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The Cold War and U.S. Diplomacy Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 20th, 2020


The Cold War was a political conflict characterized by military tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and its political allies that occurred between 1946 and 1991. The conflict did not involve direct military confrontations; nevertheless, propaganda, espionage, and nuclear threats were common. During the Cold War, the U.S. was engaged in public diplomacy by promoting its ideals and national interests.

The U.S. promoted the ideals of democratic governance and respect of basic human rights through its public diplomacy strategy. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), at the height of the Cold War, following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, declared that the U.S. would use public diplomacy and if need be, military force to protect the oil rich Persian Gulf. This doctrine was appropriate and calmed tensions in international relations between the US and the Soviet Union.

The U.S. Foreign Policy

The hallmark of President Carter’s rule was his human rights public diplomacy in all nations. Upon taking office, Jimmy Carter undertook to streamline domestic policy by pardoning an estimated 10,000 draft men who refused to fight in the Vietnam War of 1959-1975 (Ross, 2003, p.21). This move, although opposed by war veterans, aimed at unifying gesture as far as the U.S. foreign policy was concerned since the war was over. Additionally, this move implied the unwillingness to pursue the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union.

Among the situations that called for America’s diplomacy during the Cold War include the deliberate efforts to improve relations with the Soviet Union and ease the hostilities between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The easing of tensions between the two nations, termed détente, began in 1969 to 1972, and needed America’s diplomatic efforts.

The public diplomacy efforts during the Cold War were led by the United States Information Agency (USIA), which had the primary role of preventing the spread of communism and combating propaganda from the Soviet Union (Wilson, 2004, p.147). However, Carter’s approach was more of an activist and involved the assessment of foreign opinion before policy formulation.

The Hostage Crisis in Iran

President Jimmy Carter’s doctrine was occasioned by the hostage crisis in Iran. At the time, the U.S. had little intelligence information on events taking place in Iran. Carter attempted to develop cordial relations with Iran’s military government to secure the release of 52 U.S hostages held in Iran.

However in 1979, the relations between the two countries worsened following the admission of Shah, who was suffering from cancer, into the U.S. for treatment. This action caused a diplomatic row as the Tehran military government sought Shah to stand trial for criminal charges. It sparked violent protests and an angry mob raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran to push the U.S. to return Shah to Iran. Following these events, the public diplomacy collapsed, and the U.S. hostages remained captive in Iran.

President Carter invested considerable personal efforts in resolving the crisis. He immediately suspended all oil imports originating from Iran, and froze assets owned by Iranian military government in the U.S. as an economic sanction to secure the release of the U.S. hostages.

He also deployed a military rescue unit to Iran to secure the release of the hostages. However, the raid failed, and the negotiations reached a stalemate. In 1980, the Iranian government agreed to free the hostages on condition that the U.S. unfreezes Iranian assets in the U.S and stops interfering in Iranian affairs.

The Effects of Public Diplomacy

According to Wilson (2004), the approach of public diplomacy used by President Carter turned to be effective during the Cold War in many respects. Firstly, it gave confidence to the dissidents including artists, politicians, and intellectuals from the Eastern bloc, who favored policies of the West (p.142). It also helped to spread the ideals of democracy eventually leading to the collapse of communism. It was clear, after the war in Vietnam, that the US image had been politically damaged.

As Lacquer writes, “Due to public diplomacy, America had to give propositions to other countries as opposed to commanding or military intervention in other countries” (1994, p.25). Recognizing this, Jimmy Carter embarked on promoting foreign exchange programs to promote cultural understanding. Additionally, he undertook to promote access of foreigners into American institutions to ensure a satisfactory cross-cultural understanding.

Through public diplomacy, the communist propaganda was disseminated leading to the collapse of communism from within. Additionally, public diplomacy ensures stable relations between countries thereby reducing their chances of going into war. Through continued dialogue such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II talks, better relations between the US and the Soviet Union were ensured even though government-to-government relations were not persuasive (Brinkley, 1995, p.782).

The diplomacy also promoted the recognition of human rights and increased economic interdependence between the nations. The sanctions imposed against the Soviet Union affected its economy. Likewise, the shortage of oil occasioned by the Cold War affected the US economy. The public diplomacy, therefore, enhanced cultural and economic interdependence between the nations.

The public diplomacy approach used by President Jimmy Carter served to ease strained international relations between the US and the Soviet Union. It allowed dissidents, within the Eastern bloc, to understand the ideologies, human rights, and values of the West, which contributed to the collapse of communism.

The diplomacy also contributed to the ratification of the SALT II treaty that prevented arms war between the US and Soviet Union. However, the sanctions that accompanied public diplomacy affected the economies of many countries and created a shortage of oil.

The End of the Cold War

Although many observers viewed the end of the cold war as victory for capitalism over communism, the events that led to the eventual end of the cold war were more complex and involved many dynamics over a lengthy period. In addition, even though an element of bad blood still existed between Russia and the US, the two nuclear nations had to maintain civility and even cooperation, especially in matters concerning proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The ideals of democracy and the benefits of capitalism slowly entered the ideological beliefs of many liberals within the Soviet Union. According to Suri, the common thread amongst the crises that established cracks in the Soviet communism and the institutional changes of later years was the desire for change in governance and governing principles (2002, p.62). As the cold war neared its end and many satellite nations become independent of Moscow’s influence, the average American heaved a sigh of relief.

The world at large was also able to breath easy, and the continuous and ceaseless fear of an imminent nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US that many keen followers of the Cold War had to live with for decades now ceased somewhat.

Suri further states that, no singular event led to the end of the cold war and that the actual end came as a surprise even to the keenest of observers (Suri, 2002, p.63). However, the two former antagonist nations would soon realize the need to cooperate in efforts to limit the availability of nuclear weapons worldwide.

The Current State Of US-Russia Relations

Since the end of the Cold War, several events on the world stage have led to the need for the limitation of nuclear weapons. The increase in terrorism, the emergence of rogue states with nuclear warheads such as North Korea, and an emphasis on diplomacy as means of averting war have all created a need to ensure that nuclear weapons do not fall into “wrong” hands.

The Current US president Barrack Obama has been a powerful proponent of limitation of nuclear arms. The US president has long envisioned a nuclear free world and has engaged his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in his quest to limit nuclear weapons proliferation.

In April 2008, both President Obama and President Medvedev signed the historic Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which enjoined the two countries to reducing their nuclear warheads by 30%. Both the US and Russia currently hold nearly 90% of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons and their leadership in reducing their nuclear weapons stock will, therefore, have a large impact on the global scale.

The US and Russia are also involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which aims to monitor and limit the availability and use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the world, including nuclear weapons.

The PSI promotes international cooperation in its efforts to reduce the availability and use of these weapons (Rand, 2009, p.400). According to Michael, even though the treaties and nonproliferation pacts that were signed and created during the cold war had served a noble purpose, they should not be discarded, but rather re-negotiated and sustained (2010, p.12).

Michael states that policies that take cognizance of the danger posed by state and non-state agents obtaining nuclear weapons for terrorism and blackmail purposes should be pursued. In this regard, the US and Russia have also cooperated in ensuring that proper measures are put in place to monitor the worldwide manufacture of WMDs, with the creation of the PSI in 2003.

The Future of US Diplomacy

The advent of globalization has necessitated a reorganization of the means and medium used in the pursuit of diplomatic ends. Smyth states that, the US has had to adapt its diplomatic policies to suit the advent of the Internet age (2001, p.423). The US is currently reeling from the effects of leakage of its treasured diplomatic cables from ambassadors in countries all over the world.

Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle blowing site ‘Wikileaks’ was able to obtain the diplomatic communication write ups of US ambassadors and other sensitive government diplomatic information, and subsequently undertook to releasing the information on the Internet for worldwide access. The highly embarrassing and potentially endangering leak has been a source of ceaseless shame for the US government.

Besides the increased use of the Internet as a medium of communication and information exchange in pursuit of diplomatic goals, the US has also engaged nongovernmental agents in its quest for change in developing countries. Unlike in previous years, the robust presence of civil societies in many countries has prompted the US diplomatic force to use these nongovernmental agents as a means of achieving various policy targets.


The US foreign policy has been a subject of much analysis and debate since the US emerged as a global leader after the end of the Second World War. The US foreign policy has been able to adapt with the times; alternating between aggression, subtle threats, actual wars and direct diplomacy to achieve certain diverse ends.

Reference List

Brinkley, D. (1995). Jimmy Carter’s Modest Quest for Global Peace. Foreign Affairs, 17, 782-8.

Lacquer, W. (1994). Save Public Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 73, 25-30.

Michael, N. (2010). Planning the Future U.S. Nuclear Force. Comparative Strategy, 29(1/2), 1-216.

Rand, P. (2009). The Proliferation Security Initiative: A Model for Future International Collaboration. Comparative Strategy, 28(5), 395-462.

Ross, C. (2003). The pillars of Public Diplomacy. Harvard international review, 25, 21-26.

Smyth, R. (2001). Mapping US Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 55(3), 421-444.

Suri, J. (2002). Explaining the End of the Cold War: A New Historical Consensus?. Journal of Cold War Studies, 4(4), 60-92.

Wilson, P. (2004). Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency.

Boulder, Cologne: Lynne Rienner.

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