Superpower Diplomacy

Vojtech Mastny

The concept of a superpower was a product of the Cold War and the nuclear age. Although the word appeared, according to Webster's dictionary, as early as 1922, its common usage only dates from the time when the adversarial relationship of the United States and the Soviet Union became defined by their possession of nuclear arsenals so formidable that the two nations were set apart from any others in the world. It came to be widely, though by no means universally, accepted that the very possession of these weapons, regardless of their actual use, made the two nations immensely more powerful than any other.

Superpower diplomacy is thus closely related to nuclear weapons. They gave the U.S.–Soviet diplomatic intercourse its distinct character. During the years when the United States and the Soviet Union were in superpower positions in relation to their allies and clients in different parts of the world, their respective relations with those countries were of a different order and are therefore usually not considered under the rubric of superpower diplomacy. These relationships nevertheless influenced the manner in which Washington and Moscow dealt with one another.

Superpower diplomacy was a product of particular historical circumstances, characterized by bipolarism—the domination of the international system by two exceptionally powerful states locked in an adversarial relationship. Historically, such circumstances were highly unusual. The age of the superpowers began in 1945 with the appearance of nuclear weapons and ended in 1991 with the disappearance of one of the superpowers, the Soviet Union. The subsequent survival of the United States as "the world's only superpower" evolved in a radically different international environment, where bilateralism had ceased to exist and the concept of superpower diplomacy therefore lost its original meaning.

Despite its uniqueness and limited life span, superpower diplomacy was important because it altered and distorted previously established diplomatic practices by making the conduct of diplomacy dependent, to an unaccustomed degree, upon a new kind of weaponry that carried with it the threat of universal annihilation. The dependence tended to impose oversimplification upon a profession traditionally known for its subtlety, sometimes raising questions about whether diplomacy may not have outlived its usefulness because of the limitations placed on it by the crudeness and excess of the new power it wielded. Although such predictions proved wrong, the overriding concern with the management of that power left indelible marks on diplomacy, making it difficult to adjust to an era in which nuclear weapons continued to exist but bipolarism no longer applied.

While the superpower status of the United States and the Soviet Union derived from what the two countries had in common, the understanding of their diplomatic interaction requires constant attention to the differences that distinguished them from each other. One was a pluralistic democracy with a government accountable to the people. The other was a one-party dictatorship ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy accountable only to itself. At the same time, both the United States and the Soviet Union defined themselves in different ways as outsiders to the traditional European system of power politics, which they regarded as alien to their respective values as well as detrimental to international order.

Twice in the twentieth century the United States attempted to reform the international system in accordance with its own, specifically American, model of a democratic federalism. It sought to ensure its primacy because of its superior economic power and presumably higher morality in an international system where the interests of all nations would be secured by generally accepted international institutions and procedures designed to mitigate and manage conflict. Unlike the United States, the Soviet state in its early years sought to overthrow rather than reform what it regarded as an inherently destructive and ultimately doomed capitalist world order. Soviet leaders originally believed in a world revolution that would result in a community of states living in harmony because of their common dedication to Marxist principles, with the Soviet state as the first among equals. They hoped to conduct revolutionary diplomacy in conjunction with the management of congenial communist parties directed from Moscow.

Although both the United States and the Soviet Union had to adapt their utopian tenets to real life, the idealistic and ideological streaks never entirely disappeared from their foreign policies, making their diplomacy different from that of other countries, irrespective of their later superpower status. The United States, sobered by the rejection by its own Senate of the League of Nations designed during World War I by President Woodrow Wilson and the subsequent descent of Europe into another world war, subsequently attempted to build the United Nations on more realistic grounds, including a directorate of the main great powers. Once the concept of a directorate based on collaboration with the Soviet Union proved not realistic enough, American policymakers became more—though never entirely—receptive to European notions of balance of power based on the pursuit of national interest, as propagated by influential scholars of European origin such as Hans Morgenthau.

Under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union likewise abandoned in practice its earlier revolutionary utopia in favor of a foreign policy that instead embraced many of the traditional goals of Russian imperialism. Under Stalin the Soviet Union became an opportunistic player in the international system, expanding its territory and sphere of influence first in collaboration with Nazi Germany, and, after Germany attacked it in World War II, in collaboration with the Western powers. To what extent Soviet foreign policy became traditional foreign policy despite the communist ideology of its practitioners became a tantalizing question for the United States once the Soviet Union emerged as its main rival and remains a contentious issue among historians and political scientists. The opening of former Soviet archives after the end of the Cold War has made more of them conclude that Marxist-Leninist ideological preconceptions continued to shape Soviet foreign policy in important ways until its very end—not so much by determining its goals as by providing the conceptual framework through which policymakers viewed the outside world and interpreted the intentions and capabilities of their adversaries.

Accordingly, the Soviet Union was long reluctant to accept the notion that there were two superpowers, which implied commonality with its capitalist adversary as well as permanence of the hostile system presided over by the United States, with its superior resources. The notion is of Western origin and was always more popular with critics of the superpowers than with either of them. In any case, their superpower relationship had come into being before it was recognized and labeled as such, and neither of the two rivals was able to anticipate correctly what their future relationship would be like.


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See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Balance of Power ; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Cold War Termination ; Containment ; Deterrence ; Internationalism ; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Power Politics .

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