Seminar Paper: Realism and the End of the Cold War

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Realism and the End of the Cold War

The field of international relations has always been dominated by one theory or another that tried to explain, through different mechanisms and concepts, the evolution of the international affairs.

Realism was one of the theories that tried to best characterize the period of the Cold War and especially the bipolar relation between the West and the East, which is between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the U.S.S.R. At the beginning of the 1990s, it was considered that the realist theory of international relations did not grasp sufficiently accurate the power relations between the two important players and was not able to predict the fall of communism and the end of the bipolar world. Moreover, the debates resulted in questioning the ability of the realist theory to further be used as a framework for interpreting and predicting the evolution of international affairs.

William C. Wohlforth addresses this issue by arguing that the end of the Cold War and the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union was not necessarily an event that could have been predicted or foreseen through the social science analysis. Moreover, the reason for which this incapacity was visible is related to the fact that the event was not one that had been encountered in the history and in general social science approaches are limited in their interpretations. Furthermore Wohlforth argues that realist theories are complex in nature and should not be viewed as a single structure of analysis.

Wohlforth tries to analyze this debate by providing answers to four aspects: the role of theories in the interpretation of the post 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, the explanation provided by the realist theory to the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the criticism brought to the realist theory ("predictive failure, lack of correlation between independent and dependent variables, and important patterns of state behavior defying realist expectations and explanations"), and what lessons can be learned from this and their implications for future research on the subject (p93)

The Cold War's End and Social Science Theory

Wohlforth argues that the Cold War was a complex phenomenon and could not have been explained by appealing to previous historical facts hence it cannot be assumed that current theories can consider the whole complexity of the event. His solution is to disaggregate the components of the conflict in order to set each of them into a theory that could explain them and then connect cause to effect. All theories are limited; the realist theory took into account only the balance of power, but not other events such as the detente after 1987 for instance (p95).

An Outline of a Realist Explanation

Wohlforth points out that three elements are essential for understanding the end of the Cold War and the relatively peaceful dismantling of the U.S.S.R.: what matters is the assessment on power of decision makers (the U.S. was reluctant to go to war with the U.S.S.R. because it perceived it as a powerful opponent), the U.S.S.R. was a challenger to world supremacy, and not a hegemon (always challenged the status quo) and was therefore more prone to retrench and reform, and as justification for the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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