Thoughts on the WeberWorldCafé “Globalisation during the Cold War”

Concept: Jens Boysen / Steffi Marung / Gesche Schifferdeckerprintsymbol

At first glance, our time appears to be fundamentally different from the period preceding it. During the Cold War, the bipolar conflict generated a comparatively high degree of predictability andapparent certainty. At present, the bipolar politico-ideological positioning, economic relations and strategic options (or the lack of all those) seem to have ‘ended’, and with it the opposing ideological order that dictated the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Today, the political sphere and the media convey an image of the 21st century in which the world order is characterized by limited certainties and quick changes. We increasingly operate in a transregional political space (global village) in which state and non-state actors, such as international NGOs, multinational corporations and individuals, seek to influence regional and global developments for better or worse. Within academia, the combined activity of those various actors who attempt to regulate the manifold global challenges of our time is referred to as global governance.

History beyond the East-West Conflict

This process of increasing internationalisation and transregionalisation is often referred to as ‘globalisation’ but it is by no means a surprising or new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, many of the trends towards dissolving and re-organization of international affairs we can observe today date back to the superficially ‘frozen’ system of the Cold War, or even predate it and go back to dynamics already existent in the 19th century. While the process itself is also viewed increasingly critically, the negotiation of ideology was often transferred to the ‘Global South”, where demands for a more just global economy have been ignored to ensure systemic competition. Foreign aid was given by both blocks for the conquest of political territory.

The threat of Mutually Assured Destruction often overwhelmingly overshadowed other political and social conflicts both within and between the superpowers as well as international issues such as environmental protection and human rights. The interpretation of the Cold War as an era defined only (or principally) by the superpowers’ struggle for world domination is biased since this perspective includes only the northern hemisphere. Significant global dynamics that took place elsewhere but arguably shaped the 20th century no less and contributed decisively to the course of the Cold War have been overlooked in this traditional perspective for decades. Among those ignored dynamics are the extensive decolonisation processes in Africa and Asia as well as the dramatic intensification of the struggle for raw materials and rare commodities.

Did new approaches to solving global conflict in particular and global challenges more in general evolve during the Cold War’s systemic rivalry? Which new actors appeared? Which communication patterns were established during this time? Did they flourish only in the rivalling climate or do they continue to exist until today? Which alliances and connections developed along the East-West, West-South, East-South or South-South divides in the second half of the 20th century? Can they be recognized as the basis for a new transregional history of the Cold War and can therefore help us to understand how our contemporary world order came into being?


Promises of Equality, New Social Movements and Global Icons

Promoted by the global student and hippie movements of the 1960s on a social level and postcolonial theory on an academic level, a new sensibility for ‘third world’ issues has been established in the USA and Western Europe. But the countries in the ‘eastern bloc’ tried to engage with the ‘developing countries’ as well since the 1950s and not just in pursuit of economic interests.  Agreements on foreign aid with Asian and African countries were made that treated the latter as equal partners as it was widely believed they shared a common ‘anti-imperialist’ stance against the West. The contracts were meant to improve the Eastern bloc’s reputation. Its countries wished to be seen as free from any neo-colonialist aspirations or patronizing attitudes towards the ‘developing countries’ – to distance themselves further from the alleged Western countries’ patronizing behaviour.

Many people worldwide saw their individual politico-societal consciousness influenced by role models, notably leaders of the various independence and liberation movements. One of the most prominent examples is Che Guevara who was admired by many people living in different countries and political systems. He became an icon for social movements that were incompatible with or challenged the existing raison d’état – in both blocs, East and West. In some East European countries governments organised a quasi-religious cult around him that should help attract the youth towards official ‘international’ socialism. At the same time, however, Guevara’s legend implied and inspired visions of socialist revolution that might call into question the established model of ‘real socialism’ and the doctrine of ‘peaceful coexistence’. A similar phenomenon was the widespread fascination with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. His version of a ‘cultural revolution’ also influenced the cultural and political perception outside of China. He became an icon for the Sino-Soviet split within the socialist camp which partially resulted from the positive reception of Mao’s vision by ‘third world countries’ which saw Maoism as a viable alternative to the Soviet model. Some icons were even claimed by both, the establishment and the critics, as was the case with Nelson Mandela and the global Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Similarly, the African-American Civil Rights Movement within the U.S. was claimed and interpreted in favour of very different causes throughout the world: For the Soviet-led states the African-American struggle was evidence for the barbarism inherent to Capitalism, while the simultaneously pan-African movements were inspired to actively search for a post-colonial African identity.

How did these expressions of the new social and political movements manifest themselves on different political levels and in different political spaces? How were these changes perceived by the Western and Eastern bloc respectively? For instance, how did the soviets portray the western student and hippie movements and, conversely, how did the Western media cover the 1968 Polish political crisis? In which ways and to what extent was the traditional international state order with its emphasis on nation states and governmental agency already challenged during the Cold War by transnational issues such as human rights, disarmament, or environmental protection? Did the accession of former colonies to the United Nations, the later so-called (and self-labelled) ‘third world countries’, to their actual ‘emancipation’? And if one can indeed speak of a new kind of self-determination, was it primarily of a political, cultural and/or economic nature? What efforts are (and have been) made by governments and companies alike to maintain global asymmetries favouring rich industrial countries such as the USA? In this context, what role did the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) play and is still playing until the present day?


New Partnerships in the Cold War: Chances for Political Empowerment?

After 1945 ‘old Europe’ saw a slow but sustained power loss that became most visible in the break-up of European colonial empires from the 1950s onwards and the gradual loss of global domination and agency, at least in the classical sense of hard power projection. The European global ‘rear-guard battles’ from direct rule over other nations, notably the decolonisation wars (e.g. the Indonesian War of Independence, the Suez Crisis, the Algerian War, and the Vietnam War), meant a step towards empowerment of formerly colonised peoples soon after World War II. After the United Nations Organisation was founded in September 1945, those peoples turned to the UN Charter for help in claiming their independence. A significant step towards a development of a lasting postcolonial solidarity among the nations of the ‘Global South’ was the Bandung Conference of 1955. It gave birth to the movement of the same name, which could not to be ignored neither by the East nor the West.

The USA and the Soviet Union both supported these developments for different, yet related motives: First, their support for the movement was corresponded to the global ‘liberation of peoples’ policy both powers proclaimed to uphold, although for different normative reasons. Second, both sides pursued complex modernisation projects for which the former colonies were seen as the natural testing ground. Third, they both sought to win newly independent nations for their camp in terms of political ideology and economic system in order to strengthen their geostrategic position. At the same time, they offered to potential partners access to their half of the global community, values and discourses, as well as affiliations to their ‘family’ of member states – at least nominally. The latter was linked to both rivalling superpowers’ shared self-imposed role as patrons of the post-war order. But the support received from one of those sides to sustain ‘independence’ came at a high price for many countries of the ‘Global South’. They became the theatres of proxy wars between the superpowers because no open conflict of this kind was possible in Europe due to the two military blocks’ Mutually Assured Destruction. Simultaneously, the development of the newly independent states put pressure on the superpowers to prove the legitimacy of their claim to global leadership. As a result they appeared to be driven rather than driving players.

About the same time the Group 77 was founded within the United Nations. This organisation aimed at strengthening South-South cooperation and representing the political and economic interests of the ‘third world’. After the Cold War, several other regional associations such as MERCOSUR or transregional groupings like BRICS emerged that have lasted until today. But how can the local and global influence of organisations like the Group 77, MERCOSUR, and BRICS be understood? Are they contributing to a more differentiated and balanced distribution of power at a global level as the concept of multipolarity suggests? To what extent does global governance live up to its promise of (greater) equality within and beyond the United Nations? Has the ‘Global South’ become once again a remote zone of influence of the ‘Global North’, only in a ‘postcolonial’, less direct way (proxy wars etc.)? How much control did the superpowers really hold over the developments in the southern hemisphere in the first place?  Which role did the United Nations play especially in context to its failure to secure global peace? And which general lessons can be drawn – if any – from the historical trends dating back to the Cold War?

The WeberWorldCafé “Globalisation during the Cold War: Culture, New Geopolitics and Che Guevara”, curated by Jens Boysen (DHI Warschau), Steffi Marung (Centre for Area Studies Leipzig) and Gesche Schifferdecker (Max Weber Stiftung), will take place on 16th November 2015, 4:30-8 pm at the Literaturcafé im Haus des Buches Leipzig, Gerichtsweg 28, 04103 Leipzig. You will find more information on the table hosts here


Citation: Thoughts on the WeberWorldCafé “Globalisation during the Cold War”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.05.2015

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Editorial Board (2015, 8. Oktober). Thoughts on the WeberWorldCafé “Globalisation during the Cold War” TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von

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