Why was the Cold War a long peace?

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What kept U.S.–Soviet disputes from devolving into all-out war? Nuclear deterrence may be the reason. But it also could have to do with the way alliances were set up.

Many believe the Cold War stayed chilly because the threat of nuclear weapons. Mutually assured destruction means “You bomb me, and I’ll return the favor.” But a novel study offers another perspective that could also explain the peace. A unique, bipolar structure of alliances – with one superpower on each side – allowed them to stop disputes from escalating.

Some of these findings were actually the opposite of what we’d expect, explained John Vasquez, a political scientist at the University of Illinois and coauthor of a study.

Often when two rival nations of equal power start on the path to war, there are steps they can take that make it more likely. And this “steps-to-war” theory usually holds up: There’s a dispute over territory. One side makes allies, so the other responds by making allies too. One side builds up military, its opponent does the same. Often there are repeated crises and disputes, and these boost the likelihood even more.

“War isn’t inevitable, but when you take more of these steps, the probability goes way up,” Vasquez said. The probability in these circumstances can go up to almost 90 percent.

Soviet anti-tank missiles. Image: High Contrast.

Soviet anti-tank missiles. Image: High Contrast.

The steps theory works really well in studies of war, from 1816 to 1945 period, and in the post-Cold-War period, (and also in non-East-West disputes). But looking at the Cold War disputes of the U.S. and Soviet Union, Vasquez noticed something completely unexpected: Steps that were supposed to lead to war, may have lead to peace.

The key is alliances. Usually, making alliances is supposed to be a bad thing, a kind of arms race.

“France had outside allies like Britain in WWI, and Germany had alliance with Austria-Hungary, and they went to war in 1914,” Vasquez said. Different powers aligned again in the build up to WWII in 1939, but the structure became different after the war.

“The first big alliance was in 1949, when the U.S. started creating NATO,” he said. “The USSR responded with the Warsaw Pact.” The thing is, these ally structures on each side comprised alliances of minor nations, which could be “managed” by a single superpower. This facilitated the ability of either the U.S. or USSR to control minor disputes from escalating toward war between the two. It’s easier for them to stop allies from running amok and drawing them into a direct war.

The Kargil War Memorial in Dras, India. Image: Mail2arunjith.

The Kargil War Memorial in Dras, India. Image: Mail2arunjith.

In other ways, however, the Cold War was consistent with the usual steps to war. For example, the Americans and Soviets didn’t have any direct territorial disputes, which should lower the likelihood. Nations do not seem to see ideology as absolutely worth it, compared to territory. One of the few other illuminating cases is Pakistan and India. The two rivals had very intense territorial disputes and went to the brink of nuclear warfare with the Kargil War. They avoided it only after Indian and Pakistani leaders were brought to Washington by Bill Clinton, where they were shown devastating projections by the Pentagon.

India and Pakistan lacked that bipolar alliance structure too.

“We’re not denying that nuclear weapons deterred the U.S. and Soviet Union from war,” but deterrence could have worked in a favorable environment, Vasquez said. “Nuclear deterrence suggests you won’t fight for anything. What we are saying is, you might fight for something. We would predict that countries like Pakistan and India, if they couldn’t resolve their territorial disputes, would be apt to have a war that could escalate to a nuclear war. And we would say the same thing about Israel and any future Middle East state that had a nuclear weapon.”

In other words, nuclear deterrence may not work when you have severe rivalry and territorial disputes, he said.

The study, “How and Why the Cold War Became a Long Peace: Some Statistical Insights,” was published in the journal Cooperation and Conflict.

Featured Image: A Russian honor guard welcomes U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen at a wreath-laying ceremony.

Correction: An early morning version of this story said the alliance structure included two superpowers on each side. This was a typo. It was supposed to read “two superpowers, one on each side.”