What role did domestic factors play in ending the Cold War?

Essay 2012 7 Pages

History Europe - Germany - Postwar Period, Cold War


What role (if any) did domestic factors play in ending the Cold War?

Scientific literature tries to give an answer to the question of the ‘Cold War’s End’ in multiple ways. In order to relate eventual domestic factors with the peaceful ending of the East-West conflict, three questions have to be asked: What are the possible factors? Which states were involved? How can an impact of endogenous elements be validated? In order to identify eventual domestic factors, it seems expedient to have an initial look at the merit of two winners of the Nobel Prize for peace: Mikhail Gorbachev and Willy Brandt, founding fathers of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR and Ostpolitik in Western Germany, respectively. It is, however, kept in mind that the United States of America exerted indirect, as well as direct influence on domestic policy of both countries.

Given these preliminaries, the structure of this essay is fourfold. First of all, domestic factors are put into historical context considering social, political and economical factors both in Eastern and Western Germany and the Soviet Union. Afterwards, the historical facts are endowed with standpoints of several IR scholars, explaining theoretical issues and making predominant use of a social constructivist approach.1 Finally, a conclusion is drawn, summarizing and interpreting the results.

GDR and FRG - Two states, one domestic factor

Apart from the ‘hot’ proxy wars in Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan, the main-stage of the Cold War’s end was Europe. Germany, politically, physically and ideologically divided, virtually served as a “neuralgic point” of the international policy of détente (Wolfrum and Arendes, 2007, p.202). The separation into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic

(GDR) took place after previous efforts in order to achieve a peaceful unification. However, these struggles had been made impossible by ideological and power-political restraints by both Western and Eastern allies. After the cementation of the German break-up in 1949, Western German politicians were determined to enact only laws with provisory character.2 In 1952, USSR-leader Josef Stalin reinitiated unification talks, proposing a neutral Germany without membership in any military alliance; nevertheless, the degree of ideological cleavage was already too high to allow such an undertaking. This was not least originated by the fact that Western Germany’s first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, then chairman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), expedited Western Germany’s further integration into the West.3

After more than two decades of frigid relations, in 1970, Western-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, then chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), risked “Wandel durch Ann ä herung” (“change through approximation”), introducing his new Ostpolitik (“politics toward the East”), which lead to a decisive easing of German-German tensions. As a result, quasi-diplomatic relations were instated between Eastern and Western Germany, consequently allowing both states to join the United Nations in 1973. Furthermore, mutual renunciation of force was guaranteed. These steps significantly facilitated the Helsinki Accords, which were signed by Brandt’s successor Helmut Schmidt (also SPD) in 1975. Consequently, Brandt’s Ostpolitik represents the first milestone in the way of East-West relaxation and German reunification.

A differently animated bilateral dialogue marks a significant change of domestic state-identity, which will be discussed in the third part of this essay. Since German reunification was a major goal of West-German policy -in fact, it was the only content matter of the West-German constitutional preamble- efforts towards that aspiration could also be termed as ‘pre-domestic’ politics. In any case, Ostpolitik itself signified a turnaround in West-German domestic politics, which made a peaceful foreign policy toward Eastern Germany possible to be born.

Glasnost and perestroika - Two reforms, one domestic fracture

The end of the Soviet Union began with the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Secretary- General of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) in March 1985. His state reforms, labeled glasnost

and perestroika, lead to a steady breaking of domestic structures within the USSR. Glasnost (“openness”) induced extended freedom of speech and opinion in order to alleviate the domestic process of “restructuring” (“perestroika”) the social, economic and political features of the USSR (cf. Wolfrum and Arendes, 2007, p. 263). However, Gorbachev faced considerable resistance within the international Communist movement, within which he impersonated “both Pope and Luther” (Brown, 2007, p.2). His abolishment of the Brezhnev Doctrine allowed all states of the Soviet bloc to determine their form of government independently. Deliberately or not, these domestic reforms became a process with its own internal dynamics and moreover caused the communist regime to totter. The USSR, founded in 1922, broke up into individual states in 1991, forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); except for the Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In brief, Gorbachev’s domestic reforms signified the beginning of the Soviet Union’s end and hence the Cold war’s.

Two domestic factors, one theoretical approach

How can the two domestic factors, inter-German approximation and Soviet reforms, be connected and explained? The end of the Cold War produced considerable controversy throughout the tenet of IR. Evangelista (2001) identifies three possible views on the matter: the Cold War either serves as an indication of (1) a confutation of realist theory, (2) a “mere data point” without significance for theoretical re-evaluation, or (3) a sheer “theoretically uninteresting” matter for IR theory (p.5). Hence, he opposes realist theory and constructivist approach, the former holding the view that materialistic matters explain the developments behind the Iron Curtain, while the latter holds Gorbachev’s “new thinking” responsible for it (p.6). Alexander Wendt (1999) comports with the latter, stating that states already reached a level “beyond Realism”, i.e. a “level of collective interest” (p.242). Adapting his view on the topic and looking at the regular meetings of Western SPD politicians and Eastern bloc representatives in the 1970s, a common interest of security policy becomes apparent (cf. Risse-Kappen, 1994, p.199).

Brandt’s change of domestic identity through Ostpolitik, i.e. the acknowledgement of the GDR as a fellow state according to international law and the subsequent possibility for bilateral talks, shaped the basis of both German state’s interests (cf. Wendt, 1992, p. 398). Following the constructivist approach, the mutual acceptance of state territory “functions as a form of ‘social closure’ that disempowers nonstate actors”, as well as it helps to “stabilize interaction among states” (p.413).


1 Given the manifold ways to interpret the developments until the end of the Cold War on the one hand, and the wordlimitation of this paper on the other hand, a social constructivist approach, i.e. the focus on and interpretation of historical and social facts, seemed most appropriate. However, neo-realist approaches also found their way into my personal assessment of the impact of domestic factors. Notwithstanding it is acknowledged that the results of this paper could easily be refuted by other theoretical approaches.

2 The best example would be the German Grundgesetz (‘Basic Law’), which served as a quasi-constitution under the

premise that a re-united Germany would give itself a new constitution. In fact, the German Democratic Republic simply adopted German ‘Basic Law’ with few changes during and after the re-unification process.

3 One of his major achievements was the admission of Western Germany by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by the 5th of May 1955.


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International Relations Theory Domestic Factors Cold War West-Germany and USSR Glasnost and Perestroika



Title: What role did domestic factors play in ending the Cold War?