H-Diplo Teaching Roundtable XXII-50 on on the Cold War in IR

George Fujii's picture


In Russia, you can still spot small square concrete silo heads around cities – they serve as ventilation shafts for bomb shelters built across the Soviet Union before and after the Second World War.  If you went to school in Russia in the 1990s, not to mention the Soviet Union in the 1950s or 60s, you would still have to study a special subject, OBZh[1] that would include memorizing the algorithm of your actions in case there was a nuclear[2] or poison-gas attack.  Schoolchildren from the other side of the pond might remember school-issued dog tags to identify bodies after a nuclear attack, as Max Margulies writes below, or “duck and cover” cartoons which have now been replaced with active shooter drills.  If “duck and cover” is too distant of an example, check out a Late Night Show segment about Russian hackers[3] dressed in fur hats or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest comments at the 2021 St. Petersburg Economic Forum.[4]

The Cold War is still alive and well whether in those concrete remnants, popular culture, or faux Cyrillic in the headlines about the Russian threat.  One of the ways to remind students of that fact is essayist Christina Cliff’s strategy of zeroing in on North Korea as a case study.  With her scaffolding approach that starts with nuclear weapons and “drunken parallelograms” of colonial borders, Cliff showcases how a territory the size of Virginia is a sizeable vestige of the Cold War that in many ways still perfectly encapsulates its politics then and now.  By putting the superpower competition in the background, Cliff is able to foreground critical areas of the Cold War era, such as non-proliferation, de-colonization, and development aid, among many others.

Unlike the other contributors to this roundtable, I grew up in the ruins of the Soviet Union.  The USSR’s demise is often viewed as proof that the West won the Cold War.  Hence the obsession of the Russian political elite to point out that the Cold War ended and was not lost by anyone.  During my undergraduate studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, the talent foundry for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the students were often treated to first-person accounts about key events during the Cold War.  Those ranged from memories of a bar that had been emptied of alcohol at the UN headquarters while delegates and officials were waiting for the nuclear rockets to strike New York during the Cuban Missile Crisis to behind-the-scenes recollections of the German re-unification treaty or Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush waxing poetic about the end of the Cold War era.[5] As a future diplomat (or, rather, a diplomat’s wife, as some professors joked about female students), I was supposed to understand the significance of the fact that the Cold War, in fact, ended peacefully. The nuclear bomb shelters and instructions remained unused, and the Warsaw Pact countries were released into the warm Western embrace without a shot.  Hence, almost any teaching material I remember encountering specifically talked about “the end” of the Cold War.[6]

This echoes the themes Yuval Weber discusses in his essay.  Weber writes that the end of the Cold War spurred a strategic misunderstanding between the United States and Russia.  Moreover, international developments since 1989 (and, more importantly, since 1991) define Russia’s core grievance with the contemporary international order.  Weber uses both of them to illustrate the theory and practice of hierarchy in international relations.[7] Putin’s aforementioned remarks serve as yet another example for the fact that Russian political elite and, to an extent, the Russian population is not comfortable with its loss of great power status and has worked ever since to regain it. At the same time, probably only one pundit[8] failed mention the fact that the 2021 Biden-Putin summit took place at the same location as the Reagan-Gorbachev rendezvous of 1985,[9] showing that it is the West as well that perceives U.S.-Russian relations through the prism of the seemingly foregone era.

Classic teaching about the Cold War – indeed the misnomer itself - indicates that there was no “hot” conflict, which was obviously not the case.  While children in the U.S. or Soviet Union only learned theoretically about bombing raids, children in the Global South had to learn about them in practice.  Moreover, despite the Soviet Union’s professed anti-colonial policies, the Global South was marginally present in the discussions centered on bipolarity – only the relations between the two superpower poles – in class.  Arms race and arms reduction treaties (I still remember those SALT missile caps!), several “almost” hot conflicts between the two superpowers—these were the main topic in the classroom.  Moreover, even in the early aughts, our send-off into the diplomatic career course in the last semester before graduation relied heavily on Huntington (Clash of Civilizations)[10], Fukuyama (End of History)[11] and Brzezinski (The Great Chessboard)[12].  In those works, modern international relations were represented essentially as a Cold War struggle through often more racist literature adopted from the U.S. classrooms[13].

Deepak Nair brings out an especially important perspective from the Global South, showing that it was not only a place where the superpowers sublimated their militarist ambitions, but was also an equally important ideological arena.  Moreover, a Global South perspective on the Cold War highlights a different timeline.  After all, Nair argues, for the Third World, there was no beginning of the Cold War in 1945 but, rather, a transmutation of late European colonialism “through slightly different means.”[14] This perspective is crucial, especially given the documented problem of Eurocentrism in IR as a discipline[15] and a specific U.S. bias in the study of security – even when international security is taught outside of the United States.[16]

Being exposed to both sides of Cold War-era film propaganda, it was easy for my cohort of students to get frustrated by cookie-cut one-dimensional Russian or Western villains.  While in Soviet movies, it was almost always the Baltic actors who got to play the evil guys, the American vision of Russians as steroid-pumped killing machines à la Ivan Drago[17] or blond and blue-eyed honeypots was even more annoying.  So when it was my turn to teach an introduction to IR course, I took the Cold War as a prime example of persisted othering processes on both sides that still feed into contemporary Russian-American relations. On the Russian side, I do that with the help of Viacheslav Morozov’s postcolonial approach.[18] Morozov’s main argument that Russia is a subaltern empire, both from a material and ideational standpoint.  It is especially helpful in offering a long-overdue critique of the civilizational approach that, unfortunately, still features in my Moscow alma mater[19] as well as in syllabi in the United States.[20]

As Max Margulies points out, an important task in teaching about the Cold War is to encourage students to question its mythologies and underlying assumptions.  Especially when it comes to educating future military staff, it is important not to fall into the organizational preferences and groupthink that are embedded in certain institutions.  It is critical to confront emerging preconceptions that feed into contemporary ideas about “liberal international order” or preconceived notions of “the other side.” I am not educating future officers, but, in my experience, it takes about a semester to get the students to critically approach those “enigmas” wrapped into Orientalist clichés that are often still taught at the university level around the world.  The Cold War is one of those riddles that the essayists below seek to dispel.


Elizaveta Gaufman is an assistant professor of Russian discourse and politics in the Department of European Languages and Cultures at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands).  Her research is situated at the intersection of political theory, international relations, and media and cultural studies.  She is the author of Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis (Palgrave, 2017).  Elizaveta is a permanent contributor to the “Duck of Minerva” blog and tweets at @lisas_research.

Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science, security studies at Franklin Pierce University.  She teaches classes on global security and diplomacy, psychology of terrorism, political violence, U.S. government, and international relations.  She has written some op-ed articles regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program that have appeared in Newsweek, Time, and Fortune.  Her primary research is on political violence and extremism.

Max Z. Margulies is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Research at the Modern War Institute at West Point.  He also serves as the course director for the thesis and capstone programs in West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies programs.  From 2018–2020, he taught classes in international relations as a faculty member and Executive Director of the Rupert H. Johnson Grand Strategy Program in West Point’s Department of Social Sciences.  His research focuses on military recruitment and civil-military relations.  His writing has appeared in War on the Rocks, Lawfare, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, and Just Security.

Deepak Nair is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.  He specializes in the study of microsociological international relations, especially on the form and effects of everyday practices, face-to-face interactions, and emotions.  His substantive interests centre on diplomacy and international bureaucracy, and especially in Southeast Asia, which is where he does his fieldwork in.  His research has been published in International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, International Studies Review, International Political Sociology, among other venues.

Yuval Weber is a Research Assistant Professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, DC. Dr. Weber also serves as the Bren Chair of Russian Military and Political Strategy at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.  Prior to Texas A&M, Dr. Weber served as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University, and as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  He has published on a range of Russian and Eurasian security, political, and economic topics in academic journals and for the popular press in the United States and Russia.  He is currently working on two projects: one funded by the Minerva Research Initiative that develops a tool to measure hierarchy and resilience in international affairs to chart the course and conduct of great power competition, and a second that examines the tension between demands of economic modernization and the security state in Russian political economy.  The latter manuscript is scheduled for publication in 2021 (Agenda/Columbia University Press).



I’m old enough to remember the last part of the Cold War.  And when I began teaching, my students were of an age where their parents likely remembered and reminisced about the end of the Cold War and its worldwide effects.  The students would have heard stories from their parents of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and maybe some discussion of the break-ups of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.  Woven in to this reminiscence would have been a discussion of the myths of the ‘threat of Communism’ that had been ‘defeated’ by the power of democracy.  Today, many of my students were born after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and the Cold War is now ‘ancient’ history, often relegated to the same place as the world wars and other past conflicts that seem to the students too distant to be relevant to contemporary concerns.  Finding a way to make the Cold War relevant to students is often a struggle.  But whether you are talking about international relations in general, the foreign policy of states, decolonization, development, the international political economy, human rights, international organizations, weapons of mass destruction, or really any topic of international concern, the impact of the Cold War must be part of the discussion.  The Cold War changed global politics, as it impacted resource allocation of major states, helped determine aid, security, and support for new states and regimes, drove the politics of international organizations, particularly the United Nations, and prompted the creation of many non-governmental organizations. 

To this end, I have found that using a case study that the students can connect with to be a useful tool in framing the impact of the Cold War.  The trick, of course, is finding a case study that the students will perhaps recognize and understand.  For me, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, hereafter North Korea) has been the most useful example of the continuing impact of the Cold War.  There are a wide variety of enduring conflicts and effects of the Cold War, including the creation and continued relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), political development and crises in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola, and Vietnam (among many others, U.S. relations with many Central American countries, and the rise of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to name just a few).  North Korea as a case study can be used in a variety of ways, but I typically use it as an example of foreign policy and security effects on small states affected by Cold War politics.  And since North Korea obligingly makes itself newsworthy about once a year, often with bombastic military threats, students generally have a basic frame of reference.  This shallow familiarity with North Korea is actually a boon to the discussion.

Because students are usually only nominally aware of North Korea, my first question to help set up the discussion is, “what do you know about North Korea and why does the world care about what North Korea says/does?”  This question, where the response is often, “it has nuclear weapons,” then leads in to the discussion of why North Korea has nuclear weapons. The broader question addressed here is a discussion of what has shaped North Korea’s behavior and choices, and why North Korea acts the way it does.  North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and its perceptions of security in general, cannot be explained without understanding the impact of the Cold War.

Pedagogically, I focus on presenting information in a scaffold approach to allow students to combine the building blocks of fact, theory, and critical thinking to practical application.  Also, because many of my students join my classes to meet a general education requirement, I want to start the framework with introductory details so that everyone can progress through the analysis at the same rate.  Therefore, once the discussion of North Korea’s behavior starts with me pulling up a global map and asking students about the Korean Peninsula’s physical characteristics, including its border lines, and what other countries are in the neighborhood.  One point I like to make is to look for straight lines, such as the Korean division at the 38th Parallel, or what William Easterly referred to in discussing the West’s colonial borders as “drunken parallelograms.”[21]  A straight line border that does not seem to match any obvious geographic feature is generally a clear indicator that the borders were not created by the people that live there.

In looking at North Korea specifically, as they look at the map, I provide some general information.  For instance, it’s useful to explain to students that North Korea is about half the size of the United Kingdom, and slightly larger than Virginia. The population of North Korea is about 25.6 million people, which is about half of that of South Korea, five times smaller than Japan, and is the 52nd largest country by population in the world.[22]  With China and Russia as the other close neighbors, it becomes clear that while North Korea is slightly larger in area than South Korea, it is smaller than all of its other neighbors, and it is substantially smaller in population than all of its neighbors.  Taken from a realist perspective, North Korea has few tangible measures of power, particularly within the Cold War context.  This is a good entry point to discuss why North Korean leaders would feel that it need a particularly strong security apparatus, including nuclear weapons.

The second level of the information scaffold is to discuss relationships within that region.  Here is where an introduction to the politics of the region can begin, including a brief discussion of the partition of the Korean peninsula during/after World War II which would result in the creation of North and South Korea.  The point that I make here is that North Korea would not exist if not for the competing ideological goals of the United States and Soviet Union.  Towards the end of World War II, as the Allied leaders, including the U.S. and Soviet Union, perhaps optimistically, planned for the defeat of Japan, they also planned what to do with Japan’s colonized territories.  As James Matray argues, “…the Soviet-American partition of Korea… was the direct outgrowth of the demise of the Grand Alliance and the emergence of the Cold War.”[23]  North Korea exists because the Soviets and Americans did not trust each other’s motives and global goals, and both considered the Korean Peninsula to have regional strategic value, which was the underpinning cause of the Korean War. 

The Korean War is another Cold War facet of North Korea’s nuclear ambition, and students are typically shocked to find out that the war has never officially ended.  The Korean War is an encapsulation of Cold War politics, and can be its own course, module, or lecture.  For the purpose of explaining the impact of the Cold War it is sufficient to emphasize the relationship of the U.S. with South Korea, the role of the U.S. in the war, and the subsequent U.S.-South Korea mutual defense agreement that included U.S. troops patrolling the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.[24] 

For the historical narrative part of the lesson I introduce some of the official documentation of the post-World War II agreements on the division of Korea which allows students to identify the lack of control Korea had on determining its own future.  As part of the battle against and then the surrender of Japan in 1945, the U.S. and Soviets moved their troops into the Korean peninsula to monitor the surrender of Japanese troops, and to act as trustees until such a time as Korea was capable of self-rule.[25]  The complex politics of Korea after the removal of Japanese rulers played in to the competition between the Soviets and the United States.[26] In 1947, the newly constituted United Nations issued a resolution that Korean elections should be held by 1948 to determine the form of their future government.  In spite of Soviet objections, the U.S.-supported government of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was officially announced in August of 1948 while the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; North Korea) was declared in September of the same year.[27]  Both governments also claimed to be the sole legitimate government of Korea, setting the stage for the Korean War.[28] 

After the new governments were established, the majority of the Soviet and U.S. troops left the peninsula, and shortly thereafter, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt at reunification by violence.  The U.S., with the approval of the United Nations, intervened on South Korea’s side, whereas the Soviets armed and nominally approved the initial invasion, and China provided troops to support the North.  The war lasted three years, with massive casualties: almost 1.5 million troops killed or injured for North Korea and China, and about 400,000 South Korean/UN/U.S. troops killed or injured.[29]  Immediately after the 1953 armistice suspending the fighting was agreed upon by all sides, the U.S. signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea and as part of this agreement provided some of the troops dedicated to maintaining South Korea’s security.[30]  The United States also agreed to participate in a United Nations command that to monitor the armistice agreement, which included monitoring the “military demarcation line” which is the official border between the two states, and patrolling the 150 mile long, 2.5 mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) that serves as buffer zone between North and South Korea.[31]  The alliances of China, which, by 1949, was under control of the Communist Party of Mao Zedong, and the Soviet Union, with North Korea, and the U.S. alliance with South Korea, solidified the Cold War politics of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s leader, Kim Il Sung, would, in the 1960s, cemented this division by convincing both the Soviet Union and China to sign “mutual assistance” treaties with North Korea to come to their aid should another war break out.[32]  When discussing the spheres of influence created after the Korean War, I emphasize that the ‘nuclear umbrella’ of the U.S. over South Korea and Japan and North Korea’s reliance on the Soviet and later China’s nuclear protections framed North Korea’s perceptions of security in the region.

Even as Soviet and China would have waxing and waning relations with each other over the course of the Cold War, North Korea managed to ensure both of their support.  This also guaranteed that the U.S., which was profoundly concerned about the potential spread of communism, would view North Korea as a Cold War threat.  And as one theorist put it shortly after the beginning of the Korean War, “…Korea has forcibly demonstrated to the free world the fact that there must be no further power vacuums into which the forces of Communist aggression can move with impunity.”[33]

At this point in the explanation, students are hopefully beginning to understand the ideological battles that shaped, in fact created, North Korea and South Korea.  Similarly, if North (and South) Korea are described as being surrounded by large actors who were focused primarily on their own goals rather than local interests, their precarious experience may become clearer.  North and South Korea were born out of other states’ interests, and their animosity for each other was a direct result of external players.  But those same outside actors that created the Korean divide, also directly or indirectly influenced the approach North and South Korea would take in developing their own identities and attitudes toward international relations.  South Korea had a little more freedom, as it had defense assistance at hand, and U.S. and Japanese assistance in rebuilding its infrastructure after the war and helping develop their governance systems.[34] For North Korea, Kim Il-sung was the creator of North Korea’s policies which relied heavily on Communist revolutionary thought, and in the process created his family’s authoritarian dynasty.  North Korea’s economic policies under Kim Il-sung meant that their economy was almost exclusively facilitated by trade with its communist allies, particularly the Soviet Union and its satellite states.[35] This was a much more economically limiting policy than South Korea, and therefore North Korea’s economic development lagged well behind its southern neighbor.

The emphasis for students here should be that North and South Korea continued their antagonism over the Cold War, and always with the U.S. as an active observer.  The creation story of North Korea, its authoritarian leadership, its antagonistic relationship with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan, and its internal policies that led to economic reliance on Communist allies while working to defend itself are all direct results of the Cold War.  And it was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, that led directly to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. 

The Soviet Union, in its waning days, had slowly begun to reduce or eliminate aid to countries it had previous supported, including North Korea, which caused North Korea’s economy to collapse, resulting in a massive famine.  [36]  At this point, one of the only things that North Korea could rally its citizens around was its military prowess.  And it began this process by focusing on developing its own nuclear weapons.  The first nuclear crisis between North Korea and the U.S. erupted in 1993 when North Korea refused to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities and announced its intention to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).[37]  The U.S. and North Korea then engaged in negotiations where the U.S. agreed to provide a significant amount of aid to North Korea so long as North Korea would agree to “freeze” its nuclear program and stay in the NPT.[38]  North Korea had lost its primary supporter with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it had begun to suffer economically while also beginning to focus on unilateral self-defense against the United States.

The end of the Cold War offered the possibility of reduced tensions with North Korea, through diplomacy, economic aid, a reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea or in the region, or some combination of these that would help alleviate North Korea’s security concerns and economic difficulties.  Instead, the U.S., continued on their previous path, and then exacerbated North Korea’s security concerns when President George W. Bush gave his now infamous “axis of evil” speech, calling out North Korea, and warning that, “[T]he United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”[39] Following this, North Korea again announced it would leave the NPT, putting the blame squarely on the United States and its  “anti-DPRK hostile policy” as the reason for their abandonment of the treaty.[40] North Korea would then conduct its first nuclear weapons test in 2006. 

U.S. – North Korea relations, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and more broadly North Korea’s behavior and threat perceptions cannot be explained without the context of the Cold War.  When explaining this scenario to my students, and providing them even this limited timeline of events, I will then re-issue my original discussion question, “why does North Korea have nuclear weapons?”  The students will now have a better understanding of the security environment that North Korea faced during and after the Cold War, and very often students are surprised that more countries didn’t develop nuclear weapons during this era.  And once they start wondering about why other countries did not develop nuclear weapons, I can introduce the other ways that countries were impacted by the Cold War – the decolonization experiences, the giving and taking of foreign aid, the development of international law, and so on.  The students now look to the past to help frame the present and the future, and hopefully look at events from viewpoints other than a U.S.-centric perspective.  In this way, I can teach the impact of the Cold War and make it relevant to current events while also emphasizing critical and complex thinking and analysis.



Although I have no personal memories of the Cold War, I was introduced to it at a young age.  My father was born in 1940 in New York City and grew up as a “red diaper baby”; his parents, though not card-carrying Communists themselves, ran in the same circles and fought for many of the same causes.  Stories from his youth were inevitably tied up with the Cold War: the terrors of the McCarthy era, school-issued dog tags to identify bodies after a nuclear attack, the Vietnam War.  I suspect that the explanations he gave me as context for these stories differed slightly from the lessons my peers learned.

It was only in the last few years that I realized how recent many of the events he described were.  If the Cold War felt distant even to me, despite my father’s frequent stories, it is certainly ancient history to most of my current students—many of whom can only give vague answers to questions about the causes of the United States’ current conflicts.  It can be challenging enough to ensure that students understand even the more immediate historical context for recent world events.  Does it make sense to continue to use events from the Cold War for so many of our examples of international relations theories and concepts, especially when there may be more contemporary and personal historical events on which to draw?  What should we still teach students about the Cold War?  How can we make these lessons feel personal, interesting, and relevant?

My approach to using the Cold War in the classroom follows from my broader pedagogical preference for encouraging students to identify nuance, think critically, and question assumptions.  These skills are arguably the bedrock of any liberal arts education.  For my students—cadets at the United States Military Academy—though, they serve an additional purpose.  Military environments are particularly conducive to groupthink, so learning how to evaluate contemporary orthodoxy is fundamental for building skills that enable strategic and tactical innovation.  Otherwise, they risk providing military advice that is based not on informed analysis but on organizational preferences and accepted wisdom.  In addition, these young men and women will soon be in command of dozens of soldiers, many of whom are their age or younger, who will look to them for guidance and mentorship.  They will be in much the same position then as I am now, with a similar responsibility to provide answers and context to tough questions—especially the inevitable ones about the American role in the world.

To these ends, it is particularly instructive to view Cold War history through the lens of what Cynthia Weber describes as international relations mythology: the simplified rendering of a particular worldview into an apparent and universal truth, regardless of its basis in facts.[42] It is not merely good practice at critical thinking to deconstruct and interrogate American Cold War mythologies.  These narratives contribute to the foundational assumptions of many common arguments in international relations theories (for example, bipolarity as a stable system) and underpin justifications for contemporary American foreign policy.  Having an accurate understanding of the events on which these arguments often rely for evidence is necessary if we are to evaluate their utility and policy implications.  This is especially important given how often today’s foreign policy debates rely on Cold War analogies for justification.  Students must consider how these stylized facts about the Cold War and their relationship to key concepts in international relations theories can shape our beliefs about the American role in the world.  And of course, explanations for why some facts contribute to national myths while others are discarded can be a valuable lesson in the creation and uses of power.

To many people in the United States, there is a relatively straightforward and pervasive narrative that describes the Cold War as a just struggle by global forces of freedom and liberalism against the tyranny of communism.[43] The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War reinforced this view, painting American policy as necessarily just, effective, and inevitable.  This description of Cold War competition and its outcome has influenced modern understanding of much of American foreign policy.  However, students of international relations must learn to recognize the extent to which this conception is based not on objective historical fact but on socially constructed mythmaking—indeed, it would be better for all students to learn to interrogate received wisdom about American and world history.  Otherwise, they risk basing their foreign policy views on faulty historical analogies.

Take, for example, the recurring trope of the “liberal international order,” which I have covered during introductory courses in both international relations and grand strategy.  Any undergraduate who is interested in international relations has undoubtedly come across the concept of international order at some point, whether in the classroom, in friendly conversations with peers, or in the news.  Although the ideas that informed the construction of this order have earlier roots, its key institutions—NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank—are inseparable from the history of early Cold War competition.  It is not surprising then, that the future of the international order has become a particularly hot topic in recent years, as many commentators have questioned its ability to address a very different international contemporary environment.[44] How can students make sense of such an important political debate without knowing that order’s origins, the purposes it has been meant to serve, and what it has actually accomplished?

At face value, the liberal international order fits nicely into American Cold War orthodoxy: the United States led a benign effort to provide security and stability against an imperialist Soviet Union, to which Western states essentially consented.  New students of international relations are likely to be familiar only with this popular, idealized narrative.  They are less likely to have learned about the often coercive and decidedly non-beneficent ways that the United States enforced this order, to include the frequent support of starkly illiberal and undemocratic governments.[45] Similarly, this narrative also tends to leave out the racialized consequences of the Cold War competition over global order, both at home and abroad, and—not unrelatedly—overstates the extent of domestic consensus and ideological unity.  By ignoring these aspects of Cold War history and instead focusing on the triumphal narrative of the liberal order, we risk downplaying the costs and limitations of what American power can achieve in the world.

This can also expose students to how people in other countries experienced the Cold War.  An undergraduate education is an opportunity for students to broaden their horizons.  While teaching the international relations of the Cold War may not be the most direct way to gain such cross-cultural competencies, there is no reason that it cannot contribute to it.  Such lessons can be an important lesson in humility, and a reminder that episodes that are peripheral in the American story of the Cold War—the Suez Crisis, interventions in Latin America—had major consequences for people elsewhere.  Thus, demythologizing the Cold War can help level the playing field when American students interact with their peers from other countries, who may have been taught very different things about their relationship to the United States.  For classrooms with international students, this can make individuals who have less familiarity with American Cold War narratives more comfortable, by including perspectives that might be closer to the narratives they know from home.  For the future army officers in my classrooms, this can also form the basis of valuable relationships with international partner militaries, and prevent uncomfortable misunderstandings about the history of the American role in the world. 

A more nuanced understanding of the Cold War can also help students confront emerging myths about contemporary American foreign policy.  Consider, for example, the perennially popular debates about the future of NATO—a key feature of the Cold War order.  Students today might be most familiar with a perspective that paints the alliance as hopelessly outdated and a leach on American resources.  While students may still conclude that these are valid critiques, their arguments will be less persuasive if they fail to address why the alliance is outdated and what purposes NATO serves.  For this, they must reckon with whether the alliance’s Cold War origins, not just as a bulwark against the Soviet Union but also as a mechanism to keep Americans invested in Europe, remain relevant.  This latter point—a reminder that the United States gains much from its investments in alliances and partnerships around the world—can easily be forgotten in an increasingly isolationist or retrenchment-minded political climate. 

The goal in this particular example is not, of course, to encourage students to accept the continued utility of all Cold War institutions. On the contrary, it is to give them the tools to come to their own, well-supported conclusions, rather than to simply accept common talking points.  The point is not that the Cold War international order must be protected, or even whether it really existed; it is that only a nuanced understanding of Cold War history can provide the vital context to help students make the right comparisons to come to informed decisions about their current policy preferences. 

This relates to the last point I will make, which is that laying bare mythologies and questioning assumptions—whether modern or historical—allows us to determine not just what lessons we can learn from the Cold War, but whether the Cold War even offers the right lessons.  As international relations scholars and practitioners increasingly turn their attention toward great power competition, the Cold War has been a natural place to look for analogies.[46] As Alexandra Evans points out, though, relying on only one case as a point of comparison can blind us to new and creative approaches to problem-solving.[47]

A simplistic account of the Cold War as extended competition between two superpowers may appear to be a plausible analogy for the emerging relationship between the United States and China.  However, international relations theories urge us to take a more nuanced approach to the positions of and relationship between the superpowers in each of these cases.  From the interdependence of economies, their relative positions as rising and declining powers, and the number and diversity of global institutions, ideologies, and norms, there are a variety of factors that should lead us to question whether the Cold War is the best analogy on which to base our predictions for the future of great power competition.

Far from making the Cold War obsolete, though, this only underscores the need to ensure that students have a firm grasp of its nuances.  There is no other way for students to identify the ways in which it might be an inappropriate analogy.  The policy implications of not recognizing this can be stark: to paraphrase Evans, if the Cold War teaches us that the United States can contain China without a direct military confrontation, a different case of great power competition—the Franco-German rivalry—offers a very different lesson.[48] Ideally, instructors who want to prepare students to understand great power competition should focus on the Cold War as only one of any number of different cases of great power competition or extended rivalry.  This allows students to compare how international relations theories hold up in the presence of different variables, and which ones seem to hold the most water: a sort of introduction to research design and argumentation.

I like to use Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as the study of “who gets what, when, how” (though I usually add why).[49] By extension, I view international relations, broadly, as the study of politics across borders.  The Cold War has played an undeniable role in explaining the distribution of many interesting international outcomes of today’s world, so it seems only natural that we continue to teach it.  The alternative is to leave our students’ understanding of the Cold War to what they might absorb through national myths and popular media; in other words, to leave them with an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the context and origins of much of today’s world.  There may come a time when more recent or relevant events limit the relevance of the Cold War, but that day is only likely to come if the next generation of policymakers, strategists, and voters has a firm grasp of what they should first learn from the Cold War.



I teach not in the United States or Europe but in a Southeast Asian corner of the post-colonial world.  This location shapes how I teach the Cold War.

Following Odd Arne Westad, my vantage point sees the Cold War not as a struggle between two great twentieth century superpowers pivoted on Europe, but as a global conflict that involved the political, social, and cultural transformation of the emerging decolonized world.[50] The Third World – a swathe of formerly colonized and semi-colonized territories in Asia, Africa, and Latin America– was not just a “hot” theatre where the superpowers sublimated their contest with proxy wars. It was also a zone dynamically linked to the ideological motivations of Cold Warriors (think of the archetypal Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”),[51] domestic contention in Cold War metropoles (student protests and the fallout from the Pentagon Papers), and indeed the fates and endgames of superpower competition as well (Afghanistan and Soviet imperial overstretch).

Likewise, this location allows me to view the Cold War not as a clear break from pre-1945 European politics, but as a transmutation of the late European colonial era.  Westad is once again instructive: the Cold War, he argues, “was a continuation of colonialism through slightly different means.”[52] The Cold Warriors of the twentieth century were strikingly similar in their motivations to the colonial functionaries of late nineteenth century who articulated civilizing discourses of various stripes to rid Third World peoples of ignorance and midwife their societies into modernity. What was “slightly different,” however, was that European “imperialism got its social consciousness almost as an afterthought,” while the Cold War zeal to improve and control Third World peoples was central to the ideological struggles between the capitalist and communist heirs of the European Enlightenment.[53]

A third consequence of this vantage point is an appreciation of the distinct (and possibly unique) consequences of the Cold War for the Third World: that the Cold War intersected with and shaped the outcomes of decolonization struggles and early state formation in the New States.  External Cold War backers (the Americans, Soviets, Chinese) tilted the balance of power in domestic struggles for decolonization in favor of their local collaborators, helping them emerge as triumphant ruling groups.  With continued patronage through the Cold War, these ruling groups would erect durable political landscapes where oppositional figures and ideologically inspired politics that were reminiscent of an older age of contestation were marginalized if not rooted out altogether. On account of sheer complicity, how the Cold War is remembered and forgotten – through history textbooks, official speeches, and shared organizational memories – remains a deeply political matter. 

In sum, the intellectual view of the Cold War that I share and explore with my students is one where the Cold War is a profoundly global story featuring Third World transformations; of the (tragic) neo-colonialism of two great anti-colonial projects in the twentieth century; and the enduring politics (with acts of depoliticization and the threatening spectre of repoliticization) of how the Cold War is remembered, taught, and discussed in scholarship and in the public sphere.

While this vantage point enables a different perspective, it is also runs up against a particular configuration of power and knowledge that shapes the ground I stand upon. In this case, my students and I stand on the solidly capitalist flank of Cold War Southeast Asia that emerged as a staunch anti-Communist, pro-West, and conservative bulwark against revolution during the Cold War – a bulwark which historian Wen Qing Ngoei calls a geostrategic “arc of containment” that reined in the Vietnamese revolution and encircled China.[54] 

This means that I have three pedagogical tasks cut out for me as I teach a course on the International Relations of Southeast Asia, where the three Indochina Wars take centre stage.  These pedagogical tasks include: helping students overcome Cold War caricatures of heroes and villains; encouraging them to comprehend the impact of the Cold War in shaping Third World politics and their lifeworlds; and enabling them to appreciate the politics of remembering and memorializing the Cold War.

Sparking Interest and Overcoming Caricature

The first pedagogical task is to make the Cold War interesting for a generation of undergraduates who were born after the end of the Cold War.  If the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War) was the crucible that shaped the lifelong intellectual and political commitments of a generation of political scientists, historians, and IR scholars in the U.S. and Southeast Asia; and if the fall of the Berlin Wall was an experiential link for a new generation of students and scholars working in an era of post-Cold War American hyper-power; then there is no such association forged in lived experience for the current generation of students who are studying the Cold War. This is a distant, solidly twentieth-century conflict with little bearing on their everyday lives.

A tool I use to initiate undergraduates to the Cold War is to make them recognize the link between their savvy technologically mediated everyday world with an older era of technological innovation and competition – the Space Race.  It was the scientific triumphs of that era that paved the way for the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Google Maps, solar cells, freeze dried food, mobile phones, laptops, memory foam, infrared thermometers, wireless headsets, and many other contemporary marvels.

After linking their smartphones and the satellites that orbit the planet, I probe what my students know of the Space Race.  I flash an image of the Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin before them. Almost always, I patiently wait out an incorrect reference to Neil Armstrong before a lone student offers the correct answer. I proceed to underscore – with some incredulity – this remarkable gap in their otherwise impressive general knowledge of the world: that they do not know (or have not heard of) the very first of our species to have travelled to outer space, orbited the Earth, and returned to tell the tale.

This serves as an entry point to ask another question: who actually won the Space Race?  For undergraduates born in the post-Cold War shadow of American power and Hollywood-centred popular culture, it comes as a surprise that the answer to this question is open to some debate. There is some visible amazement when students learn that a slew of great milestones in outer space exploration – the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first mammal in space, the first spacewalk, the first space station, etc., – were Soviet, not American triumphs, and that it would take more than decade of catch-up before the Americans set men on the moon and claimed the Space Race for themselves. To students, it becomes readily apparent how the remarkable technological feats of the Space Race were of enormous scientific and cultural significance for the two superpowers as they sought to demonstrate the superiority of their models of social organization before domestic and international audiences.

I also use the Space Race to have students engage in an act of brief role taking: to imagine the generation of their grandparents – as youths in university and schools –– reading about Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, and Laika in newspapers, radio, and in classrooms.  (This is inspired in the style of Pankaj Mishra’s evocative rendering of how the news of Japan’s victory over Russia moved like a sensational ripple across elite and popular imagination in the colonies during the summer of 1905).[55]

By way of such defamiliarization and role play I encourage students to reappraise the past and overcome caricatures that were crafted under the weight of official histories.  As Natasha Hamilton-Hart describes in her survey of official histories of the Cold War and U.S. power in Southeast Asia, accounts with political blessings often color left-leaning politicians, intellectuals, and activists in the damning adjectival brush strokes of “radical,” “militant,” and “subversive,” thereby delegitimizing these intellectual strands and stripping these anti-colonial historical figures of motivation, rationale, and agency.[56] 

I use role play for students to enable them to recognize how the competition of the Cold War in the immediate post-war era was not a foregone conclusion (as it appears from their current temporal standpoint) but was an uncertain, unfolding, and indeed exciting race.  During this period following decolonization, a new generation of youth and youthful political elites were drawn to socialism in both its Fabian Socialist and radical strands as they aspired to modernize their societies on the basis of social justice. The was an era of political ferment before salutary lessons were registered from the descent of Third World Communisms into Stalinism, the catastrophic failure of the Cultural Revolution, and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Shaping Post-Colonial Life-Worlds

A second task is to help students recognize the weight of the past on the present: not just the smartphones that are tucked into their pockets but also the social and political landscapes they inhabit and have come to take for granted.

A useful technique is to split students into small groups and ask them to identify a contemporary domestic or foreign policy issue in Southeast Asia that interests them.  This could range from outbursts of anti-Chinese xenophobia in neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia, and the recurrent Red Scares in Indonesia, to Rodrigo Duterte’s foul-mouthed efforts to break the Philippines’ alliance with the United States, and demonstrations against the military junta and monarchy in Thailand.

Without discounting the role of postcolonial elites and their failures, I ask students to carefully evaluate the significance of colonialism and the Cold War in producing these problems.  Invariably, students recognize how the thread of late European colonialism continued into post-colonial afterlives under Cold War geopolitical imperatives.

For example, students come to recognize that while anti-Chinese xenophobia in modern day Malaysia and Indonesia was unmistakably fostered under British and Dutch colonial plural society arrangements (among other things, the British and Dutch cultivated the immigrant Chinese communities as a pariah capitalist class and classified them as “Foreign Orientals”).[57] But these prejudices were also allowed to blossom into racially charged anti-Chinese nationalisms with the support of Western Cold War patrons who viewed diasporic Chinese communities as a third column in the service of revolutionary China.[58]

Similarly, students come to recognize how the contemporary political landscapes of Southeast Asian states have much to do with Cold War regimes of intervention.  Specifically, they see how Cold War intervention intersected with decolonization struggles in the colonies and created winners and losers –– from the U.S. empowerment of the military and the monarchy in Thailand, and the ascendance of the military in Indonesian politics, to the enthroning of oligarchs in post-war Filipino politics, the triumph of the Communist Party in Vietnam with Chinese and Soviet backing, and the managed decolonization in favor of conservative political parties in British ruled Malaya and Singapore.

Besides intersecting with decolonization struggles, students appreciate how the shadow of the Cold War extended into early state formation: from present day legislation inspired by Cold War rationales (Indonesia’s legal proscription of the Left and Singapore’s 1966 Punishment for Vandalism Bill)[59] to the extraordinary U.S. spending boom the emerged from the Vietnam war and that spurred rapid economic growth and strengthened anti-Communist authoritarian regimes in Island Southeast Asia.[60]

The Politics of Remembering the Cold War

The third pedagogical task is to induce students to reflect on official memorializations and official amnesias surrounding the Cold War.  This involves not just problematizing official narratives of “heroes” and “villains.” It also involves interrogating lesser-known aspects of the Cold War and asking aloud the conditions of possibility for these silences.

The exemplary case for such an investigation – especially when situated in anti-Communist Southeast Asia – is the Third Indochina War.  This is not a particularly well known or clearly understood conflict among undergraduates. And to be fair, the Third Indochina War was a complicated affair.

The first two Indochina wars were fought along the neat Communist versus capitalist fault lines of the “first phase” of the Cold War – Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) fought the French in the first war and then went on to battle (with Chinese and Soviet backing) the Americans and Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnam in the second.

These neat ideological fault lines disappear by the 1970s with the utter breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations, rapprochement between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the deterioration of U.S.-Soviet détente.  Consequently, the Third Indochina War involves a perplexing re-alignment of friends and foes: arrayed against Vietnam and the Soviet Union was a de facto alliance of the U.S., China, Khmer Rouge-led Cambodia, and capitalist Southeast Asia (embodied by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN).

There is also the complexity of multiple scales to this War: an Indochina scale (Vietnam and Cambodia); an Asian scale (Vietnam and China); and a global scale (the Sino-Soviet split and U.S.-China rapprochement).  And if this were not enough, the Third Indochina War and its many sub-plots (two invasions, a decade of occupation, and the UN’s first transitional administration over a state) are often overwhelmed by the horrific genocide by the Khmer Rouge that eliminated a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

It turns out that clarifying the conflict is the easier task.  The more complicated business involves wading through the selective ways in which this War is narrated and memorialized in the establishment histories and practitioners’ memoirs.

Of course, no one can deny that the racist and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was an abomination in human history.  A close scrutiny of the War discloses for students a hitherto poorly recognized relationship of association and collaboration between the Khmer Rouge and capitalist Southeast Asia/ASEAN. Such was the realpolitik of the Third Indochina War that capitalist Southeast Asian governments (individually and via the collective diplomacy of ASEAN) offered a lifeline by which the Khmer Rouge survived for more than a decade.

Through ASEAN’s successful diplomacy (which is often hailed in official and scholarly appraisals as ASEAN’s highest diplomatic achievement), the Khmer Rouge retained the seat of Cambodia in the United Nations until 1982.  Thereafter, it remained a political player through the 1980s as it became member to a Cambodian government in exile that was also cobbled by ASEAN states.[61] Further, individual governments in the region – China and Thailand, in particular – armed and fed the Khmer Rouge resistance and contributed to Cambodia’s civil war for a decade.[62]

To be sure, ASEAN’s diplomats recall having abhorred the actions of the Khmer Rouge,[63] but they also advanced two core justifications to rationalize their Cambodia policy, and which continue to be advanced until recently. The first is that the Vietnamese invasion was a violation of the United Nations’ principle of non-interference and the non-use of force, and that this had to be repudiated; the second holds that Vietnam was an inveterately aggressive, ambitious, and expansionary state with ambitions for Indochinese hegemony.

Recent historical scholarship challenges and unsettles these claims. On the point of ASEAN’s defence of the principle of non-interference, Lee Jones persuasively shows how ASEAN’s campaign against the Vietnam regime was “unusual” insofar as ASEAN states had acquiesced to other regime changes and acts of intervention in the Third World: from Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in 1975 (with a brief moment of objection by Singapore), Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda in 1979, French overthrow of the Central African Empire’s government in 1978, and even the Soviet invasion of  Afghanistan in 1979. As Jones observes “ASEAN’s states highly selective responses to interventions illustrates that they were motivated less by any “cherished principle” than the specific implications of Vietnam’s invasion for their own societies.[64] Deepening these domestic fears were concerns of Vietnam doubling up a proxy for Soviet influence in Southeast Asia.

On the second justification, recent historical scholarship problematizes the notion that Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was impelled by its aggressive ambitions for Indochinese hegemony. Instead, the picture that emerges is of Vietnamese Communists’ alarm at the raising paranoia and border violence by their Cambodian comrades. Christopher Goscha writes in fine-grained detail of the slow and disquieting process through the early 1970s by which Vietnamese Communists came to register the paranoia of Khmer purity and perfect sovereignty in the acts of their Cambodian counterparts.[65] Ben Kiernan has meticulously documented evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s border raids with Vietnam which preceded the invasion of December 1978.[66]

Indeed, the most recent and systematic effort at weighing the causes of the Third Indochina War offers a causal claim as stark as a historian can offer – “it is impossible,” writes Odd Arne Westad, “to construct an argument about avoiding the Third Indochina War that does not include an alternative way for destroying the Khmer Rouge state in Cambodia.”[67]

By assigning new scholarship from the field of diplomatic history, I encourage students to pay close attention to what we remember and what we overlook from the Cold War. The aim here is not to not to paint a Machiavellian portrait of practitioners from the past. Students of foreign policy are well aware of how foreign policy actors often perform under conditions of high uncertainty and limited information, and in ways that amplify the consequences of their confirmation biases and selective analogies. Rather, the aim is to interrogate how official narratives remain hegemonic despite the corpus of new historical evidence and new histories that offer different interpretations of our Cold War pasts.



The Cold War usually serves two well-worn roles for lectures or seminars in the United States. The first is to provide the context for discussing other critical topics in International Relations theory, such as the stability of the bipolar system and the origins of nuclear deterrence. The second is to evaluate how global competition changed U.S. foreign policy, such as the birth of the modern U.S. national security state, the importance of ideological commitments, and so on. As an International Relations scholar, I recognize that analyzing the period from 1947 to 1989 is certainly useful for those sorts of lessons. As someone who lived in Russia for a number of years, however, I am even more sensitive to what the Cold War can also demonstrate: by distinguishing between the events of 1989 (the end of the Cold War) and 1991 (the end of the Soviet Union), the strategic misunderstanding between the United States and Russia that defines Russia’s core grievance with the contemporary international order can be identified and used to illustrate both the theory and practice of hierarchy in international relations.[68] In effect, this distinction between 1989 and 1991 provides the context to discuss the definition of “great power competition” they won’t find in the National Security Strategy.[69]

The Cold War and Great Power Competition

The first additional consideration of what the Cold War could provide in a pedagogical setting is to think about how it applies to great power competition. Perhaps the most elastic phrase in contemporary discussions over the purpose of U.S. grand strategy, numerous definitions of “great power competition” abound.[70] Generally speaking, the current debate emerges from a common set of observations: U.S. power has declined relative to the “unipolar moment” in the 1990s when its political, security, and economic models appeared beyond reproach;[71] China has emerged as a peer competitor in material terms;[72] and internal and external challenges have eroded the liberal components of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.[73]

In identifying these sources of current international competition between great powers, I then pose the challenge to students to explain the Cold War using a contemporary mindset. At that point, the Cold War is simpler to explain: The United States and the Soviet Union armed themselves to the teeth in preparation for World War III, developed hierarchical orders with subordinate states in order to amass allies through extended deterrence and generate interdependence through common economic trading systems ahead of that next big conflict, and propagandized their own populations over the terror and privation endured by citizens in the other camp. Simple statistics on military capabilities and a few Soviet images depicting the horrors of capitalist life in the United States alongside a few American images depicting the horrors of Communist life in the Soviet Union usually suffice for the first and third points.

It is the second point on hierarchy and alliances where I delve deepest into how the Cold War emerged, what it meant, and why its institutions still exist long after the Soviet Union dissolved. I center this discussion on two works: John Ikenberry’s After Victory and David Lake’s Hierarchy in International Relations.[74] Ikenberry argues that the origin of any particular international order begins from the conclusion of the previous great power war, such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or World War II. The settlement of the previous great power war commences the next cycle of international politics by defining the great powers of the international system, their power relative to each other, and the rules that govern their interactions. Great powers are identified as those states that are able to impose foreign policy decisions upon others and to resist the impositions of others; they’re “makers” of the international order with other states being “takers” of international order.[75] What distinguishes international order from mere power politics is the thicket of political, economic, and security institutions put in place by the winners of the previous conflict that incorporates the losing states of that conflict into the international order. When winners generate institutions that restrain themselves, they reduce the consequences of defeat and ensure buy-in from the losers. Conversely, when winners generate institutions that do not constrain themselves, they increase the consequences of defeat and incentivize resistance from the losers.

At that point, I show the logos or pictures of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the Marshall Plan, and the Soviet analogue called the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) to show the point visually. Neither Portugal or Bulgaria were dictating outcomes to the United States or the Soviet Union, but their active acquiesce and participation in the U.S. and Soviet-led orders were critical to the great power aspirations of their respective hierarchs. I go into the various order-building efforts the United States pursued to create positive-sum interdependence that its allies could accept alongside the security order provided by the United States that relied heavily on those allies ceding substantial amounts of sovereignty.

Contra canonical Realist assumptions of states jealously guarding their sovereignty,[76] Lake argues that hierarchical relations are bargained relationships between the dominant state that provides services such as order, security, governance, and economic opportunity to subordinate states in return for compliance. In going over the bases of hierarchy that created the robust Western alliance against the Warsaw Pact, I take the most time to show that this was a pain in the neck to all involved: the relational social contract in which rights, obligations, and even sovereignty itself were manifold, distinguishable, and divisible took a lot of time and effort to keep together, leading the Soviets to spend much of their own energy and resources to try and weaken the political unity of that bloc.

The big reveal to the students, then, is when I display the Composite Index of National Capabilities (CINC) data between the United States and Soviet Union. On a bilateral basis, the Soviet Union overtook the United States in the 1970s, so I ask the class, “Why did this not result in American capitulation to Soviet demands?” I answer the rhetorical question by showing the same CINC data of the aggregated U.S. and Soviet blocs, which clearly shows that the Soviet bloc never came anywhere close to the Western bloc. That is the big takeaway for what “won” the Cold War: the alliance held firm and once Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made the decision not to use the Red Army to maintain allied socialist governments around the Soviet bloc that were draining Soviet coffers, they all fell.

My larger point to the students is that great power competition comprised of great power getting ready for war with one another and trying to create the deepest and widest possible alliances is not something that was invented in the last few years, but is just the nature of international politics. The last great war ends, leaving the winners to figure out what rules will govern interactions among themselves, what rules will govern their interactions with smaller states, and how and why they will convince their own populations that spending money on military, diplomatic, and foreign aid capabilities is worth any cuts to domestic consumption. The Cold War was just one iteration of that.

The Cold War and Russian Grievances

From late 2011 to 2016, I lived in Moscow, first as a doctoral student researching how booms and busts in the energy market shaped Soviet and Russian foreign policy,[77] and then as an assistant professor in the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics.[78] I moved to Moscow right as the “tandemocracy” of Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were returning to their original positions,[79] restoring Putin to his preferred place at the top of the system and causing the streets to swell with protesters angry at their exclusion from the basic task of selecting their country’s leaders.[80] The open disappointment by Western leaders that Medvedev and his relatively less confrontational approach to international affairs would be replaced by Putin presaged event after event in subsequent years that mined new lows in Russia’s relations with the West.[81] Western commentary during this period openly wondered whether “Russia wants to fight a new Cold War” and asserted confidently that “Russia is back as a revisionist power.”[82] From my Russian colleagues, however, the singular refrain was that all blame could be placed on the United States: America was the true revisionist actor in the international system because it violated the understanding reached in December 1989 by President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev at the Malta Summit that ended the Cold War while Russia, on the other hand, was vainly trying to maintain the status quo represented by the Malta Summit.

Obviously, blaming others for your own actions is gaslighting, but the logic used by Russian policymakers, scholars, and commentators revealed the sources of contemporary Russian grand strategy: namely, making the world look more like 1989 than 1991. From the Russian perspective, the Malta Summit represented a suitable conclusion to the Cold War and its ideological competition by acknowledging American primacy as the basis for a new international order. Gorbachev and Bush did not develop an institutional structure or sign any binding agreements at that meeting, but the contours of a new era were clear from their discussion: (1) The Soviet Union is in one place, the NATO countries are in another, and a buffer zone of non-aligned states lie in between them; (2) through its size and military power, the Soviet Union would retain a veto role in the international and European security architecture; and (3) it would expect and accept Western support in its redevelopment away from Stalinism as the effective compensation for reducing international tension.

We all know how the rest of the story played out from 1989 onwards. Instead of the Soviet Union and the United States working hand-in-hand to govern international affairs, the Soviet Union ceased to exist two years later. When Gorbachev gave up suzerainty over the Warsaw Pact, this activated latent nationalist feelings in the “internal empire,” the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union that had been conquered decades or even centuries earlier by the. Add to that the adoption of market-oriented reforms that removed the central role of the Communist Party in determining economic outcomes alongside permitting greater openness in society, and the hardliners attempted to remove Gorbachev from power to try and beat back the waves. The August 1991 coup failed, but Boris Yeltsin dealt the final blow to the Soviet Union by working with his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts to remove their republics from the Soviet Union that December. Without those three republics and the others that had already declared their independence, merely two years after Gorbachev left Malta thinking he had remade international relations, the USSR collapsed.

By going over the details of the steps between December 1989 and December 1991, I outline the chasm between American and Russian perceptions of the era. In the United States scholars look at that era as one big period of peace, democratization, and, not to put too fine of a point on it, Western victory. For the Russians, the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union are two very different events. They want to live in the post-Cold War universe of being a recognized great power in the top echelon of states, but they actually live in the post-Soviet universe of trying to assert their great power status through reconstituting as much of a sphere of influence as possible. The international order briefly glimpsed in 1989 and the importance of stressing the end of the Cold War are not to suggest a return to the Soviet Union or that era’s superpower competition but a world that cannot run effectively without Russia. Vladimir Putin’s key political argument, and the source of his longevity for twenty years and counting, is that he is the only person able to make the world look more like 1989 instead of 1991 and restore Russia to its rightful place in international politics as one of the few leading powers responsible for regional and international security. Identifying this grievance as the organizing principle of Russian grand strategy then illuminates contemporary Russian domestic politics and foreign policy: it is simple enough for the entire society to accept, clear enough for the bureaucracy to organize and implement policy, and conveniently enough takes decades to accomplish. This grievance, its sources, and its outcomes then bring together all the necessary components of thinking about Russia and great power competition: how Russia wants to revise the international order, how Putin is able to rule indefinitely, and how the unwillingness or inability of American policymakers to address this grievance drives confrontation between the two states and Russia’s outreach to China.


[1] An acronym for Osnovy Bezopasnosti Zhiznedeyatelnosti – Foundations of Livelihood Security.

[2] According to my father, the joke version of the algorithm used to be the following: cover yourself with a sheet and crawl slowly in the direction away from the explosion towards the cemetery.  Why slowly?  So as not to create panic.

[3] The Late Show with Steven Colbert “Are Russian Hackers Targeting American Voters?,” August 31, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qG2Eylvwxg

[4] TASS, “O chem govoril Vladimir Putin na plenarnykh zasedaniyakh PMEF, [What did Vladimir Putin talk about during the plenary sessions at SPIEF],” TASS, June 4, 2021, https://tass.ru/info/11547267.

[5] MGIMO, “41-y prezident SSHA Dzh.  Bush [41st President of the United States George Bush],” May 23, 2005, https://mgimo.ru/about/news/visits/142724/.

[6] One of the most common handbooks was Professor Alexey Bogaturov’s Systemic History of International Relations (Moscow: Moskovskyi Rabochiy, 2004).  The edition I had was for 1945-2000, but there are several updated versions, the most recent one covering the events up until 2018.

[7] Yuval Weber, “Are We in a Cold War or Not?  1989, 1991, and Great Power Dissatisfaction,” E-IR, March 7, 2015, http://www.e-ir.info/2016/03/07/are-we-in-a-cold-war-or-not-1989-1991-and-great-power-dissatisfaction/.

[8] I thought it would be more entertaining to make an eighteenth -century gossip column out of the summit coverage for the Duck of Minerva blog https://www.duckofminerva.com/2021/06/putin-biden-summit-but-make-it-an-18th-century-gossip-column.html

[9] Laura Hood “Reagan and Gorbachev offer a script for Biden-Putin summit”, The Conversation, June 16, 2021 https://theconversation.com/reagan-and-gorbachev-offer-a-script-for-biden-putin-summit-162872

[10] Semyuel Hantington, “Stolknoveniye ivilizatsiy?.” Polis, Politicheskiye issledovaniya 1 (1994): 33-48.

[11] Frensis Fukuyama, “Konets istorii?” (1990).  Filosofia za rubezhom, (1990): 134-148

[12] Zbignev  Bzhezinskiy, Velikaya shakhmatnaya doska (Moskva: Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenia, 1998).

[14] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[15] Ole Wæver, “The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations,” International Organization 52:4 (1998): 687-727.

[16] David C. Kang and Alex Yu-Ting Lin, “US Bias in the Study of Asian Security: Using Europe to Study Asia,” Journal of Global Security Studies 4:3 (2019): 393-401.

[17] Ivan Drago played by Dolf Lundgren was a character from the Rocky movie franchise, a Soviet antagonist of Rocky Balboa played by Silvester Stallone.

[18] Viatcheslav Morozov, Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (London: Palgrave, 2015).

[19] One of the more recent examples of uncritical engagement with Huntington is in the 2016 book published by MGIMO-University, under the title “Strategic Prognosis of International Relations” (Moscow: “MGIMO-Universitet” 2016) https://mgimo.ru/upload/2016/04/strategicheskoe-prognozirovanie-mezhdunarodnykh-otnosheniy.pdf

[20] Kim Richard Nossal, “Tales that Textbooks Tell: Ethnocentricity and Diversity in American Introductions to International Relations,” International Relations: Still an American Social Science (2001): 167-186.

[21] William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Press, 2006): 204.

[23] James I. Matray, “Captive of the Cold War: The Decision to Divide Korea at the 38th Parallel,” Pacific Historical Review 50:2 (1981): 148.

[24] U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Relations with the Republic of Korea,” 22 September 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-republic-of-korea/.

[25] Trusteeship article, 244.

[26] For more information about internal Korean politics prior to the Korean War see, for example, William Stueck, “The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Division of Korea: A Comparative Approach,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 4:1 (1995) 1-27; Seung-Young Kim, “The Rise and Fall of the United States Trusteeship Plan for Korea as a Peace-maintenance Scheme,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 24:2 (2013) 227-252.

[27] Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 7.

[28] Leonard Spector and Jacqueline R. Smith, Nuclear Ambitions: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons 1989-1990 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990): 119.

[29] Oberdorfer, 11.

[30] U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Relations with the Republic of Korea,” 22 September 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-republic-of-korea/.

[31] United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission – Secretariat, https://www.unc.mil/Organization/UNCMAC-S/.

[32] Oberdorfer, 11.

[33] Thomas H.D. Mahoney, “Lessons from Korea,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 276:1 (1951): 44.

[34] Oberdorfer, 33.

[35] Jongseok Woo, “Structural Impediments, Domestic Politics, and Nuclear Diplomacy in Post-Kim Il-Sung North Korea,” Pacific Focus 30:1 (2015): 59-77.

[36] Mun Suk Ahn, “What Is the Root Cause of the North Korean Nuclear Program?” Asian Affairs: An American Review 38:4 (2011): 175-187.

[37] Ahn, 180.

[38] Mansourov, 33.

[39] George W. Bush, “Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address,” 29 January 2002, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/transcripts/sou012902.htm.

[40] Translated text of North Korea NPT withdrawal available at: “KCNA 'Detailed Report' Explains NPT Withdrawal,” https://fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/dprk012203.html.

[41] This essay reflects the views of its author and does not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or United States Government.  The author would like to thank Christina Cliff for her comments and Kerney Perlik, Robert Person, Michael Robinson, and Scott Silverstone for their mentorship on international relations education at West Point.

[42] Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010): 6–8.

[43] Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Social Myths in the ‘Cold War,’” Journal of International Affairs 21:1 (1967): 40–56.

[44] See, for example, Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper, An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).

[45] Patrick Porter, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion, and the Rise of Trump (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

[46] Charles Edel and Hal Brands, “The Real Origins of the U.S.-China Cold War,” Foreign Policy, June 2, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/02/the-real-origins-of-the-u-s-china-cold-war-big-think-communism/; Odd Arne Westad, “The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Are Washington and Beijing Fighting a New Cold War?” Foreign Affairs 98:5 (2019): 136-144.

[47] Alexandra Evans, “Thinking in (Napoleonic) Times: Historical Warnings for an Era of Great-Power Competition,” War on the Rocks (blog), December 18, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/thinking-in-napoleonic-times-historical-warnings-for-an-era-of-great-power-competition/.

[48] Evans, “Thinking in (Napoleonic) Times.”

[49] Harold D. Lasswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (New York: Whittlesey House, 1936).

[50] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[51] Graham Greene, The Quiet American (London: Heinemann, 1955)

[52] Westad, Global Cold War, 396.

[53] Westad, Global Cold War, 5.

[54] Wen-Qing Ngoei, Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).

[55] Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012).

[56] Natasha Hamilton-Hart, Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 88-142.  This villainy takes its most elaborate form in the written and statutory caricatures of New Order Indonesia.  See: John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006): 8-12.

[57] On colonial plural societies, Charles Hirschman, “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology,” Sociological Forum 1:2: 330-361. 

[58] On Cold War British and American anti-Chinese prejudice, see, Ngoei, Arc of Containment 29-32.

[59] Ang Cheng Guan, “Singapore and the Vietnam War,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40:2 (2009): 364-365.

[60] Ngoei Arc of Containment, 160-161See also Richard Stubbs, Rethinking Asia’s Economic Miracle: The Political Economy of War, Prosperity, and Crisis (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[61]  Deepak Nair, “ASEAN on Myanmar Coup: Revisiting Cold War Diplomacy on Cambodia,” New Mandala, 22 March 2021, https://www.newmandala.org/asean-on-myanmars-coup-revisiting-cold-war-diplomacy-on-cambodia/.

[62] For a detailed account, see, Lee Jones, ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia (Basingstoke: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2012).

[63] See, especially, Singapore diplomat’s recollections in the collection by Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin, The Little Red Dot: Reflections by Singapore’s Diplomats Volume 1 (Singapore: World Scientific, 2005).

[64] Jones, ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia (Basingstoke: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2012): 82.

[65] Christopher Goscha, “Vietnam, the Third Indochina War and the Meltdown of Asian Internationalism,” in Westad and Sophie Quinn-Judge, The Third Indochina War: Conflict between China, Vietnam and Cambodia 1972-1979 (London: Routledge, 2006): 207-230.

[66] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996): 361–66.

[67] Westad, “Introduction: From War to Peace to War in Indochina,” in Westad and Quinn-Judge, The Third Indochina War: Conflict between China, Vietnam and Cambodia 1972-1979 (London: Routledge, 2006): 1-11.

[68] Yuval Weber, “Are We in a Cold War or Not?  1989, 1991, and Great Power Dissatisfaction,” E-IR, March 7, 2015, http://www.e-ir.info/2016/03/07/are-we-in-a-cold-war-or-not-1989-1991-and-great-power-dissatisfaction/.

[69] Donald J. Trump, “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President, 2017).

[70] Uri Friedman, “The New Concept everyone in Washington is Talking about,” The Atlantic, August 6, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/08/what-genesis-great-power-competition/595405/.

[71] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18; Charles Krauthammer, “The unipolar moment,” Foreign Affairs 70 (1990): 23.

[72] Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018) provides an important rejoinder.

[73] Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[74] G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); David A. Lake, “Escape from the State of Nature: Authority and Hierarchy in World Politics,” International Security 32:1 (2007): 47-79; David A. Lake, Hierarchy in International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

[75] Michael Mastanduno, "System Maker and Privilege Taker," World Politics 61 (2009): 121-154.

[76] Janice E. Thomson, “State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research,” International Studies Quarterly 39:2 (1995): 213-233.

[77] Yuval Weber, “Petropolitics” in Andrei P. Tsygankov, ed., Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[79] Olga Kryshtanovskaya, “The Legacy of Tandemocracy: Russia's Political Elite during Putin's third Presidency.” Baltic Worlds 7:2-3 (2014): 14-21.

[80] Graeme Robertson, “Protesting Putinism: The Election Protests of 2011-2012 in Broader Perspective,” Problems of Post-Communism 60:2 (2013): 11-23.

[81] Just to jog the reader’s memory, a few lowlights: the Magnitsky Act in December 2012 targeted the Russian elite with economic sanctions, a tool that would come to dominate Western displeasure with Russian foreign policy; Edward Snowden’s escape to Moscow in 2013 led to the first cancellation of a US-Russia summit since the 1960s; the Euromaidan, collapse of the Viktor Yanukovych government, annexation of Crimea, and separatist conflict in Donbas in 2014 brought war back to Europe; intervention into the Syrian civil war led Russia into direct conflict with US and Turkish forces in 2015; interference in the US presidential elections in 2016 broke new ground in cyber conflict.

[82] For a general example, please see Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West (New York: Macmillan, 2014).

Categories: Roundtable, H-DiploPub
Keywords: Cold War, IR, teaching