Superpower Diplomacy - The onset of the cold war and decline of diplomacy, 1947–1953

Diplomacy failed to resolve disagreements among the occupation powers about the administration and future status of Germany. The disagreements reflected the conflict between the Soviet concept of a weak though undivided and not necessarily communist Germany, which would ensure its dependence on Moscow, and the U.S. concept of a Germany integrated in a unifying Europe, even at the cost of detaching the western-occupied part of the country from the Soviet occupation zone as a separate state. At the March 1947 Moscow conference of foreign ministers, Secretary of State George C. Marshall became convinced about the incompatibility of these respective approaches to the solution of the German question and the necessity of reviewing the overall U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.

The result of the review was the adoption of the concept of containment, which remained, with different variations, the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy until the Soviet Union's collapse ended the confrontation forty-four years later. Conceptualized by George F. Kennan, a historian, diplomat, and Russian expert who had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the critical preceding years, containment was the most original, subtle, and successful foreign policy concept ever embraced by the United States. Anticipating long-term rivalry between the two future superpowers, Kennan grasped the fundamental systemic differences and conflicting interests that precluded their mutual accommodation, but concluded that America's superior political, economic, and moral assets could allow it to prevail without war until internal strains in the Soviet system brought about "either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." This is precisely what eventually happened.

Kennan believed that the Soviet Union posed a political rather than a military threat and was therefore critical of the later expansion of the U.S. military establishment as well as the application of containment to other nations on the questionable assumption that they were being manipulated from Moscow. In its original version, the containment doctrine assigned the primary role to diplomacy—including public diplomacy but not excluding covert action—while wielding enough military power to retain credibility. There had been successful U.S. attempts at using traditional diplomacy backed by force to prevent the expansion of Soviet power as an influence in peripheral areas, such as Iran and Turkey, as early as 1946. But the first example of containment in action motivated by Kennan's analysis was the Marshall Plan, announced by the secretary of state on 5 June 1947.

While the immediate goal of the plan was to provide extensive U.S. economic assistance to the European nations ravaged by the recent war, its larger purpose was to force a decision about the terms of the U.S.–Soviet rivalry. By offering assistance to any European state, including the Soviet Union, on conditions requiring openness, accountability, and cooperation among the recipients in pooling their resources—conditions incompatible with the system of imperial control Stalin was imposing on Eastern Europe—the United States shifted the decision onto him. He could either give up control by allowing the East Europeans to participate in the plan under American conditions or else reject it and let the Americans organize Western Europe under their auspices while he proceeded to organize Eastern Europe his own way. In either case the United States stood to win.

As the United States expected, the Soviet Union chose the partition of Europe, although the choice had not been predetermined in Stalin's mind. Scholars have discovered Soviet sources showing that he had hoped his negotiators could compel the Americans to give up their conditions and allow the Soviet Union to benefit from the Marshall Plan while preventing the consolidation of Western Europe—an illusion stemming from the dogmatic Soviet belief that U.S. capitalism was acting from a position of weakness because of its impending crisis. Once the illusion was exposed, the Soviet Union proceeded to tighten its hold on Eastern Europe by imposing full-fledged communist regimes—a policy that increased the West Europeans' willingness to rally behind U.S. leadership. The competition between the two nascent superpowers was henceforth determined by the contrast between what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad dubbed the American "empire by invitation" and the Soviet empire based on coercion.

The Soviet Union never developed a foreign policy concept comparable in intellectual subtlety and pragmatic utility to the U.S. concept of containment. Once the lines were drawn, its policy relied instead on what it considered an inevitable "general crisis of capitalism"—something beyond Soviet control that never came. The policy sought to precipitate the crisis by trying to foment instability in Western Europe and split it away from the United States, misjudging the extent to which West Europeans were ready to submit to American leadership as well as to overcome their differences in building new supranational structures. Although reputed for alleged realism and diplomatic skills, Stalin failed to achieve what mattered to him most. Having striven to ensure Soviet security as he understood it, he found himself in confrontation with the most powerful nation of the world, a situation he had neither wanted nor anticipated.

In 1949 two further developments prefigured the later superpower confrontation. The first was the militarization of the Cold War following the Berlin Blockade, in which Stalin vainly tried to dissuade the United States from proceeding with the proclamation of a separate West German state. By cutting overland supply lines to the western-controlled part of the city, Stalin ran the risk of a military clash should an attempt be made to force the blockade. Although the clash was avoided thanks to the West's ability to supply the city by air, the growing perception that the Soviet Union was not only a political but also a military threat persuaded the United States to support the establishment in April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as its first peacetime military alliance. Created to reassure West Europeans about American support, the alliance was to become for the United States an essential military ingredient of superpower diplomacy.

The other crucial development was the successful testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, which ensured that the ingredient would be nuclear on both sides. Much as the end of the U.S. nuclear monopoly influenced perceptions of the balance of power, however, nuclear weapons did not yet critically influence the respective policies. They were particularly absent in the decision that brought U.S.–Soviet relations to a new level of hostility—the launching in June 1950 of the Korean War, initiated by the North Korean communists with Stalin's backing though without direct Soviet participation.

The Korean War further accelerated the decline of diplomacy as a casualty of the Cold War. After the negotiated end of the Berlin Blockade in May 1949, no important East-West negotiations took place; those that did occur, mainly within the framework of the United Nations, were notable for their futility. Once stalemated, the Korean War led in May 1951 to a conference of deputy foreign ministers at the Paris Palais Rose but it yielded no results. By 1952, Soviet-American diplomatic relations all but ceased to exist, as the relationship between the two countries deteriorated to little more than a mutual exchange of insults. The dawn of superpower diplomacy had to await Stalin's death, which came in March 1953.

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