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Europe and the Cold War

For many Europeans, after the demarcation lines between East and West had been settled, the Cold War was a remarkably stable period, particularly in comparison with what had gone before. Once the Soviet Union had acquired an atomic bomb in 1949, the potential for outright war between the two sides receded, as it would have meant mutually assured destruction (MAD). Berlin had the potential to be a flashpoint, but after the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, when the city’s division was made concrete, that danger faded. As Judt (2005) argued, the experience of the Cold War as a European was different to the experience of a Soviet or American citizen. Europeans, whether on the East or West of the Iron Curtain, understood that they could do little to influence either the United States or the Soviet Union, and so, despite Europe being the expected battleground if the Cold War turned hot, and where many of the nuclear weapons were targeted, it was a largely passive experience.

For the Warsaw Pact states, their impotence vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was made very clear early on. The 1956 Hungarian Uprising was quickly put down by Soviet troops, and the reformist government of Imre Nagy replaced. A period of liberalisation in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek in 1968, known as the Prague Spring, was also quickly and brutally put down by the invasion of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops. When it came to negotiations between the two superpowers, the opinions of the Warsaw Pact states counted for little (Keylor, 2011). It also made a ground rule of the Cold War clear: the USA would not intervene in a Warsaw Pact state.

In the West, the rhetoric was of partnership, but the reality was that the West European states desperately needed the Americans to remain committed with ground troops in Europe. They were never entirely convinced of the USA’s commitment and were still weakened by their wartime experiences, including the debts incurred. The period from the 1940s to the 1970s also saw the European colonial powers gradually accept the process of decolonisation, in some cases reluctantly following wars of attrition, and, along with it, accept that they were no longer global powers. Perhaps the final imperialist military mission was the Franco-British-Israeli attempt to regain Western control over the Suez Canal and depose the Egyptian President Nasser in 1956. The US Secretary of State, Dulles, and President Eisenhower made it clear that they did not support their allies, and that there would be consequences if the occupiers did not withdraw their troops, which they duly did, humiliated (Gaddis, 1997).

Similarly, popular opinion against the USA’s nuclear weapons policies found little support from Western European governments, who largely went along with US decisions on NATO nuclear policy. In 1955, for example, a NATO war game, Exercise Carte Blanche, simulated a conflict with the Warsaw Pact involving tactical nuclear weapons. It concluded this would have meant the detonation of 355 nuclear weapons on French, Benelux and German soil, and calculated that 1.7 million people would die immediately and 3.5 million would be seriously injured. This was widely reported and caused civilian concern and led later to protests. This crystallised the West European security dilemma: they were dependent on the US nuclear deterrent to protect against conventional attack, where NATO remained outnumbered, but acutely vulnerable in the event of a nuclear war (Kamp, 1995).

Within NATO, there were often frustrations on the American side about the failure of the West Europeans to provide adequately for their own defences (see Chapter 4 for more detail). US levels of defence spending were simply politically unfeasible for West European electorates. At the same time, from the 1960s onwards, West European governments became increasingly concerned about the political consequences of dependence on US military technology and sought ways to retain some degree of doctrinal and technological autonomy, largely in the area of armaments cooperation, both bilaterally and institutionalised in NATO through the Independent European Programmes Group (IEPG). This quest for greater autonomy was particularly strong in France, which left NATO’s integrated command structure in

1966, while still remaining a member. West Europeans feared a ‘brain drain’ of scientists and engineers to the USA and were acutely aware of the growing transatlantic science and technology gap, which was explained in large part by huge US spending on defence and space technology (Salomon, 1977). This fear reached its peak in the 1980s, when President Reagan launched his Strategic Defence Initiative, known as the Star Wars programme, which aimed to produce a missile defence system to protect the USA, which would have undermined NATO’s nuclear deterrence doctrine and was thought to heighten the risk of conventional war. These small-scale efforts by the Europeans did, though, provide them with the institutional beginnings for enhancing cooperation following the end of the Cold War.

But perhaps the greatest instability for Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but particularly in the West, was the fear that their interests were not being taken into account as the two superpowers negotiated the parameters of their nuclear-armed coexistence. Paradoxically, these fears were at their greatest when relations between the Soviet Union and the United States improved. As Garaud (1985) points out, during the years of détente (generally deemed to be the period between the late 1960s and late 1970s, although efforts began following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962), and even before, the American administration sought to limit the risks the USA took in defence of Western Europe. There were proposals to limit numbers of US ground forces in Europe, while statesmen such as Kennan and McNamara urged that the USA repudiate nuclear first use if its European allies were attacked. While the disarmament talks led to treaties limiting the number of nuclear weapons, and, in 1975, to the Helsinki Accords, improving overall relations between West and East, which were to play a role in ending the Cold War (see Chapter 5), the West Europeans were aware that the Americans were making calculations about whether relations with their allies or détente with the Soviet Union was more important (Schulman, 1967). This is not to say that Europeans were opposed to détente: West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which, between 1969 and 1974, gradually normalised relations between West Germany and East Germany, and thus other Warsaw Pact states, made a powerful contribution to the enabling of the Helsinki Accords, which brought about the creation of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE).

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan in the USA in 1980, with his campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’, marked the end of détente. Worsening economic conditions in the Soviet Union, though, led the newly appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, to launch domestic reforms under the headings of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Gorbachev’s willingness to improve relations with the West was met warmly, and ultimately it was his refusal for the Soviet Union to intervene against protests in Warsaw Pact countries that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of Communism, and, ultimately, the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The decades of relative stability during the Cold War and the decolonisation process had meant many of the old rivalries among West European states had become irrelevant, particularly in the context of the European integration process (Hobsbawm, 1994). As the 1990s were to show, this was not always the case in the East.

Europe and the end of the Cold War

The 1990s European security situation was to be marked by the contrasting fortunes of Central and Eastern Europe on the one hand, and the former Yugoslavia and the ex-Soviet republics on the other. The former had largely peaceful revolutions, with the exception of Romania, and the 1990s saw them placed on the path towards EU and NATO membership, although economic hardship did ensue on the way to functioning market economies. It also paved the way for the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 and the ‘velvet divorce’ in Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1993 to create two independent countries: the Czech Republic (now Czechia) and Slovakia. The latter group of countries, however, suffered war, massacre and devastation as the frozen and semi-frozen situation in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Balkans, respectively, erupted. Indeed, Lawrence (1994, p. 227) notes that ‘the conflicts concern efforts to redraw political boundaries on ethnic criteria’. These successes and failures shaped the institutional architecture in Europe with the evolution of NATO’s purpose and the creation within the EU of a European Security and Defence Policy which brought about the eventual demise of the Western European Union (WEU). These institutions also operated within the context of the change in the international system with one Superpower - the USA - remaining, although it is important to note that Russia continued to consider its neighbourhood to be under its sphere of influence despite a number of these countries gaining independence.

None the less, the end of East-West confrontation was to bring about a supposed ‘peace dividend’ which resulted in the downsizing of West European countries' armed forces. Additionally, Soviet forces stationed in Central and Eastern Europe were being withdrawn, although this process took a number of years. In Poland, for instance, the last Soviet troops left in September 1993 (Kuzniar, 2001, p. 34). The end of the Cold War also left a space for the broadening of the security agenda, although the transition from territorial defence thinking towards out of area operations, including crisis management and conflict prevention, took until 9/11 to fully evolve. Indeed as Hobsbawm (1994, p. 560) notes, ‘the global danger of war had not disappeared. It had merely changed'. This was clear prior to the Balkan wars with the first Gulf War in 1991, in which West European countries joined their American allies either militarily or, in the case of Germany, economically through ‘chequebook diplomacy'. However, the slow reaction of Westem Europe to realise this and the subsequent reliance on the USA for hard power when the peace dividend failed to last had implications for Europe’s role as an exclusive civilian, or soft, power. Europeans were expected to take up their share of the burden.

The new security environment also expanded to include issues of democracy, human rights, the environment, organised crime as well as post conflict stabilisation. Hence, it was not just the EU that had a role to play but also the Council for Europe and the CSCE, which was to become the OSCE in 1994. The former expanded at the beginning of the 1990s to include not just the newly independent countries of central and Eastern Europe, but also Russia in 1996. The latter, which already included Russia, also enlarged, due to the number of newly independent countries, making it ‘a truly pan-European institution’ (Baylis, 1998, p. 18). Thereafter, both organisations incorporated West and East Europe.

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