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The Cold War and the Battle of Perceptions

1.      Introduction

The origin of the Cold War is one of the most contentious topics in International Relations. It is a widely debated subject, because of its impact on the international system. The emergence of the Cold War is a mix of geopolitical, socio-economic and ideational factors, which led to the creation of a bipolar world order and spheres of influence, divided between the USSR and the USA.  The ubiquity of the Cold War re-defined power relations not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world, through the proxy wars, which took place in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan. It led to the creation of NATO and the Warsaw pact, the emergence of the USA as a world hegemon, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (Saull, 2008; Boyle, 2008; Gaddis, 1997). 

This paper will focus on the origins of the Cold War and it will defend the view that no leader or country caused it. The essay will briefly go through the theoretical predispositions of the Cold War, as well as its most important developments. It will discuss separate ideas from the orthodox-revisionist debate in order to analyze the Cold War not as a fixed historical event, but as a complex social construction. It will also mention the role of discourses and articulation in the formulation of foreign policy.

For clarity, the remainder is divided in the following sections – Background, Literature review, Research question, Hypothesis, Methods, The orthodox - revisionist debate, the Importance of discourses and Conclusions.



2.      Background – the Beginning of the Cold War

Because of the brevity of this study, it is impossible to provide a full historical account of the events that led to the beginning of the Cold War. For the purposes of this paper, the author will mention only the most important ones.


2.1.            The conferences in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam (1943-1945)


At the end of WWII, the Axis powers (Italy, Germany and Japan) were defeated by the Allies (USA, UK and USSR) and heavy reparations were imposed on Germany towards the other European countries. Political disagreements between the “Big Three” (F.D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin) started to emerge during the Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945), and Potsdam (1945) conferences for the division of post-war Europe. The US and UK expressed support for the spread of liberal democracy, for the creation of international institutions and for a universal human rights agenda. The Western allies viewed the international system as a network of democratic governments, which would provide for its citizens and defend their national interests through peaceful cooperation (Mazower, 1998; Hobsbawm, 1994; Gaddis, 1997; Leffler & Painter, 2005).

Stalin’s views on the organization of post-war Europe were far less liberal. Faithful to his conceived policies of coercion and militarization, he proposed that stability in Eastern Europe can be achieved only through the military domination of the countries, which were neighbouring the USSR. Stalin believed in the preservation of communism not only as an ideology, but also as a form of political organization (Bullock, 1993). He was adamant in his views about an interventionist Soviet foreign policy, as a way to maintain peace through subordination in Eastern Europe.

Tensions started to build with the formation of the Eastern bloc by the Soviets. It involved the annexation of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, parts of Romania and Eastern Poland to the Soviet Union. As a result, in February 1946 George Kennan articulated the US policies against the Soviet Union in his Long Telegram. US foreign policy was to be dominated by containment of the Soviet communist threat (Mazower, 1998; Bullock, 1993). These events will be discussed in detail in Section 6.


2.2      The Berlin Blockade

One of the first major crises of the Cold War was the Berlin blockade (1948-1949). Germany was invaded by Russia from the East, and by the USA from the West. As a result, Berlin was occupied and divided in two. It led to military commitments and the creation of NATO in 1948.  It was one of the first incidents, where ideological strategic indiscrepancies between USSR and the USA resurfaced and were manifested through military means (Gaddis, 1997; Mazower, 1998; Hobsbawm, 1994).



2.3    Summary


The tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, which led to the emergence of the Cold War started to build during the conferences in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, when the leaders could not agree on their agenda for the division of Europe. Later on the Berlin blockade led to the division of Germany, and the beginning of the end of the post-war friendship between the USSR and the US. Tensions between the two victors started to build during the formation of the Eastern bloc and the Sovietization of Eastern Europe. As a result, the US foreign policy during the Cold War period was articulated in George Kennan’s Long Telegram (1946).

This brief historical overview shows that none of the great powers was proactive in instigating a conflict. As this paper will argue, it was the deep ideological divisions between the western capitalism and Stalin’s expansive totalitarianism and their representation that catalyzed the Cold War.


3.      Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

To analyze the literature on the origins of the Cold War is a formidable task, because of the complexity of the issue, and the volume of works, which have been published on the subject. For the purposes of this paper, the author has divided key theoretical and historical works in three main groups: works which take into consideration geo-political factors in the emergence of the Cold War, works which focus on socio-economic factors, and those, which focus on the role of ideas, perceptions and identities. This general division relates to three theories of International Relations – realism, Marxism and constructivism respectively.


3.1.            The Realist stance


The first group of scholars tend to emphasize geo-political interests and national gain as the main causes of the Cold War (Waltz, 1979; Mearsheimer, 2001; Kennan, 1967; Morgenthau, 1951). They focus on territorial and economic influence as a major cause of the Cold War. These scholars share the view that USA and USSR were led by self-interest and ambitious economic and political agenda in the post-war period. One weakness of this argument however, is that is neglects the importance of subjective and unquantifiable factors such as ideology and perception in the analysis of the emergence of the Cold War. It also oversimplifies the structure of the international system, viewing it as a network of nation-states, which sharply contrasts with the post-war reality. After WWII, the potency of the nation-state was declining, and international liberal organizations were emerging as the new actors in world politics.

3.2      The Marxist stance


The second group of scholars offers a Marxist explanation of the emergence of the Cold War. Cox (1984), Saull (2008) and Horowitz (1967) explain the Cold War as an opposition between the American and Soviet modes of production. American capitalism clashed with the economic policies of rapid industrialization, procured by Stalin. It was a conflict of socio-economic factors, which were not related with the forces of the state. Just like the realist stance, the socio-economic one does not capture the essence of the Cold War, because it does not fully explain the point of contention between the economic doctrines of the Soviet Union and the USA.


3.3      The Constructivist Stance



Probably the group of works, which explains the origins of the Cold War most accurately, is the constructivist. Alexander Wendt (1992), Jutta Weldes (1996), and David Campbell (1998) view the emergence of the Cold War not as instigated by the USSR or USA, but through the prism of ideas, perceptions and ideologies. They argue that the national interest of the USSR and USA was constructed and not primordially fixed. The irreconcilable ideological differences between American liberalism and Soviet communism were perceived as a mutual threat by the two superpowers. In a study on the Cuban Missile crisis (1996), Weldes argues that national interests are not fixed but articulated and constructed through political discourses and perceived actions (Weldes, 1996). She mentions political depictions, images and projections as the basis, on which national interest, and respectively conflicts, rest. Although this view is based on subjective and abstract factors, it explains the emergence of the Cold War most accurately. For this reason, it will be the theoretical framework, which the author will use in order to defend the arguments in this paper.



3.4      Summary


The realist and Marxist stances offer a narrow explanation of the beginning of the Cold War. Therefore the author has decided to use a third stance – social constructivism, as a framework of reference in this paper.


4.      Research Question and Hypothesis

This paper will investigate the statement that no particular nation or leader started the Cold War.

It will hypothesize that the Cold War was the result of perceptions and the construction of the US and Soviet national interest. The ideological discrepancies between the two were perceived as hostile and threatening by both nations. This perception was later on articulated in their foreign policy. The issues of perception and interpretation played an important part in the US response to Soviet domestic policies and the Sovietization of Europe and at the same time, defined the Soviet response to the US attempt to recover post-war Europe through the spread of democracy and financial aid. The meanings, which the great powers chose to attach to these political actions led to the emergence of the Cold War, which, in this sense, was a social construction.



5.      Method

In order to investigate the research topic, the author will use a qualitative method. A In the light of a constructivist theoretical framework detailed analysis on separate ideas from the orthodox-revisionist debate will be proposed.

As a supplementary method, the author has chosen to conduct a brief discourse analysis on key political speeches, which played an important role in the shaping of perceptions and political images during the Cold War. Discourse analysis will be conducted in a Foucauldian framework, which views “discourses as the practices, which systematically produce the objects of which they speak” (Foucault, 1972).


6. The Heart of the Orthodox Revisionist Debate   

The orthodox-revisionist debate is important in understanding the emergence of the Cold War as a social construction.

The Orthodox argument, as summarized by Saull (2008), holds that the origins of the Cold War are found in the Marxist-Leninist debate and its ideas of class struggle and world revolution of the working class. It also holds that the USSR was hostile to capitalist and non-communist states. It argues that the USA cannot be held responsible for the origins of the Cold War, because it interpreted the Sovietization of Europe as hostile and threatening to the West.

The Revisionist stance holds that the USSR cannot be held responsible for the emergence of the Cold War, because Soviet policy after the war was concerned with domestic post-war reconstruction, and ensuring that Germany would not pose military threat again (Saull, 2008). Revisionists believe that the Cold War emerged out of the needs of the American capitalist system and its policy of market expansionism.

The emergence of the Cold War is a mixture of both arguments, and some of their ideas will be examined separately.




6.1.    The Sovietization of Europe and the formation of the Eastern Bloc


From the Orthodox stance, the author will focus on the Sovietization of Eastern Europe and the formation of the Eastern Bloc.

In the final stages of the Second World War, Stalin annexed Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, parts of Eastern Romania and parts of Eastern Poland. They became Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) (Mazower, 1998; Hobsbawm, 1994; Gaddis, 1997; Bullock, 1993). The Sovietization of Eastern Europe continued with other republics turning into satellites or zones of Soviet influence, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Albania. They were never officially annexed to the USSR, but remained under its direct political domination until its demise.

The formation of the Eastern bloc and the intense Sovietization of Europe were perceived by the USA as a threat to the international liberal order. To this day, there is no empirical proof of the intentions of the Soviet Union towards the USA during the Sovietization of Europe. As part of the orthodox debate, the Sovietization of Europe was perceived as a threat to the liberal institutional order, which the USA wanted to establish in Western Europe. On the other hand, it was part of the Soviet agenda for post-war recovery. In this situation, none of the countries was an aggressor. From a social constructivist perspective, national interest was reconstructed in a particular historical context. In the context of Sovietization, the USA reconstructed its national interest and shifted its foreign policy towards containment of communism. The USSR on the other hand, interpreted the change of American foreign policy as an indication for hostility and imminent threat for its national interests. Jutta Weldes explains this using the following argument: “Determining what the particular situation faced by a state is, if any threat a state faces […] always requires interpretation” (Weldes, 1996, p. 279). The clash of ideological mindsets which started with the Sovietization of Europe was a matter of interpretation of the intentions of the USA and the USSR. It became a pattern, which will be traced in the discussion of some developments from the revisionist debate, which is next.


6.2.    From the Marshall Plan to the Policy of Containment


As a result of the Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, by 1948 the US established the ‘twin pillars’ of its foreign policy. The military-geopolitical pillar was expressed in the Truman Doctrine (1945) and the creation of NATO (1948). The second pillar of US Foreign Policy was the economic framework within the capitalist market and the role of the US addressing the post war economic crisis as part of the recovery of Europe, expressed in the Marshall plan (1945) (Saull, 2008).

These developments are part of the revisionist debate, which holds that the US was driven by its capitalist ambition for market expansion in Eastern Europe. Like in the case of Sovietization, these developments were a matter of interpretation. Again, none of the two superpowers was an aggressor. Alexander Wendt argues that “people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings, which the objects have for them” (Wendt, 1992, p. 396-397). This observation can be easily applied in the case of the Cold War. The USA attached a hostile meaning to the Soviet actions in Eastern Europe. As a result, the Marshall Plan and NATO were created. As a response, the USSR attached a negative meaning to these developments, and Stalinism radicalized. The influence of Soviet Union in Eastern Europe increased, and in 1955 the Warsaw pact was established. In the language of constructivism, the US and USSR re-examined their national identities, and re-created their national interests, in the light of particular historical conditions. As a result, the Truman doctrine and the Marshall plan were extended to what became the policy of containment – a landmark of US foreign policy during the Cold War period.




6.3.    The Cuban Missile Crisis




It is impossible to explain the construction of national identities in the Cold War, without a brief discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). It was the peak of the Cold War and the single moment in history, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear conflict (Saull, 2008; Gaddis, 1997; Mazower, 1998; Hobsbawm, 1994).

The Cuban Missile Crisis stands in the middle of the orthodox-revisionist debate. The military base that the Soviets built in Cuba was represented by the Kennedy administration as a necessarily evil, secretive and hostile move. There was no evidence that the Soviet Union was preparing to attack the USA. The deployment of missiles in Cuba however, was perceived by the Americans as deceptive (Leffler & Painter, 2005). Another side of the story holds that the USSR deployed the missiles in Cuba in order to defend the only communist regime in the region from a US attack (Weldes, 1996).

In both cases, national interests were constructed according to specific meanings that the leaders of the two countries attached to them in the particular historical context. As Campbell argues “danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat […] Danger is an effect of interpretation” (Campbell, 1998). The way the situation in Cuba was represented and articulated by the American and Soviet leaders constructed the national interests of both countries, and interpretation for an imminent clash inevitably followed.


6.4.    Summary


The emergence of the Cold War did not start because of a leader or a nation. It can be best explained as a mix of the orthodox and the revisionist debate, both of which offer ideas about its origin. The Cold War was a result of the construction of national interests in a particular historical environment.


7. The Cold War and the Importance of Discourses


In order to understand the emergence of the Cold War from a constructivist perspective, it is important to address one final point – discourses. The role of articulation and discourse in the formation of foreign policy is a broad and complicated topic, but because of the brevity of this paper here it will be discussed shortly.


In order to understand the role of discourses in the articulation of foreign policy during the Cold War, we need to go back to the Foucauldian framework. Foucault looks at discourses and discursive practices as a result of concrete representations, which manifest themselves as practices (1972). In the course of the Cold War, the US national identity and this of its enemy the USSR was articulated in the speeches and publications of presidents and senior diplomats. The first example comes from George Kennan’s Long Telegram (1946). The telegram, which came from Moscow in February 1946, changed the course of US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. It sent a warning about the intentions of the Soviet Union to destroy the internal harmony and balance of the American society and to ‘inhibit’ and ‘dilute’ the power of its neighbours. In the telegram, Kennan talks about “the importance of dogma in Soviet Affairs” and the “deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism” (Kennan, 1967). His adamant positions defined US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, and articulated key developments during the Cold War, such as the policy of containment of communism, and the twin pillars of US foreign policy.


Other examples of verbal demonization of the Soviets during the Cold War come from President Kennedy’s 1962 speech on the outbreak of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was adamant that the Soviets “deceived the Western hemisphere under the cloak of secrecy” (Kennedy, 1962).  More examples of discursive representation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War include “sanctuary for terror” and “evil empire” (Reagan on Nicaragua, 1980), “hostile ideology – global in scope, atheistic in character” (Eisenhower on the Cold War, 1961), “communist imperialism”, “infiltration and subversion to a brutal attack”, “communist aggressor, which swallowed up their victim” (Truman on Korea, 1950).

In these discourses, which became part of the US Foreign Policy, the USSR is represented as hostile, foreign, other and aggressive. The USA on the other hand is represented as a benevolent and liberating nation, acting in defence of weaker nations from the Soviet menace.

From the Soviet side, discursive practices deconstructing the USA were a common practice during the Cold War as well. In a message to President Kennedy, Khrushchev referred to the USA as determined “to pursue aggressive policies against Cuba that were organized with a view of forcibly changing its internal system (Khrushchev, 1961, in Weldes, 1996). In relation to the situation in Angola, Castro refers to the “neo-colonial methods of imperialism” (Castro, 1981 in Weldes, 1996).


7.1.    Summary


During the Cold War verbal representations from both sides demonized and condemned the enemy. The examples in this section were selected to show that the Cold War emerged as a result of certain discursive practices, which manifested themselves and were articulated as policies. Certain meanings were attached to certain historical episodes by the Soviet and American leaderships. As a result of this pervasive articulation, images of opposition were constructed and the foreign policy of the USA and the USSR was defined within the boundaries of these images.





8.          Conclusions


This paper has shown that the Cold War was a social construction, embedded in certain discursive practices and perceptions at the time. Neither the USA, nor the USSR instigated the Cold War. Their ideological divisions were articulated and became discursive practices. Later on these divisions were manifested as foreign policies such as containment, the Sovietization of Europe, the Creation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR reconsidered their national interests and recreated them in a particular historical context.

There are other contentious issues, related to the Cold War. One of the ongoing scholarly debates on the subject is who won and who lost the Cold War. Others are more concerned with the legacy of the Cold War on power relations and on the international system. It is interesting to note that during the Cold War the USA built its two foreign policy pillars – socio-economic and geo-political one. In the post-Cold War era, the US does not seem to have abandoned them. The twin pillars are continuously part of the US foreign policy agenda, and to a large extent, define the country as a global power today. The bipolarity of the Cold War might long be gone, but it the USA continued to construct its foreign policy as imperialist, with the determination to expand its economic and political influence to the former communist bloc.



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