Superpower Diplomacy - The unexpected new world, 1945–1947

The February 1945 Yalta conference between Stalin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to be regarded as the birthplace of superpower diplomacy. According to the Yalta myth, Stalin and Roosevelt, reluctantly assisted by Churchill, agreed to divide Europe into spheres of influence along the lines it would in fact be divided into three years later. In reality, no such agreement was concluded at the conference, whose main defect was instead the lack of any clear agreement about the potentially divisive effects of the respective visions of the postwar world. In its inattention to detail, its inability to distinguish the primary from the secondary issues, and its indulgence in wishful thinking, Yalta was characteristic of the excessively casual and highly personalized World War II coalition diplomacy—features that linked it with the later superpower diplomacy in style, if not in substance.

At issue in both the Soviet and the American visions of the postwar world was the choice between hegemony—domination by a single power—and condominium—predominance by several, not necessarily two, cooperating powers. Stalin's vision, now possible to reconstruct from Soviet archival documents, was that of a Europe in which the Soviet Union would have emerged, because of its overwhelming military victory, as the sole great power on the continent. He expected to achieve this hegemonic position by working with, rather than against, his American and British allies. But suspicious as he was of the motives of anyone he could not control, he sought to secure a particularly strong hold on the neighboring peoples of Eastern Europe, most of whom were traditionally hostile to Russia. Seeking absolute security, as dictators are predisposed to do, he could only achieve it at the cost of the absolute insecurity of those around him.

There has been a long-standing controversy about whether Stalin originally aimed at establishing communist regimes in Europe, as they were in fact later established under his auspices in its eastern part. No evidence of such a premeditated design has been found, although Stalin, as a communist, took it for granted that communism would eventually prevail in the world. In practical terms, at issue was the kind of control he considered necessary to satisfy his sweeping notion of security. In Eastern Europe it soon became evident that nothing short of the monopoly of power by the communist parties beholden to Moscow could ensure the attainment of Soviet security as Stalin understood it. This entailed the extension of the Stalinist system, whose record of arbitrary rule, disregard for human rights, and genocide justified apprehension about what Soviet hegemony meant.

The American vision of international order blended U.S. security interests more successfully with those of other nations. It was more innovative than Stalin's vision in that it did not rely on crude power: in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States reduced its formidable military machine much more drastically than the Soviet Union did. Americans were sufficiently confident in their economic power, democratic political system, and the international arrangements they had been instrumental in bringing about within the framework of the United Nations. U.S. hegemony, while liable to be resented as any hegemony would be, was incomparably more benign than the Soviet variety.

A school of American revisionist historians has challenged the traditional view, according to which Stalin's policies were primarily responsible for prompting the U.S.–Soviet rivalry that became known as the Cold War. Inspired by the writings of William Appleman Williams, the revisionists have regarded especially America's hegemonic economic diplomacy—the quest for an "open door" through which the United States would inevitably walk the tallest—as a prescription for conflict. Yet the Soviet Union, taking a Marxist view, considered America's economic power to be resting on shaky foundations. Expecting the wartime boom to be followed by a crisis of over-production, much on the order of the Great Depression, the Soviet Union expected to benefit from the capitalists' distress by being able to obtain U.S. economic assistance on its own terms.

Immediate post–World War II diplomacy had more in common with the traditional variety than with later superpower diplomacy. The July–August 1945 Potsdam conference of the Big Three—their first gathering after the victory in Europe and the last for another ten years—was about practical issues concerning treatment of the defeated Germany in anticipation of a later peace treaty. The London conference in September of that year inaugurated the Council of Foreign Ministers as what the three powers still believed would be their supreme coordinating body supervising the building of a new international order compatible with their respective interests. Although the incompatibility of those interests was becoming progressively evident, nothing yet pointed unequivocally to the emergence of a bipolar system dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. For one thing, Great Britain still played an important role, often taking the lead over the United States in challenging the Soviet Union, and was for that reason regarded by Stalin as more dangerous a rival than the United States.

Despite their international ascendancy as a result of World War II, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were superpowers in 1945. Later that year the United States exploded the first nuclear bomb, but it did not effectively link its atomic monopoly to diplomacy. According to Gar Alperovitz and other historians of U.S. foreign policy, the very possession of the superweapon gave Washington a powerful policy tool that could not fail to have a constraining effect on the policies of other countries, particularly the Soviet Union. Yet the United States showed an unwillingness to use the tool by proposing in June 1946 the Baruch Plan for the international control of atomic energy.

Nor did Stalin link nuclear weapons to diplomacy. Although he was prompted to accelerate the construction of the Soviet Union's own atomic bomb—the reason why the Soviet Union rejected the Baruch Plan—he notably failed to be constrained by the U.S. nuclear monopoly. As late as 1946 he was confident that he could secure Soviet primacy in Europe and pursue Soviet interests elsewhere in the world by besting the Western powers in the diplomatic game. The revealing secret exchanges between him and his foreign minister, Viacheslav M. Molotov, when the latter was attending the July–September 1946 Paris conference on peace treaties with Germany's former allies, show Stalin as being contemptuous of the Western statesmen's diplomatic skills as well as guts. The resulting peace treaties with Germany's former allies amounted to the reluctant recognition by the West of Soviet supremacy in Eastern Europe.

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