30 years of the end of Cold War – Analysing the Past and Present contours of Global Power

| Viswapramod C

On the 26th of December 1991, the Soviet Union was officially disintegrated by then President of USSR, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, marking an official end to the cold war and the mighty Soviet Union, which was perceived as a dreamland of communism.  From a hardcore Communist-Stalinist era to a disruptive era of the scrambling reformer Gorbachev, the USSR witnessed a series of power dynamics, transformative landmarks, historical milestones and lousy geopolitical pitfalls. The principal confrontation was between the ideological, philosophical and intellectual themes of Soviet socialism versus American Capitalism, where socialism embarked upon an enigmatic state of equality and social justice that appealed to the poorer classes, the capitalist system promised economic freedoms, liberty and democracy to its people.

However towards the end of the 1980’s the scenario was quite clear, American capitalism with its strategic power and resolve had superseded or rather crushed the Soviet socialist and communist glory into a defeated force that had mired up itself in turbulent political chaos and fracturing conglomeration of federations and republics. In the 1990s there was a geopolitics paradigm shift towards a unipolar world with the USA remaining as a sole superpower. This power equation changed in the late 2000s with the rise of China as a competing and challenging power to the USA. In the present times, with an era of a raging pandemic, Xi Jinping’s aggressive strategic policies and the rise of US-China rivalry, the world is witnessing a similar bipolarity that existed during the cold war era. The impact of the cold war prevails even to this date casting its influence over the decision making of the foreign policies of the major powers of the world.

Looking back at history

The fall of the Soviet Union is often attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev, its last president. But in fact, what laid a foundation for the decline of the Soviet Union was the years of economic stagnation that took place under the regime of its tall and powerful leader Leonid Brezhnev. From the period of 1972-73 to 1982 the growth rate of the USSR steadily declined from around 6% to 2% as per several sources. This was the result of classical old school communist policies embraced by Brezhnev, of Heavy Industrialization, massive agricultural expansion, extensive defence spending and utilisation of military force to suppress every form of revolt or rebellion. When Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union, the country was in a deep state of crisis with an ongoing war in Afghanistan and the civil-military confrontations of the Baltic zone. He saw a compelling need to reform the Soviet System in the form of greater economic and political freedoms to his citizens, his policy reform initiative was known as “Perestroika”. He believed that, through his ambitious reform initiatives, he could put the Soviet Union back on its pedestal, but little did he realise that his initiatives and policies were quite disruptive and were not yielding the intended results. The war in Afghanistan was proven to be the greatest strategic blunder and the Soviet Military withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989.

The fall of the Berlin wall on 10th November 1989 and the reunification of Germany was another massive blow to the communist ideological resolve of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, new political developments had started in Russia, where Boris Yeltsin, the Emerging Leader of the Russian Federation with his Allies from the quasi republics of Latvia and Ukraine, announced their Disintegration of the Soviet Union on 8th December 1991, nearly leading to the fall of the USSR, which became a reality later in that month. Gorbachev did not use military force on any of his dissidents and agreed to disintegrate the USSR realising that it cannot sustain itself any further. Gorbachev was believed to have embraced several liberal values of the west by developing warm relations with the western leaders. In the historic meet of 1986 between Gorbachev and US President Ronald Regan, a very famous line was said by Ronald Regan, “Trust but Verify” to the US-Soviet co-operation negotiations, to which Gorbachev jokingly responded with a smile on his face “ You repeatedly say this in several meetings”. From this incident, we can gauge the extent to which Gorbachev was his outreach to the western democracies.

However the fall of the Soviet Union has been deeply regretted by Gorbachev, in this autobiography where he reflects “I still regret that I failed to bring the ship under my command to calm waters, I failed to complete the reforms of my country”. It’s important to note that the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a shock to several world leaders. India’s Prime Minister Mr Narashima Rao made quite an unflinching statement in the parliament, “ What happened in Moscow is a clear warning to reformers in a hurry”. From some information available in the public domain now, this statement was supposed to be based on the briefings and advice received by him, from senior pro-Soviet diplomats in the Foreign Ministry. But one can compare Gorbachev’s reform moves to a well-known quote, “ we have to be careful when we shake an old tree because if we shake it too hard, it could fall on top of us”. Eminent Russian strategic scholar Dr Dmitri Trenin remarked on the fall of the Soviet Union, that “Everything looks unthinkable until it becomes inevitable”, which sums up in a nutshell, its collapse.

Russia’s comeback on the Global Stage

Post-Soviet Russia has changed significantly. Mainly its influence over the world has diminished, making it into a lesser global power. But Russia’s global ambitions have not gone down, in fact, it in many ways has acquired newer and greater ambitions. In a recent interview with a Russian state TV network, President Vladimir Putin said “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the collapse of a historic Russia. We have lost 40% of the territory, production capacities and population. We became a different country than what was built over a millennium, and was lost to a large extent with the breakup of the Soviet Union”. With this statement, it is quite clear that Vladimir Putin clearly aspires to take Russia back to the Glorious days of the Soviet Union, and the nostalgic 300 years of the Rule of the Mighty Romanov empire led by its Czars( Emperors) that gave a concrete affirmation to Russia’s Nationalism. He is making moves in this direction by consolidating his power and providing a rigorous trajectory to make Russia a dominant global power. In fact, the evidence of his policies is the recovery and stable growth of Russia, ever since V. Putin came to power two decades ago.

During the years of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Russia was in a complete mess grappling with acute food shortages, a shambled economy, internal political rivalry, and a defeatist military mindset that had developed because of multiple devastating conflicts over a decade. Putin, with his policies and reformist measures, has healed this situation in an effective manner and is driving Russia towards prosperity. Though there are several lacunas in this governance and policies, the resurgence of Russia in the past decade has become quite evident. 

Survival and Strengthening of Chinese Communism

An interesting facet of International Politics that has fascinated several thinkers and intellectuals trying to decode the cold war era power dynamics, is the fact that ‘ As the Soviet Communism declined and collapsed the Chinese communism was strengthened’. China has gained a great deal of power economically, politically and militarily so much so that it’s been able to confront the USA, with all its might and subject the entire world towards a bipolar tension. What made China a success story and now the second superpower of the world? Australian Journalist Rebecca Armitage says “China Studies the collapse of the Soviet Union and learned three lessons to avoid a similar fate”.

The three key lessons that the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) learnt:

1) Embrace Capitalism but with Chinese Characteristics

In the early years, the Soviet Union was competing with the USA on the economic front with extensive manufacturing capacity and base, but in the later years especially during the Brezhnev’s regime a dark underworld of Kremlin’s elite eclipsed economic progress with corruption, obsession with warfare and nostalgic Industrial and technological might systematically destroying efficiency leading to the downfall of Soviet economy.

But China’s greatest success was its economic success which was catastrophically destroyed by the ruling élite of the Soviet Union. China on the other hand was conscious of the Blunders of the Soviet economic policies and studied them with the utmost caution, in the words of David Shambaugh, (one of US’s top china experts) “It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they (CCP) are with the Soviet Union. They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision”.Chinese came up with their tweaks and fixations to inculcate their own style of capitalism, some of the major changes they brought about were; A) Not to allow a free market economy where “Laissez Faire” policy of markets controlling the supply and demand was ruled out and political controls were imposed to check and monitor the functioning of the business class. B) Follow a policy of State capitalism, where the state becomes the major player in driving the economic activity with the corporatization of the government agencies. In this manner, the Chinese leadership is determined to provide its people with a materialist standard of living similar to the liberal economies of the west, but without embracing western values.

2) Manage the Message

Messaging or communication channels provide perceptions and identity of the people by enriching them on the narratives on the state of nationhood. But Gorbachev’s commitment to liberal ideals made him commit a gross miscalculation, he said “ After decades of censorship and secrecy, the time has come for increased government transparency and freedom of expression” . With his policy of Glasnost (which roughly translates to openness in English) the common people of the Soviet Union got access to the banned books which were allowed to the libraries, many citizens learnt about former leader Joseph Stalin’s atrocities for the first time, and Russians were suddenly exposed to the relatively luxurious lifestyles that people enjoyed in the western democracies. This exposure gained by the Soviet people due to openness exposed the decays and fault-lines of the Soviet regime, resulting in the growing anxiety and downfall of the nostalgic popularity of the Soviet Union.

But the Chinese successfully controlled communication and messaging with the right doses of propaganda interjected amongst the people leading to the continuation of the popular support to the CCP despite several of their state excesses, controls and gross human rights violations. Under the present Xi Jinping regime, messaging from china has become more controlled. In fact, their external criticism is countered by their aggressive team of diplomats giving rise to a marshal variant of diplomacy known as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”. 

3) Watch the periphery

At its peak, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country, making up nearly one-seventh of the Earth’s land surface and showcasing its strategic power to the rest of the world. The failure to control the brewing discontent turned against the unity of the Soviet Union creating challenges and later self-autonomy and independence of Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine. The Afghan War, being another hasty decision nearly toppled the centralised control of the Kremlin over the USSR. In contrast to the Soviet’s terrible ignorance, the Chinese have tried to keep regions on the periphery such as TaiwanHong KongXinjiang and Tibet under increasingly tight control. Massive protests held in Hong Kong in 2019 were derided by a top CCP official as having “‘obvious characteristics of a colour revolution”. This led to a new law being enacted in Hong Kong by Beijing to curb dissent of the protesters and dismantle the autonomy of Hong Kong, which was promised in the 50 year Joint China-Hong Kong agreement after the colonial UK rule ended. Chinese excesses in Xinjiang province almost turning into an Uyghur genocide and its offensive military manoeuvring surrounding Taiwan and the border standoffs with India, as a reminder of its sovereignty over Tibet are the strategies being followed to keep a check on the periphery.

In the end, it is important to note that the world order is building up into bipolarity with China and USA confronting each other aggressively, and the minor powers and the micro powers are also forging themselves into suitable multilateral alliances. However, Rebecca Armitage askes a very pertinent question, “Can China’s leaders avoid the USSR’s fate”?. In my view, Xi Jinping might be the Brezhnev of China, Just like how everyone believed Brezhnev was all-powerful and invincible, Xi with all his might and totalitarian power might commit similar blunders in future that might lead to the downfall of the Chinese hegemony in the world order. In this onset of a new cold war, the confrontation is going to be intellectual and philosophical warfare between democracies and the Chinese system. 


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