14.4.1 The Liberal International Order 1945–1991: The Cold War and Systemic Rigidity

John Wright

The international system we currently occupy was founded in 1945. The dominant military, economic and cultural power was (and remains) the United States. The principles and institutions of this system were laid out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 in response to German and Japanese war aims and were further refined and developed as an antithesis to the Axis Powers and to the causes of WWI that culminated in 1945 in the codification of norms and principles established through international treaties and institutions. The key institutions were the United Nations and the economic institutions of the Bretton-Woods Agreement: The World Bank and the IMF. Economic relations were further codified in 1947 through the GATT (now the WTO). This was a triumph of what came to be called liberal internationalism and reflected the international projection of liberalism and capitalism through American power.

America arranged the world militarily through a series of mutual defence military treaties: NATO being the primary trans-Atlantic alliance of the core Western powers. Its economic arrangements through the Bretton-Woods institutions entrenched American-preferred rules for trade, investment and foreign aid, all of which was backstopped by American funding. America had created a hegemony.

However, challenging American dominance was the Soviet Union, whose political worldview was antithetical to America’s, being based on Bolshevism – a specific interpretation of Communism based on Russia’s global position. The Soviet Union was militarily and economically weaker than America. The Soviet Union’s participation was defensive: it wanted stability and a post-war bargain that would legitimize its position as a great power – an equal to the major capitalist states. It was exhausted and depleted from the war against Germany in a way the Western powers were not. It needed to consolidate its hold on the buffer states of Eastern Europe it occupied. It needed to rebuild its economy and society: The Soviet Union had been invaded and occupied, while America had not. The second most powerful military state in the world, the Soviet Union, acceded to the post-war order from a position of weakness vis-à-vis America.

The final factor in the Cold War was the development of nuclear weapons and rockets to deliver them across the world. With these new weapons, any military conflict had the potential to become an extinction event for humanity. This very literal existential threat focused more importance on the use of international institutions to ensure diplomatic solutions on core disputes, however frosty and terse that diplomacy might be.

This bipolar system therefore comprised two states on which international stability ultimately relied. But they were exceptionalist, revolutionary states. Each was founded on a revolutionary myth married overtly to an ideology. These ideologies developed from the Enlightenment and the subsequent history of Western thought: Liberalism and Communism. Both ideologies came with a teleology culminating in their being the end state of political development, and these end states were linked to providing very different visions of freedom, individual happiness, and peace. They were inimically hostile. Communication, the flow of ideas, trade: all interactions between the two superpowers were minimal and closely directed by the state.

Conflict therefore shifted to other expressions of power that mainly fell to the ideological realm. The Cold War increasingly became a propaganda war in which the stakes were whether Communism (as interpreted by the Soviet Union) or liberal capitalism (as primarily interpreted by the United States) better expressed people’s basic rights and material wants. The forms of the state become contestable grounds for definitions of things such as freedom, democracy, human rights, wealth, health and well-being, property, and economic and technological progress. The targets for ideological influence were mainly the former colonies of the now dissolved empires of Europe in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The international system was locked between two superpowers, with contestation only at the margins in places unfortunate to be the sites of devastating proxy wars in a tragic global game of chess.


  1. Compare and contrast Soviet and American definitions of rights
  2. Consider the nature of regimes propped up by American and Soviet military power. Did they violate international norms? Did they pass the test in ‘proving’ their ideologies?
    • Possible examples for the United States include but are not limited to, interventions in Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada.
    • Possible examples for the Soviet Union include but are not limited to, interventions in: Angola, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Cuba.

Quite rapidly, between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet Union and its allied Soviet regimes collapsed. The reasons were multifold but can be crudely summarized as a failed legitimacy of the Soviet state to be a sufficient economic and societal alternative to liberal capitalism, in combination with the increasing costs of military and economic competition with America. This collapse – the ‘End of History’ moment, indicated that the international system had changed. But had it?


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by John Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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