterrence. At the domestic level, it was caused by the aggressive actions of either the United States or the Soviet Union, and it ended because either the United States decisively rebounded under US President Ronal Reagan, or because the Soviet Union collapsed.

The identity perspective makes the argument, at the systemic level, that the Soviet Union and the United States constructed a relationship in which they saw each other as enemies rather than rivals, and that the Cold War ended when their identities converged (as the United States became more post-modern and the Soviet Union more modern). At the domestic level, the Cold War was either a result of American or Soviet ideology, and it ended when the Soviet Union changed its ideas or when the United States’ emphasis on democracy and freedom won out over Marxism-Leninism.

At the systemic level, the liberal perspective argues that increasing institutionalization (both global and regional), increasing economic and security interdependence (accelerated by the information revolution), and successful diplomacy deescalated the Cold War. Successful institutionalization was hampered by the poor diplomacy of Harry S Truman, prompting the Cold War; but when institutionalization and diplomacy were successfully realized later in the Cold War, it led to decreased hostilities and increased cooperation.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students should be able to understand:

  • How different perspectives use the levels of analysis to make arguments about the causes of the beginning, escalation, and de-escalation of the Cold War.
  • What historical events each perspective argues are most important for explaining key changes during the Cold War.
  • How containment and deterrence work.
  • What role violent conflict and the threat of violence played in the Cold War.
  • How nuclear weapons changed the calculations of the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • How the different perspectives views the Cuban Missile Crisis.