The relevance of the cold war today

Cold war Strategic Security Analysis: MAY 2016 No.7

The relevance of the cold war today

Is there, or not, a legacy of the Cold War that continues to define the international system?

By Dr Barbara Zanchetta, Senior Researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

The Cold War divided Europe and the world in two opposing spheres of influence for four and a half decades. The emergence of the United States as a dominant international actor following the Second World War was shaped by the rivalry with the Soviet Union, which, in turn, defined its new global posture on the basis of the competition with America. Cold War necessities came to dictate both superpowers’ foreign and defence policies for decades. While historians agree on assessing the Cold War as an important chapter in the turbulent history of the twentieth century, far less consensus exists among analysts on the contemporary relevance of the bipolar conflict. In other words, is the Cold War still relevant today, or was it just a passing – albeit important – historical phase? Is there, or not, a legacy of the Cold War that continues to define the international system?

Key Points

  • Beyond the easily re-surfacing rhetoric on a ‘new Cold War’ when referring to the Western world’s relationship with Russia, the bipolar conflict (1945-1989) shaped the international system in tangible ways that remain highly relevant today.
  • The concrete legacy of the Cold War rotates around three elements: nuclear weapons and the related arms control and non-proliferation treaties; local conflicts with long-lasting consequences; and international institutions that continue to play a key role today.
  • Current instability in the world’s hotspots – from the Korean peninsula to Afghanistan – cannot be understood, nor future courses charted, without turning to the Cold War in search for the roots and causes of today’s dilemmas.
  • The major institutions that govern the ‘West’ – NATO and the EU – are both rooted in the bipolar era, and the sense of community, belonging and shared values that characterise them was forged throughout the decades.