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The Cold War and the Imperialism of Nation-States

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role of the imperialism of nation-states in the Cold War. It suggests that the Cold War rivalry provided the “frame of reference” in which the historical forces of imperialism and nationalism interacted with developments such as decolonization, multiculturalism, and new ideologies and modes of identity formation. The chapter also argues that while the equilibrium of Cold War rivalry generated an entrenched political and ideological hegemony limiting the realization of political, economic, and imaginative possibilities in much of the world, the developing world represented significant weak links and played an equally important role in its collapse.

Keywords: imperialism, nation-states, Cold War, nationalism, decolonization, multiculturalism, identity formation, developing world

I wish to grasp the cold war in terms of the historical forces of imperialism and nationalism that have characterized the globe for over a century. Within that long century the cold war may be seen as a distinct historical period shaped, as the name suggests, by a rivalry between two nuclear superpowers or hegemons that threatened global destruction. As a period, the cold war is characterized not only by events, personalities, and policy decisions, nor even by the paradigm of international relations alone. Rather its historical significance arises from the re-configuration of long-term historical structures. The cold war rivalry provides the frame of reference within which the historical forces of imperialism and nationalism interact with developments such as decolonization, multiculturalism, and new ideologies and modes of identity formation, thus producing a novel configuration. The evolving configuration transforms and is affected by other historical processes regarding race, gender, class, religion, and rights among others. Of course, we come to recognize the configuration more surely only at the point when it begins to unravel—at dusk when Hegel's Owl of Minerva takes flight—marking the end of the period.

While the cold war hardly began or went out with a bang, superpower rivalry is customarily said to have begun in 1947, when the Truman Doctrine sought to contain communism and the expansion of Soviet influence, and ended with the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the late 1980s. I want to view the period as a heuristic device, a provisional enframing that allows us to make sense of the events and developments taking place between two dates. Periods in history always make sense from a particular point of view, especially that of political power, and there are many areas of life that are relatively untouched by the dominant historical structure. Further, as our historical perspective changes, we may see other longer-term trends both pre-dating and outliving the cold war that may well be (p. 87) more significant; if so, we may hope that our hypothesis would have enabled that view. Note also that this enframing provides the terms of reference; it says little about agency regarding whether the two superpowers were the only important actors or whether other powers or subaltern states could not play the system or test its boundaries.

While the equilibrium of cold war rivalry generated an entrenched political and ideological hegemony limiting the realization of political, economic, and imaginative possibilities in much of the world, there were several weak links in the system that contributed to its breakdown. While many look to America and Europe for the causes, I argue toward the end of this essay that the developing world represented significant weak links—or relative autonomy in the system—and played an equally important role in its collapse.

Historical conditions of the cold war

The end of World War II is thought to mark the end of an epoch. Not only were ultra-nationalist ideologies of fascism, Nazism, and racism defeated, but 1945 also marked the beginning of the end of imperialism. The last was not fully accepted by European imperialists, who made several last-ditch efforts to retake their colonies, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa. But by 1960 there were few Europeans who believed in the need for colonies.2 The decolonization movement had triumphed, and the postwar world order was enshrined in the United Nations ideal of national self-determination and global development. Yet whereas the UN world order was enshrined in theory, the real world order was determined by the two superpowers and their rivalry. I turn to the longer-term history in which this real order ought to be seen.

While the nation-state (or at least those that were not ultra-nationalist or fascistic) was deemed in the UN ideal to be a model of self-governance, through most of its history the nation-state had been inseparable from imperialist domination of other peoples and societies. By the 19th century the nation-state was already established in the major imperialist societies of Britain and France. Together with the national capitalists, the nation-state became the principal player in the inter-imperialist rivalry for colonies and resources. British imperialism dominated the world for much of the 19th century, but from the last third of the century this dominance came to be increasingly threatened by the rise of new nation-states with imperialist ambitions, including Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and the United States. Most of these states sought to modernize and compete globally by creating and mobilizing the nationalist—even hyper-nationalist—sentiments of its citizenry.

The end of World War I led to yet another change in imperialism undertaken not by the old European imperialist powers but by new powers such as Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is an imperialism that I call the “imperialism of nation-states,” and its first expression may be seen in the Japanese puppet state of (p. 88) Manchukuo established in northeast China (or Manchuria) from 1932 to 1945. In part responding to the increasing demands for economic and political parity made by the new anti-imperialist movement in the colonies, and in part because of economic competition with and between the new imperialists, imperialists sought to create regional formations or economic blocs. These colonies or subordinate territories were often re-constituted as nominally sovereign nation-states, although they remained militarily in thrall to the metropole. The imperialism of nation-states reflected a strategic reorientation of the periphery to be part of an organic formation designed to attain global supremacy for the imperial power. As Albert Lebrun declared after World War I, the goal was now to “unite France to all those distant Frances in order to permit them to combine their efforts to draw from one another reciprocal advantages.”3

With the simultaneous rise of rights consciousness in the colonies and dependencies and the increased need for resource and social mobilization within them, it was more efficient for the imperialists to foster modern and indirectly controlled institutions in them. The aim was to control these areas by dominating their institutions of mobilization, such as banks, the transportation infrastructure, and political institutions, which were created to resemble those of the metropole (such as legislative councils, institutions of political tutelage, and political parties like the communist parties or the Concordia in Manchukuo). In short, unlike British free trade imperialism, several interwar imperialists attended to the modernization of institutions and identities. They often espoused cultural or ideological similarities—including sometimes anti-colonial ideologies—even while racism and nationalism accompanied the reality of military-political domination.

Subordinate states were militarily dependent upon and economically mobilized for the sake of the metropole. Nevertheless, it was not necessarily in the latter's interest to have them economically or institutionally backward. This imperialism thus occasionally entailed a separation of economic and military-political dimensions. In some situations, as in the Japan–Manchukuo relationship (and later, as we shall see, in the Soviet case), massive investments and resources flowed into the client-states, thereby breaching the classical dualism between an industrialized metropole and a colony focused on the primary sector common to colonial imperialism.4

Imperialism and the cold war

In its ideal expression, the cold war represented a logical culmination of the new imperialism. Two superpowers sought to gain the loyalty of theoretically sovereign nation-states that would be militarily dependent upon the hegemonic power and subject to its political, economic, and ideological strategies. Of course, reality was much messier; first there were rivalries within each camp, and the British did not give up hope of superpower status until the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958.5 In this (p. 89) respect, the Soviet- People's Republic of China (PRC) split was much more consequential in realigning the balance of power. Second, there was the historical force of nationalism operating not only within each bloc but also outside it through the non-aligned movement (the rhetoric of which was more powerful than its politics), which resisted the hegemons and their strategies. Finally, the very polarization of the hegemons themselves permitted a few key players like Hong Kong or Ghana to leverage their status as intermediaries between the two powers.

During the post-World War II era, the Soviet Union's creation of a regional system of militarily dependent states in Eastern Europe reflected many features of the new imperialism. A shared anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideology sanctioned a centralized economic and political system. The Soviet Union combined economic leverage and military threat to integrate states that were often more economically developed than itself into a regional economy. In some ways the imperialism of the Soviet Union revealed the counter-economic consequences of this logic of empire. Not only were the client-states of the Soviet Union in Europe often more developed, but also the USSR may have subsidized their economies by supplying them with cheap oil and raw materials while importing finished products from their economies. This was the price paid by the imperial power to create and maintain dependence and assure its security.6

In part because of the consciousness of its own colonial past, and with the exception of a few places (most notably, the Philippines), the United States had long practiced imperialism without colonialism. After the Spanish–American War in 1898, the United States created a system of client-states around the Caribbean basin in Central America. These nominally independent states became increasingly dependent on the United States, which accounted for more than three-fourths of the region's foreign trade as well as the bulk of foreign investment. During the decade of the 1920s, when Japan was experimenting with indirect imperialism in Manchuria, the United States too was seeking to develop and refine informal control over Central American countries, especially as it faced revolutionary nationalism in the region. Officials, diplomats, and business groups stressed means such as US control of banking, communication facilities, investments in natural resources, and the development of education—particularly the training of elites in American-style constitutions, “free elections,” and orthodox business ideas. But the threat and reality of military intervention remained close at hand.7

American imperialism was characterized not only by the Monroe Doctrine but also by the Open Door policy. Although there were contradictions and tensions between the two approaches, there were also continuities, most importantly in the practice of using sovereign or nominally sovereign polities to advance American interests. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson pointed to the continuities when he declared that the nations of the world should “with one accord adopt the doctrine of President Monroe as the doctrine of the world . . . no nation should seek to extend its polity over any other nation or people.” But this clearly did not exclude using military force upon recalcitrant nations. Just two weeks before Wilson had sent troops to the Dominican Republic and (p. 90) committed US military forces in Haiti and Mexico as well.8 The United States sought to foster an ideological and economic hegemony among its client-states by creating them as reliable emulators subject to external economic and military constraints. Note, however, that this imperialism did not become developmentally oriented until the early 1960s, when it was forced to respond to the Cuban revolution.

The tensions between American interests and global enlightenment were to be contained not only by military power, but perhaps more importantly also by the notion of a limited self-determination—the idea of tutelage. As Secretary of Interior Franklin Lane wrote in 1922: “What a people hold they hold as trustees for the world. . . . It is good American practice. The Monroe Doctrine is an expression of it. . . . That is why we are talking of backward peoples and recognizing for them another law than that of self-determination, a limited law of self-determination, a leading-string law.”9 Little wonder then that the Japanese representative at the League of Nations hearings on Manchukuo repeatedly insisted on the Asiatic Monroe Doctrine as Japan's prerogative in Asia.

In the post-World War II period, this combination of interest, enlightenment, and military violence developed into what Carl Parrini has called “ultraimperialism.” The latter refers to US efforts to maintain cooperation and reduce conflict among imperialist nations who were busily scrambling to create monopolistic or exclusive market conditions in various parts of the world during the first half of the 20th century.10 “Ultraimperialism” is secured by a chain of military bases around the globe—and structures such as the International Monetary Fund, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and World Bank—to enable the conditions of cooperation among advanced capitalist powers and to facilitate the new (developmental or modernizing) imperialism in the decolonized world. With the cold war, the US developed a global empire employing, in the words of Arrighi, Hui, Hung, and Selden, a vast system of “political and military vassalage” and fostering a “functional specialization between the imperial and vassal (nation) states ….” In this respect, the postwar United States represents the apogee of the imperialism of nation-states.11

My point is not that the cold war represents the essence of imperialism. Rather, we cannot understand the cold war fully without analyzing how the historical relationship between imperialism and nationalism came to be configured anew in the postwar circumstances. Imperialism no longer emphasized conquest on the basis of innate differences among peoples and their inevitable destinies of superiority and exploitation. As noted, moreover, it was development oriented, and there were considerable opportunities for states and societies to move up the economic ladder. The imperialist factor lay in the imposition of designs for enlightenment upon emergent nations by an enormously superior national power backed by military force. These enlightenment designs were shot through with paternalism, national interests, and covert racist prejudices that constantly produced contradictions and tensions. Indeed, one could argue that it was this configuration of national imperialism that led to resistance to both the Soviet Union (contributing to its decline) as well as the United States in many parts of the world.

(p. 91) The cold war and nations

We will explore this cold war configuration through the analysis of the three camps often identified in the literature: the mature capitalist world allied to the US, the socialist camp dominated by the Soviet Union, and the developing world of decolonizing nation-states. Although it was the rivalry between the first two camps that shaped the global landscape, the relations among the first two camps were not symmetrical. The description by Arrighi et al. of the US Empire as “political and military vassalage” indicates a hierarchical coalition around a military hegemon rather than pure clientage. Thus Britain, Japan, France, and Germany developed a close partnership of interests and were important beneficiaries of US strategies and investments.

The reduced power and severe indebtedness of the British as produced by World War II not only increased the dependence of the British upon the US but also renewed its need for empire to service the American debt. The chief mechanism used was to increase the dollar earnings of British colonial and dependent states and exchange these at an imperially mandated, lower than market, pound sterling rate. Although the US was not necessarily keen on the imperialist sterling zone, the onset of the cold war made it much more favorably disposed to maintain the status quo with regard to the old empires. Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson have detailed the ways in which the British Empire was rescued and transformed as part of the Allied front in the cold war, especially in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.

During the Suez crisis in 1956, the US refused to back British and French military efforts to prevent nationalization of the Canal by Egypt's Nasser. Particularly after a brief exchange of nuclear saber-rattling between the two superpowers, Britain saw the virtue of the American perspective on independence of the colonies. It settled into its role as junior partner to the US in order to maintain its economic interests in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia by seeking to control the independence movements and keep them away from Soviet influence. Britain and the European powers increasingly began to rely on American finances, investments, and most of all, strategic concerns in Africa to protect their own interests.12

US dominance within its camp was characterized first and foremost by a chain of about 1,700 military bases in over a hundred nation-states that had varying degrees of clientelist ties to it. These garrisons were strategic enclaves supervised by the Pentagon and sustained by—as much as they sustained—a vast military industrial complex. The bases were often highly privileged enclaves that frequently fostered arrogant attitudes toward the surrounding population, particularly in the non-European regions.13 For instance, entire townships or camptowns in the Philippines and Korea composed of the sex trade as the main industry sprung up around the bases.14

Economically, the principal client-states in Asia, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey, benefited handsomely and grew rapidly from their ties with the US. US economic and military aid to South Korea and Taiwan was among the greatest (p. 92) and undoubtedly contributed to the economic miracle that these two societies performed from the 1960s. For instance, between 1946 and 1979 (although mostly until the mid-1960s), South Korea received about $7 billion in military and $6 billion in economic aid. Taiwan was also the recipient of similar magnitudes of aid. Privileged access to US markets and US tolerance of protected domestic markets made South Korea under military dictator Park Chung Hee, which by the late 1940s had become one of the poorest countries in the world, into the 12th largest economy by the late 1970s. At the same time, this backing strengthened the capacity of authoritarian development and the national security state in most of these client-states.15

Thus, while the economies of US allies and client-states in Asia developed rapidly, subservience to US military power and interests did not work out smoothly in the wider society. In Japan, a popular, ethnic nationalism identified with an anti-imperialist stance came to be directed against the US.16 Here the extent of popular disaffection with US policies and ideology became visible during certain periods, for instance during the renewal of the unpopular 1951 Security Treaty in 1960 and the Vietnam War, but was limited in duration and spread. South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other smaller allies were not only heavily garrisoned with military bases, but also suffered local military dictatorships through much of the period. The resistance in Vietnam across a wide spectrum of the population is of course well known. Although the economic strategies and ready access to the consumer markets of the developed world in the West enabled considerable economic growth in some of the other societies, the population became deeply alienated from the highly repressive governments. In Korea and the Philippines (and to a lesser extent in Taiwan), popular resistance contributed to the democratization of these states in the last decade of the cold war.

Solidarity within the socialist camp was much weaker within society and across nations. From the early period, there was considerable disaffection with the tight state controls of life and economy produced by the generalization of the Soviet state's Stalinist model which was built not only in Soviet republics and Eastern Europe but also in Asian countries like China, Mongolia, North Vietnam, and North Korea. There were many outbursts of resistance in these societies, and the severe and violent repression that followed ensured that disaffection would continue to fester. But this did not apply to all areas of society. Socialist revolution had brought large classes of the poor and disenfranchised a better material life, especially in the Soviet Union and China, and the all-pervasive ideology of socialist personhood and moral superiority over capitalism constituted an important source of identity for many people. But socialist egalitarianism and collectivism were not the only ideological instruments fostered to build solidarity. The other powerful ideology of the time developed and utilized by the Soviet state was the idea of nationality rights.

While the idea of national rights goes back to the French Revolution, Bolshevik theorists developed the idea of a federated state of nations in the Soviet Union as an alternative to the imperialist domination of “backward” peoples or races (note, however, the Chinese Republic of Five Nationalities was instituted five years before, in 1912).17 In the process, what developed was an idea of nationhood as constituted by the cultures of (p. 93) different nationalities and could also be seen in opposition to assimilative ideas of nationhood, such as for instance, in the model of the “melting pot” in the US. Interestingly, the US was to develop its version of this idea—multiculturalism and respect for the variety of national cultures both within and outside the US—only with the advent of the cold war.

In contrast to the European socialists of the Second International, the Bolsheviks, and even Stalin, who would famously work from the 1920s to curtail their autonomy, were theoretically committed to the rights of nations to self-determination based on the right to secede.18 The Bolshevik position on national self-determination entailed territorial autonomy without party autonomy. Communist parties in the non-Russian territories were not particularly nationalized, and the Soviet goal was to subordinate national loyalties to “proletarian” (i.e., party) interests. Japanese empire builders in the 1930s were quick to study the Soviet model of the multinational state for Manchukuo. To these observers Soviet nationality policy fulfilled the goals of federalism and protected minority rights while at the same time strengthening the power of the Soviet state and the military in relation to separatism. Thus, nationalism was not suppressed but utilized positively for the goals of the state.19 Although for different reasons, the strategies of utilizing nationality policy for state control failed in both Manchukuo and the Soviet Union.

Of course, the Soviet Union practically prevented secession until the very end. But, according to Rogers Brubaker, it did a great deal to institutionalize territorial nationhood and ethnic nationality as fundamental categories of political and personal understanding. The Soviet strategy was to contain, control, and even harness different sources of dissent by creating national-territorial structures of administrative control and fostering loyal national elites. The Soviet state may have been said to have produced both quasi-nation-states and ethnic nationalities where there were often none before.20 Ironically, it ended up fostering national consciousness in places where it had been very weak or non-existent, often at the expense of identification with the Soviet Union which never succeeded in generating its own narrative or symbolism of nationhood.

Although official nationalities existed only in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia (after 1968), as Katherine Verdery argues, ethnic nationalism intensified and became closely intertwined with socialism in all the other East European socialist republics. Despite the official ideology of trans-ethnic class politics, in the absence of other civic organizations, ethno-nationalism mirrored the monolithic nature of the party-state. Just as the party's image of the “People-as-One” cast all who disagreed with it as enemies of the People, so, too, ethno-nationalists could depict those outside the pure nation as its potential enemy. This kind of politics became particularly nasty with the collapse of the system, when ethnic leaders scrambled to create new states dominated by their group, thus reproducing through still more vicious ways—such as ethnic cleansing—the close connection between (imperialistic) domination and nationalism.21

The imperial national configuration in which national culture was utilized in the Soviet republics for purposes of the Soviet state and socialist interests affected many dimensions of social life. For instance, in the Central Asian socialist republic of (p. 94) Uzbekistan, the Soviet party-state sought to “enlighten” society by seeking the support of Muslim women both to reform such practices as polygamy and bride-price and simultaneously establish the power of the party-state in this region. In turn, these policies generated resistance from Uzbek men. Not surprisingly, Uzbek national identity emerged in their resistance to such enlightenment campaigns, particularly over the symbolism of veiled women. Uzbek women, whose stories are archived by Douglas Northrop, found themselves painfully caught between their patriarchal society and the Soviet state.22

The new imperial national configuration in the US—though by no means identical to the Soviet Union—also had important social ramifications within the US and in its attitudes and policies abroad. While the US had distanced itself from European racial imperialism since at least the war, it continued to erect racist barriers to citizenship—for instance against Asian immigrants—until 1942. Moreover, the decolonizing world noted a distinct ambivalence of the US toward the ability of darker-skinned people to govern themselves through the early postwar decades and sometimes also became implicated in the efforts of European powers to restore their imperial claims in the colonies. Once the doctrine of containment became fully developed and anti-communism hit fever pitch –particularly with the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s—the US began to be seen increasingly as a neo-imperial power, especially in the non-aligned nations of the decolonizing world.

In fact, US attitudes toward race and the colonial world in the era of United Nations multi-nationalism underwent a fundamental change. Although the roots of change were probably connected to wartime developments, especially the alliance with China, the postwar attitudes were influenced by the decolonizing movement in the context of the rivalry with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of these nations. In other words, the circumstances of the cold war itself induced many of these changes. Christina Klein has shown in her exploration of “middle-brow culture” in the US how the fear of the loss of Asia to communism, especially after the Korean war and wars in Southeast Asia, led to radical changes in the image of American nationhood as premised upon a multicultural society. She uses the idea of cultural hegemony to show how representations of Asia and the Pacific reinforced the “cold war consensus” which supported US expansion of power across the world through the 1950s. Through these representations, “structures of feeling” were created, which worked to channel ideological configurations into the field of emotions, experience, and consciousness of ordinary people. What Klein calls “Cold War Orientalism” did not merely seek to contain communism; it sought to sentimentally integrate Americans with the Orientals who had not yet been made communist, both within the US and internationally.23

The image of the US as “the nation of nations” comes through particularly well in the enormously successful historical novel by James Michener (1959), Hawaii. As a land of diverse cultures, Hawaii could emerge as the model of racial utopia with its flows and mingling of Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, and New England whites. It is perhaps not too surprising that the civil rights movement also began to develop in this environment. At the same time, this new-found appreciation continued to be channeled through the (p. 95) paternalistic designs of enlightenment for the misfortunate and child-like Asians and other backward peoples. Klein also notes that the image of Asians as metaphorical children to American parents—as well as the postwar phenomenon of adoption of many Asian children pioneered by Pearl Buck's organization—justified American intervention in Asia.24

Notably, during the Pacific War the Japanese had also appealed to their Asian “brethren” to resist the US and European imperialists. This appeal, which had justified Japanese intervention in East Asia, extended the imperial Japanese metaphor of the family-state to all Asians as part of a family of nations. The Russians also sought to reinforce their solidarity in the second world by appealing to their younger socialist brothers in China and elsewhere during the 1950s. Toward China this kind of patronizing attitude was accompanied by a communist evolutionary narrative of history in which the Chinese were seen as backward and in need of help because they had been caught for so long in the stagnant Asiatic mode of production. Needless to say, these euphemisms of dominance backfired most surely in a newly resurgent and proud China.

Hegemony and counter-hegemony

In the developing world the hegemonic cold war configuration and decolonizing and anti-imperialist movements came to be shaped by each other. On the one hand, the anti-colonial struggles had a major impact on the nature of the cold war, influencing the responses of the superpowers and their future in some cases. The best example is, of course, the Vietnam War, which strained the financial and moral power of the US and contributed to the relative weakening of US economic strength vis-à-vis Japan and Europe. On the other hand, by and large the cold war had a deeply divisive impact on the developing world, weakening what counter-hegemonic potential it possessed.

One of the cruellest ironies of the cold war was that, while the US and its allies championed democracy and freedom as their goals, more often than not in the developing world they ended up supporting undemocratic military regimes, dictators, and monarchies alienated from the aspirations of the ordinary people. The frequent intervention of Western powers to protect their interests in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and the covert and overt US operations in Latin America, polarized and radicalized large segments of the population in these societies. Driven by the need to secure oil supplies in the Middle East, Anglo-American interests sought to develop the pre-war system of mandates and protectorates by establishing military bases and reliable clients who were both anti-Soviet and anti-democratic. In 1953, the CIA engineered the coup in Iran that overthrew the elected government of Muhammad Mossadeq which had nationalized Iranian oil, and restored the Shah as an American protégé.

Even in South Asia, seemingly quite distant from the lethal cold war rivalries, the US involvement with Pakistan considerably affected the nature of that society. Hamza Alavi has shown that the strong military alliance with Pakistan—including a highly secretive (p. 96) US military base in Pakistan near the Persian Gulf—did not, contrary to Indian views, have to do with its rivalry with India. Rather it was part of a new Anglo-American strategy for the defense of oil interests in the Gulf. Around the time the CIA overthrew the Mossadeq government in August 1953, there was a flurry of negotiations between the Pakistani government and military and the US and a military alliance between the two countries was concluded in May 1954. In 1955, Pakistan became a signatory to the Baghdad Pact.25 Through these treaties Pakistan (and Turkey, the other trusted ally in the region) undertook to provide military service whenever an allied regime (such as the Shah's) was threatened internally or externally. The extent of American involvement with the Pakistani military was so great that it completely marginalized the civilian government even before the first military coup in that country in 1959. The US-Pakistan relationship and the deteriorating relations between India and China as well as the Soviet Union and China led India, despite its official non-aligned stand, to tilt toward the Soviet Union. It received considerable military and industrial support from the latter. Although the US has been careful not to overtly support Pakistan in the wars against India, it is nonetheless ironic that it found itself allied with the wrong side when it came to democracy and the national aspirations of Bangladeshis.26

The most dramatic intervention in Africa took place after Congo (Katanga) won its independence from Belgium in 1960. Patrice Lubumba, who tried to build an independent nation-state on the socialist model and align his nation with the Soviet Union, was removed from power and finally murdered by his opponents, backed militarily by the Europeans and the Kennedy administration. Congo became a vast client-state of the United States with huge investments in its mineral resources. Similarly the coup directed against Sukarno and the communists in Indonesia, where hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million—people were killed in 1965, had the tacit backing of the CIA.27

As Odd Arne Westad has shown, Soviet intervention in the developing world was not as extensive or committed until the 1970s and 1980s. While the Soviets supported radical movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, these were largely home-grown Marxist or leftist movements which sought the support of the Soviet bloc. The early Soviet leadership was not quite convinced that revolution could be truly successful in these societies even though it was important for Soviet superpower status to be influential in the emerging nation-states and utilize them for the goals of Soviet socialism. Communist victory in Vietnam among other developments in the 1970s, however, emboldened the Soviet leadership to intervene more actively in places such as Ethiopia, Angola, and finally, with disastrous effects, in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Afghanistan also represented the spread of Islamist radicalism as an alternative to the ideologies of socialism and capitalism and to the legitimacy of the national unit as the boundary of cold war politics.28

Even while the cold war represented a new type of imperialist or hegemonic domination of other nation-states and intervention in nation-states belonging to the other camp, the principle of national sovereignty remained the exclusive basis of legitimate and legal power. The rest was informal, covert, and real. This interface between the national and the imperial was a crucial factor in the cold war configuration. I hesitate to (p. 97) call this interface a “structural hypocrisy,” because both parts, the legal/legitimate and the illegal/illegitimate—the imperialism of nation-states—were essential to cold war politics. Born in the circumstances of competition, the nation-state generated and required domination of others for self-fulfillment. “Spy versus spy” was paradoxically only the most visible dimension of the novelty of the cold war.

The importance of the national form in the cold war should not be underestimated. The legal charter of nations was sanctioned by the United Nations and other multinational forums, including the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which regulated trade ties between sovereign nations in the non-socialist world. The nation was the only bearer of rights in international society, and this recognition was a critical resource for states, whatever their real status. We have already indicated the importance of the national principle in the Soviet camp. But the equilibrium sustained by cold war rivalry tended to congeal the political terrain of nation-states organized in the two camps. The territorial boundaries and the institutional and political arrangements established to the superpower's advantage in the new nation-states had its military support.

The superpowers sought to preserve or acquiesce in the dominant groups that had formed the client nation-state because any change or destabilization might strengthen the other side. Since these arrangements had often not evolved historically—as they had in the West—but had been hastily put together by urban or military elites (including Eastern and Central Europe) in highly contested terrains, the new states in both camps were frequently repressive and partisan. This often led to an interesting variant of the national-imperial configuration whereby the dominant ethnic group or military leaders or a combination were able to use tacit or overt hegemonic support to suppress other ethnic or subaltern classes within the new nation-state. The number of separatist, irredentist, and popular—religious and civic—movements that broke out with the weakening or collapse of the cold war is evidence of this suppression.29

Another area in which the cold war affected the decolonizing nations was the pattern of national economic development, which was modeled on those of one or the other superpowers. Even the non-aligned movement, led by countries such as India, which sought to develop a new economic development model, ended up combining elements from the Soviet and free-market system (arguably gaining the advantages of neither). The theories of its founding fathers like Mahatma Gandhi, based as they were on autarkic, self-sufficient rural communities, were shelved even before they saw the light of day as Nehru sought to develop a Soviet-style planned economy with elements of free enterprise. Indeed, the non-aligned movement per se was not sufficiently unified or strong to upset the power equilibrium that sustained the cold war.

While patterns of economic development largely followed those of the hegemons, the state form typically adopted in the new nations was the form of territorial (though often military and not civic) citizenship in a centralizing, developmental, and sometimes, redistributive state. To be sure, the origins of the developmental state can be traced to the interwar period, but the dynamics of the cold war reinforced the pattern. Both the socialist state and the welfare state in Europe reinforced the anti-colonial movement's rhetoric of the need for a strong state to achieve the goals of social justice. In Asia, even (p. 98) among nations most influenced by American strategies of economic development, such as the export-oriented strategies of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan—in contrast to the import-substitution strategy of the rest—the centralizing state played an increasingly important role in society. In part, the US concurred with this model of the strong state because of the undemocratic nature of many of its allies and clients, such as Park Chung Hee in Korea and Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. Note that while “modernization theory,” which represented the academic and developmental paradigm for non-revolutionary and non-socialist economic development, is well-known for minimizing problems of class and stratification, at the same time it did not seek to minimize the role of the state—a phenomenon that was to become much more pronounced in the post-cold war neo-liberal ideology. This kind of state-building and penetration in the new nations also produced a massive societal backlash.

It is important to understand how the developmental state came to play an important role in the cold war configuration. In the roughly hundred-year history of the modern nation-state prior to the cold war, nation-making took place in an external environment driven by competition, imperialism, racism, or ethnic chauvinism and warfare, and domestically by homogenizing populations and developing resources for economic growth. The cold war stand-off permitted decolonizing elites some breathing room to develop their nation-states in somewhat artificially delimited spaces, free from external competitive pressures, but not from internal challenges.

Faced with the challenge of creating a nation from its diverse, sometimes warring communities, state builders in the new nations utilized the prevailing territorial model of the nation-state, which granted equal citizenship to all its inhabitants regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion, as a means of creating a homogenized citizenry. Other military and administrative means of centralizing power, often sanctioned by the relevant superpower, were more commonly utilized to impose local designs of enlightenment upon an often unwilling population whose life-worlds were being destroyed even as tangible benefits from the changes were not readily evident. James Scott's insights into the high-modernist authoritarian state in the developing and East European “second” world are relevant here. The state which sought to administratively reorder society as “legible” by abstract, measurable, and large-scale scientific and engineering means was responding as much to the perceived backwardness as to the recalcitrance of the population, who often did not cooperate with its centralizing and modernizing projects.30

Although economic growth was relatively sluggish outside the zone of US client-states in East Asia, through the development and control of education, media, and cultural policies many of the new states succeeded in controlling the means of identity creation in their societies. Take, for instance, religious policies during the cold war period. Many new Asian states sought to monitor the religious practices of their population by enhancing the visibility of these practices in the eyes of the state. It did so by destroying uncontrollable religious groups, co-opting religious leadership, and segregating religious communities to better control their activities. This seemed to work in large part not only in East Asia but also in regions which had seen religious volatility earlier such as Indonesia and South Asia. It is remarkable that since the end of the cold war this ability (p. 99) to channel or subordinate religious identities to national goals has come rapidly undone in many parts of the world.31

We cannot undertake to study the post-cold war world dominated by a single hegemon and ideology here. Suffice it to say that the redistributive state and even the civic territorial state model are considerably weaker than before. With the entrenchment of a global market society, the state is no longer the exclusive creator of identity. Globalization may not have weakened the state per se—and in some areas it may even have strengthened it—but state nationalism is now only one among several identities created by globalization and localization. We see the transition quite clearly in the flourishing of transnational religion. The globalization of Islam, to which I will return below, is the most evident phenomenon. The rise of Hindu nationalism is in fact a transnational phenomenon. It had been largely contained during the cold war but has flourished since, in part as a response to the resurgence of Islam. In China the tremendous growth of religious affiliation and identity is testimony to the vastly changed political and social circumstances since the cold war. While the reasons for its emergence can doubtless be found in the rampant spread of capitalism in China, the transnational and local orientations of religious life are equally significant. Christianity, mostly built around house churches, is the most rapidly growing religion, and native Chinese religions, most famously—but by no means exclusively—the Falungong, also have universalist aspirations.

I have indicated the hegemonic power of the cold war configuration upon much of the developing world by looking at national modes of control (both internally and externally) and statist models of development which also channeled much of the ideological identifications of the period. In these concluding pages I will recount two cases of counter-hegemonic forces emerging from the weak links and the reactions to this domination from the developing world that contributed significantly to the end of the cold war. The first case is the People's Republic of China. After it successfully conducted its nuclear weapons test in 1964, China, which was equally estranged from the United States and the Soviet Union, not only was able to play off each power against the other, but it arguably also contributed to the ultimate collapse of the system. During the ideologically and politically polarized Cultural Revolution (1966–9), the Soviet Union came to be seen as a greater threat than the United States. China's overtures to the Nixon administration were, some argued, a direct response to the fear of Soviet attack—even nuclear attack—in 1969.32 One could thus argue that the nuclear threat not only acted as a deterrent from first attack but also influenced important shifts in the balance of power that ultimately undermined the principal superpower rivalry itself. The Reagan administration, with its heightened ideological fervor –and emboldened by the neutralization of China—ultimately raised military spending to such high levels that the Soviet Union could no longer match it and continue to supply the consumer needs of its population.

But was it only the acquisition of nuclear power that permitted China to play the relatively independent role it did? Nuclear power was certainly a necessary factor, but it was not a sufficient one. In many ways the Chinese rural revolution, which was independent of the Soviet pattern, produced a mighty party-state that was able to break away early from Soviet dependence. This was a sufficient factor as well as the precondition driving (p. 100) China to acquire the bomb. There is now debate as to how much the fledgling PRC had to concede to the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship of 1950, which enabled cooperation of the two during the Korean War and Soviet aid to China through the 1950s.33 Although the Chinese gained a great deal, the treaty was also alleged to have perpetrated Soviet imperialist-style special interests in the border regions of Xinjiang, Mongolia, and, to some extent, Manchuria. Whatever the merits of the debate, it is clear that Chinese independence was not compromised for long. The independence and power of the Chinese revolutionary state was the historical condition for the emergence of one of the crucial disequilibrating factors in the cold war. Agency in such hegemonic systems as the cold war emerges not only from the attractive power of consumer capitalism but also from alternative and momentous historical developments.

The second case is the globalization of Islam. Indeed, the globalization of Islam is not simply a post-cold war phenomenon. In many ways it was a result of, even a backlash against, the cold war configuration. From the early 1980s the mujahidin, militarily supported by the US and its Muslim allies, played the major role in driving out the Soviets from Afghanistan and bringing the Taliban to power. In turn the mujahidin were encouraged by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Even though these events preceded the end of the cold war, they represented disenchantment with the two Western options of capitalist and socialist modernity.34

It is instructive in this context to explore the writings of a relatively obscure Iranian Marxist turned Islamist Jalal Al-i Ahmad (1923–69), who died a decade before the Islamic revolution but whose work was immensely popular among the youth in Iran at the time of the revolution. Al-i Ahmad's early Marxism furnishes him with a radical critique of the contemporary imperialism of industrialized nations—including Europe, North America, and also Soviet Russia—which not only exploited the people and resources of the rest of the world but also patronized the people as objects of knowledge and “raw material for every sort of Western laboratory.” In Al-i Ahmad's view, the socialist camp is no less materialist and greedy and represents “would-be corporate colonists” who can sit quite comfortably at the same table as their capitalist counterparts. What gall him particularly are the hypocritical designs of enlightenment that strip a people of their culture and identity. “Thus only we in our Islamic totality, formal and real, obstructed the spread (through colonialism, effectively equivalent to Christianity) of European civilization, that is, the opening of new markets to the West's industries.” (61–2). Note how the Marxist materialist critique is no longer sufficient to counter the outrages against morality and identity.35


My argument for figuring the cold war as a period began with the emergence of superpower rivalry as a framework for containment. The effort to contain communism and capitalism (and covertly subvert the other), however, entailed a larger containment or (p. 101) channeling of the flow of possible change in various areas of political, social, and cultural life within its political imagination. The cold war rivalry sustained an equilibrium which tended to congeal not only the power relations between hegemonic and client-states but also the political contours of nation-states in the two camps backed by economic inducements, military power, and nuclear threat. The models of development, structures of clientage and dominance, including designs of enlightenment, and even many gender and racial-cultural relationships followed tracks that were similar within and often between the two camps. This configuration was the hegemonic form that characterized the period.

To what extent was the cold war configuration responsible for the imposition of the nation-state model, in particular, the model of the centralizing, and often authoritarian, developmental state in the developing world? To be sure, many of the features of this state model appeared in the pre-war era. Yet equally, the advantages found by hegemonic powers in the nation form to control, incentivize (key sectors usually of the elite), and mobilize support for the goals of the hegemon played a key role in the spread of the model. Indeed, the end of the cold war appears to have significantly transformed the model of the centralizing, developmental state in favor of the “Washington Consensus,” which emphasized state withdrawal and redeployment, privatization of public goods, and the model of the consumer citizen. The displacement of national regulatory frameworks by a relatively unregulated global financial system has produced its own crisis. While the nation-state and nationalism have certainly not gone away, our present crisis reveals the replacement of one configuration by another.

And what about the counter-hegemonic forces that played an important role in bringing changes to the cold war? China's role was disruptive of the rivalry and political order, but it turned out to have been counter-hegemonic only in this limited sense. Indeed, the centrality of capitalism and nationalism in China affiliates it with the victorious capitalist side in which it has become a key player today, albeit with its own developmental path. Whether we like it or not, the role of global Islam may be more powerfully counter-hegemonic. Both of these forces emerged in regions of the non-Western world that were able to recover confidence from their relatively independent historical paths—whether revolutionary or tradition-directed. Does this portend the beginning of the end of a long period of Western hegemony?

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                            (1.) I develop these themes at further length in “The Cold War as a Historical Period: An Intepretive Essay,” Journal of Global History 6 (November 2011): 457–80.

                            (2.) William Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson, “Empire Preserv’d: How the Americans put anti-Communism before Anti-imperialism,” in Prasenjit Duara, ed., Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then (London: Routledge, 2004), 155–7.

                            (3.) As quoted in D. Bruce Marshall, The French Colonial Myth and Constitution-Making in the Fourth Republic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973), 44. See also Prasenjit Duara, “The Imperialism of ‘Free Nations’: Japan, Manchukuo and the History of the Present” in Ann Stoler, Carole McGranahan, and Peter Perdue, eds., Imperial Formations and their Discontents (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2007).

                            (4.) The OED defines the client in the Roman Empire as, “A plebeian under the patronage of a patrician, in this relation called a patron (patronus), who was bound, in return for certain services, to protect his client's life and interests.” Oxford English Dictionary, <>. See also Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

                            (5.) Steve Tsang, The Cold War's Odd Couple: The Unintended Partnership between the ROC and the UK, 1950–1958 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 10, 194.

                            (6.) See Paul Marer and Kazimierz Z. Poznanski, “Costs of Domination, Benefits of Subordination,” in Jan F. Triska, ed., Dominant Powers and Subordinate States: The United States in Latin America and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 371–99.

                            (7.) Robert Freeman Smith, “Republican Policy and the Pax Americana, 1921–1932,” in William Appleman Williams, ed., From Colony to Empire: Essays in the History of American Foreign Relations (New York: John Wiley, 1972), 273–5.

                            (8.) Andrew J. Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 115–16.

                            (9.) Quoted in Smith, “Republican Policy and the Pax Americana,” 271.

                            (10.) Carl Parrini, “The Age of Ultraimperialism,” Radical History Review 57 (1993): 7–9.

                            (11.) Giovanni Arrighi, Po-keung Hui, Ho-fung Hung, and Mark Selden, “Historical Capitalism, East and West,” in G. Arrighi, T. Hamashita, and M. Selden, eds., The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2003), 259–333; the quote appears on p. 301.

                            (12.) William Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson, “Empire Preserv’d: How the Americans put Anti-Communism before Anti-imperialism,” in Duara, ed., Decolonization. For the nuclear saber-rattling exchange, see p. 157.

                            (13.) Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 23–37.

                            (14.) Linda Carty, “Imperialism: Historical Periodization or Present-day Phenomenon?” Radical History Review 57 (Fall 1993): 38–45; Katherine H. S. Moon, Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in US-Korea Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 17–18.

                            (15.) Mark Berger, Battle for Asia: From Decolonization to Globalization (London: Routledge, 2004), 225–9.

                            (16.) Curtis Anderson Gayle, “Progressive Representations of the Nation: Early Post-War Japan and Beyond,” Social Science Japan Journal 4 (2001): 9.

                            (17.) For the Soviet Union, see Ronald Grigor Suny, “Nationality Policies,” in Edward Action, Vladimir Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds., Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1915 (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 659–66. For China, see Edward J. M. Rhoads, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861–1928 (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000), 226–7.

                            (18.) J. V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, transcribed by Carl Kavanagh. Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3–5 (March–May 1913), <>.

                            (19.) Tominaga Tadashi, Manshūkoku no minzoku mondai (Shinkyō, 1943), 43–5.

                            (20.) Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18–24.

                            (21.) Katherine Verdery, “Nationalism and National Sentiment in Post-socialist Romania,” Slavic Review 52 (Summer 1993): 179–203.

                            (22.) Douglas Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

                            (23.) Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism, Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 7–16.

                            (24.) Klein, Cold War Orientalism, 253–63.

                            (25.) Hamza Alavi, “The Origins and Significance of the Pakistan–US Military Alliance,” Hamza Alavi Internet Archive, <>. See also Robert J. McMahon, The Cold War on the Periphery: The United States, India and Pakistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 160–76.

                            (26.) Alavi, “Pakistan–US Military Alliance.”

                            (27.) Jussi M. Hanhimaki and Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 167.

                            (28.) Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chapters 7 and 8.

                            (29.) For some examples from Southeast Asia, see Anthony Reid, “Cultural Revolution and (Southeast) Asian Cultures,” unpublished paper.

                            (30.) James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). See also Michael Szonyi, Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

                            (31.) Richard Madsen, “Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia,” in Martin Marty Center Web Forum, September 1, 2008.

                            (32.) This was the view in the CIA and State Department in 1969. See Yukinori Komine, Secrecy in US Foreign Policy: Nixon, Kissinger and the Rapprochement with China (Aldershot Ashgate Publishers, 2008), 118, 130.

                            (33.) Dieter Heinzig, The Soviet Union and Communist China 1945–1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004).

                            (34.) Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

                            (35.) Jalal Al-i Ahmad, “Diagnosing an Illness,” in Duara, ed., Decolonization, 56–63.