Cold War Perspectives: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism in International Relations After World War II

Published: 2024-01-16
Cold War Perspectives: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism in International Relations After World War II
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  World War 2 International relations Cold War
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1787 words
15 min read


World War Two (WW II) left the world in an uneasy state characterized by the use of the Cold War to advance international policy. The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had just emerged as the undisputed superpowers, and they both embarked on using non-lethal means to outdo the military, economic, and political control of each other on the global sphere (Peterson 1). The Cold War degenerated into an arms race and the eventual collapse of the USSR. Scholars have put forward several theories of international relations to explain the aftermath of WW II and the developments that followed in the international arena. However, nearly all the international relations theories trying to explain the Cold War can be traced back to three dominant perspectives - realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

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The realism perspective emphasizes the interests of the state over individual rights and liberties as well as international stability. The theory is based on the primary assumption that nations need to fight for their interests in global politics because it views the world as a battleground with conflicting and competitive hegemonic powers (Marrs 1). The theory of liberalism argues that the most important responsibility of the state is to safeguard the rights of individual citizens to property, liberty, and life. As such it emphasizes controlling the accumulation of political and military power which tempts states to adopt militaristic policies in foreign relations. This liberalism perspective has been credited for preventing the Cold War from turning into another world despite the high tensions between the United States and the USSR (Cherniss 12). Lastly, constructivism views the relationship among countries of the world as a social construct (Theys 1).

Cold War from the Realism Perspective

The theory of realism first gained recognition as an area of study during WW II. One of the central strategies of this perspective in the management of foreign relations is power balance. Under power balance, states constantly seek to leverage their political and military capabilities while minimizing those of their competitors (Antunes and CamisĂŁo 1). It is because of the need to balance the power systems that realists view international politics as anarchic. The theory assumes that powerful states seek to expand their control across the world. Hence, they form alliances to increase their chances of survival. These alliances are driven by the need to make new like-minded friends rather than their cultural and political similarities. That explains how the Soviet Union was able to enter an uneasy alliance with the United States and Britain in WW II. They were all threatened by the combined military power of Japan, Germany, and Italy, which they sought to balance.

However, the US and the Soviet Union became arch-rivals soon after the war ended mainly due to ideological differences. After the war, the Soviets installed communist rulers in Eastern European countries they liberated to safeguard them from possible domination by Germany. However, they also wanted to increase the influence of communism in the world. Consequently, Britain and the US feared that the Soviets might permanently dominate Eastern Europe using this method. At the same time, it was spreading its communist influence to democratic states in Western Europe through the election of communist parties into power. The US responded by sponsoring the Marshall Plan to promote the economic recovery of Western Europe, effectively bringing it under American influence. It is the adoption of a power balance strategy by the two superpowers that led to the Cold War, which lasted from 1947 to 1991.

With the apparent rivalry, global political power had shifted from the alliance to individual states - the United States and the Soviets. Faced with this reality, the Soviets felt that allowing the US to have the monopoly of nuclear weapons put it under threat of domination, threatening its existence. Therefore, they launched their first atomic bomb in 1949.

Moreover, in the same spirit of establishing a power balance, both of the superpowers resorted to forging new alliances in Europe and the Third World. The US formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 to consolidate its military command in Europe to fight the occupation of the Soviets. On the other hand, the Soviets helped establish communist administrations in North Korea and mainland China in 1949 and 1950 respectively. It went further to form the Warsaw Pact, a formal military accord that included most countries in Eastern Europe as well as East Germany in 1955, and the US responded by adding West Germany to NATO (Antunes and CamisĂŁo 1). Since it views the world as constantly insecure, the realism theory supports the concept of power balance as a great foreign policy strategy.

The Liberalism Theory

The most significant contribution of the liberalist perspective in international relations scholarship is the democratic peace theory (Meiser 1). The theory suggests that democratically governed states are very cautious about going to war with other states. Several historical case studies and statistical analyses have supported the claims of this theory (Kristinsson 7). One of the explanations behind the democratic peace theory is that in democratic nations, power is restrained by independent state institutions and civilian control of armed forces (Meiser 1). The second reason why democracies shun war is that democratic states easily cooperate because they regard their governments as legitimate, and thus amicable (Meiser 1). On the other hand, they find it challenging to work together with non-democratic states such as dictatorial administrations and monarchies which tend to disregard their citizens' right to life and other liberties.

This theory explains why the United States began to break its ties with the Soviets even before World War II ended but maintained strong cooperation with Great Britain. For the same reason, the tension of the Cold War subsided for about for years following the death of Soviet leader HYPERLINK "" Joseph Stalin, who was a dictator, in 1953. Even though both superpowers developed ballistic missiles in 1958, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 further showed the difference in their likelihood to employ military conquest in managing foreign relations (Cherniss 11). Even after it discovered the Soviet's plan to attack its cities from Cuba, the United States chose to use diplomacy instead of military power to prevent an impending nuclear war.

To be fair, it is important to mention that the Soviets just like Americans feared nuclear retaliation from the other. Their mutual agreement to the signing of the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1963 and later, the HYPERLINK "" Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT); showed that neither of the powers was ready for a war. However, since the treaty only banned above-ground testing of missiles, the Soviets continued to expand its military and weaponry capabilities for the next 25 years, forcing the US to keep up with it throughout that time (Cherniss 18). The Soviet Union's provocative role in the quarter-decade-long arms race further proves non-democracies preference for military foreign policy.

Also, the liberalism perspective states that the post-WWII international system is governed by liberal global organizations empowered to restrain violence from all states. The United Nations (UN), for instance, was founded in 1945 to maintain, among other things, international security and peace. International organizations like the UN have strict norms that member states are expected to adhere to (Kristinsson 9). But unfortunately, their powers are more spread and diluted internationally than within individual member states. Unlike individual nations, the UN does not have a police force to implement its regulations. To compensate for this limitation, the UN is empowered to lay economic sanctions and trade embargoes on states that go against its statutes. It can also use military intervention to stop aggression.

However, the Cold War went on for a long time despite its existence UN because both the Soviets union and the United States were members of its security council. It was difficult to obtain joint approval of the UN's peacekeeping initiatives from the rival powers. That means it could neither use economic sanctions nor military intervention against the two powers (Cherniss 26). As a result, it was unable to stop their accumulation of arms and military power. Similarly, the UN failed to stop combat operations by the superpowers to maintain their allies in Europe during the Cold War. United Nations kept off the Cold War except when it determined that its actions would not conflict with the interest of either party.

The Constructivism Theory

The constructivism theory mainly relates to the end of the Cold War. Unlike the conventional theories which primarily focus on the role of the state in international relations, this theory looks at the actions of individual actors (Ferguson 551). The Cold War was terminated by the interventions of individuals and not the agency of international organizations or states. The theory accounts for this fact when it states that people make their social world. The interactions and actions of people, especially influential citizens continually change the structure and state of international relations.

The breakdown of the Cold War began in the 1980s through the efforts of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Soviet leader abolished the country's totalitarian political system and introduced democracy. He went further to allow the fall of communist administrations in Eastern Europe (Suri 64). As a result, democratic governments took over power in HYPERLINK "" Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany. Subsequently, with his approval, NATO unified East and West Germany (Ferguson 551). Although the Soviet Union finally disintegrated under his watch, Gorbachev is credited for restoring democracy in former communist countries as well as playing the biggest role in ending the Cold War.


In conclusion, the realism, liberalism, and constructivism theories of international relations are all applicable in accounting for the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War. The traditional perspectives - realism and liberalism - both focus on the responsibility of the state rather than the individuals in the management of international relations. Realism is about the capability of the state to fight for its interests in the international battleground, while liberalism is concerned with securing the rights and freedoms of citizens through a state's international policy. While they both explain the origin of the Cold War and many events that characterized the historical period, they say little about the end of the tension. It is the constructivist perspective that explains the end of the Cold War.

Works Cited

Antunes, Sandrina, and Isabel CamisĂŁo. "Introducing realism in international relations theory." E-International Relations, 5 Aug. 2018, Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.

Cherniss, Joshua L. "Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr: Cold War Liberalism as an Intellectual Ethos." Isaiah Berlin's Cold War Liberalism, 2019, pp. 11-36.

Ferguson, Yale H. "The end of the Cold War: evaluating theories of international relations." International Affairs, vol. 69, no. 3, 1993, pp. 551-551.

Kristinsson, Ăžorsteinn. Cold War Paradigms: The Third World in the Intricate Structures...

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