Why did We Get the End of the Cold War Wrong?



In many important ways the history of modern international relations (IR) begins at the point when the international order collapses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, the withering of communism in Central and Eastern Europe followed by the break–up of the USSR two years later, posed what many in the field saw then (and continue to regard now) as a series of problems to which the hitherto dominant paradigm in IR—realism—had no ready or easy answers. This article neither seeks to defend nor criticize realism. Rather it shifts the debate about the end of the cold war—and why most experts failed to anticipate it—away from the field of IR to the more specific study undertaken in the West of the Soviet system. It goes on to argue that the source of so much academic embarrassment may be better explained not through a rehearsal of realism's supposed flaws as an international theory, but rather through a detailed examination of the different ways that different writers understood, or more precisely failed to understand, the operation of the Soviet system itself. The conclusion reached is that few analysts could have predicted what happened between 1989 and 1991. In fact, as the article seeks to show, their often complicated and diverse theories about the USSR as the living alternative to market capitalism led most of them (with one or two notable exceptions) to the conclusion that whatever problems faced the Soviet Union as a power in the 1980s, the system as such was likely to endure.