rior to and duringWWIIWorld War II: the process of superpowerdomIt is often wondered how the superpowers achieved their position ofdominance. It seems that the maturing of the two superpowers, Russiaand the United States, can be traced to World War II. To be asuperpower, a nation needs to have a strong economy, an overpoweringmilitary, immense international political power and, related to this, astrong national ideology. It was this war, and its results, that causedeach of these superpowers to experience such a preponderance of power. Before the war, both nations were fit to be described as great powers,but it would be erroneous to say that they were superpowers at thatpoint. To understand how the second World War impacted these nations sogreatly, we must examine the causes of the war.
The United Statesgained its strength in world affairs from its status as an economicpower. In the years before the war, America was the worlds largestproducer. In the USSR at the same time, Stalin was implementing hisfive year plans to modernise the Soviet economy. From thesesituations, similar foreign policies resulted from widely divergentorigins.
Roosevelts isolationism emerged from the wide and prevalent domesticdesire to remain neutral in any international conflicts. It commonlywidely believed that Americans entered the first World War simply inorder to save industrys capitalist investments in Europe. Whether thisis the case or not, Roosevelt was forced to work with an inherentlyisolationist Congress, only expanding its horizons after the bombing ofPearl Harbour. He signed the Neutrality Act of 1935, making it illegalfor the United States to ship arms to the belligerents of any conflict.
The act also stated that belligerents could buy only non-armaments fromthe US, and even these were only to be bought with cash. In contrast, Stalin was by necessity interested in European affairs, butonly to the point of concern to the USSR. Russian foreign policy wasfundamentally Leninist in its concern to keep the USSR out of war. Stalin wanted to consolidate Communist power and modernise the country’sindustry. The Soviet Union was committed to collective action forpeace, as long as that commitment did not mean that the Soviet Unionwould take a brunt of a Nazi attack as a result. Examples of this canbe seen in the Soviet Unions attempts to achieve a mutual assistancetreaty with Britain and France.
These treaties, however, were designedmore to create security for the West, as opposed to keeping all threesignatories from harm. At the same time, Stalin was attempting topolarise both the Anglo-French, and the Axis powers against each other. The important result of this was the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact,which partitioned Poland, and allowed Hitler to start the war. Anotherside-effect of his policy of playing both sides was that it causedincredible distrust towards the Soviets from the Western powers after1940. This was due in part to the fact that Stalin made several demandsfor both influence in the Dardanelles, and for Bulgaria to be recognisedas a Soviet dependant.
The seeds of superpowerdom lie here however, in the late thirties. R. J. Overy has written that stability in Europe might have been achievedthrough the existence of powers so strong that they could impose theirwill on the whole of the international system, as has been the casesince 1945. At the time, there was no power in the world that couldachieve such a feat.
Britain and France were in imperial decline, andmore concerned about colonial economics than the stability of Europe. Both imperial powers assumed that empire-building would necessarily bean inevitable feature of the world system. German aggression couldhave been stifled early had the imperial powers had acted in concert. The memories of World War One however, were too powerful, and thegeneral public would not condone a military solution at that point. The aggression of Germany, and to a lesser extent that of Italy, can beexplained by this decline of imperial power.
They were simplyattempting to fill the power vacuum in Europe that Britain and Franceunwittingly left. After the economic crisis of the 1930s, Britain andFrance lost much of their former international standing–as the worldmarkets plummeted; so did their relative power. The two nations weredetermined to maintain their status as great powers however, withoutrelying on the US or the USSR for support of any kind. They went towar only because further appeasement would have only served to removefrom them their little remaining world standing and prestige. The creation of a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union andGermany can be viewed as an example of imperial decline as well.
Stalinexplained the fact that he reached a rapprochement with Germany, and notone with Great Britain by stating that the USSR and Germany had wantedto change the old equilibrium England and France wanted to preserveit. Germany also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and thiscommon desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basisfor the rapprochement with Germany. The common desire of many of thegreat European powers for a change in the world state system meant thateither a massive war would have to be fought; or that one of the greatpowers would need to attempt to make the leap to superpower statuswithout reaping the advantages such a conflict could give to the powermaking the attempt. Such benefits as wartime economic gains, vastlyincreased internal markets from conquered territory, and increasedaccess to resources and the means of industrial production would helpfuel any nations drive for superpowerdom.
One of two ways war could have been avoided was for the United States orRussia to have taken powerful and vigorous action against Germany in1939. Robert A. Divine, holds that superpowerdom gives a nation theframework by which a nation is able to extend globally the reach of itspower and influence. This can be seen especially as the ability tomake other nations (especially in the Third World) act in ways that thesuperpower prefers, even if this is not in the weaker nations selfinterest.
The question must then be raised, were the United States andRussia superpowers even then, could coercive, unilateral actions takenby them have had such significant ramifications for the internationalorder? It must be concluded that, while they were not yet superpowers,they certainly were great powers, with the incredible amount ofinfluence that accompanies such status. Neither the United States northe Soviet Union possessed the international framework necessary to be asuper power at this time. It is likely that frameworks similar to Natoor the Warsaw Pact could have been developed, but such infrastructureswould have necessarily been on a much smaller scale, and withoutinfluence as the proposed Anglo-American (English speaking world) pactwas. At this time, neither the United States nor Russia had developedthe overwhelming advantages that they possessed at the end of the war. There are several factors that allowed them to become superpowers: apreponderance of military force, growing economies, and the creation ofideology-backed blocs of power.
The United States, it seems, did not become a superpower by accident. Indeed, Roosevelt had a definite European policy that was designed fromthe start to secure a leading role for the United States. The USnon-policy which ignored Eastern Europe in the late thirties andforties, while strongly supported domestically, was another means toRoosevelts plans to achieve US world supremacy. After the war, Roosevelt perceived that the way to dominate worldaffairs was to reduce Europes international role (vis–vis the UnitedStates, as the safest way of preventing future world conflict), thecreation of a permanent superpower rivalry with the USSR to ensure worldstability. Roosevelt sought to reduce Europes geopolitical role byensuring the fragmentation of the continent into small, relativelypowerless, and ethnically homogenous states.
When viewed in light ofthese goals Roosevelt appears very similar to Stalin who, in Churchillswords, Wanted a Europe composed of little states, disjointed, separate,and weak. Roosevelt was certain that World War Two would destroycontinental Europe as a military and economic force, removing Germanyand France from the stage of world powers. This would leave the UnitedStates, Great Britain, and the USSR as the last remaining European worldpowers. In order to make it nearly impossible for France to reclaim her formerworld position, Roosevelt objected to De Gaul taking power immediatelyafter the war.
Roosevelt defended the Allies right to hold thepolitical situation in trust for the French people. He presentedGeneral Eisenhower control of France and Italy for up to a year, inorder to restore civil order. As British foreign minister AnthonyEden stated, . .
. Roosevelt wanted to hold the strings of Francesfuture in his hands, so that he could decide that countrys fate. Itseems inexcusable that Roosevelt desired to hold an allys nation intrust, comparable to Italy, who was a belligerent. It could be argued,however that they were taking the reigns of power, not from theresistance, but from the hands of the Vichy French. It might be asked why Roosevelt did not plot the fall of the BritishEmpire as well. A cynical answer to this is that Roosevelt understoodthat the United States was not powerful enough to check the SovietUnions power in Europe by itself.
It made sense that because theUnited States and Britain are cultural cousins, the most commodioussolution would be to continue the tradition of friendliness, set out inthe Atlantic Charter earlier. As far as economic or militarycompetition, Roosevelt knew that if he could open the British Empire tofree trade it would not be able to effectively compete with the UnitedStates. This is because an imperial paradigm allows one to sell goodsin a projectionist manner, finding markets within the Empire. Thisallows a nation to have restrictive tariffs on imports, which precludesforeign competition. A nation, that is primarily concerned with findingmarkets on the other hand, is in a much better position for globaleconomic expansion, as it is in its interest to pursue free trade. The more generous, and likely the correct interpretation is thatRoosevelt originally planned to have a system of three superpowers,including only the US, the UK, and the USSR.
This was modified from theoriginal position which was formed before the USSR joined the allies,that held for Great Britain to take a primary role in Europe, and theUnited States to act as a custodial in Asia. Later, after it was seenthat either the Germans or the Russians would dominate Eastern Europe,the plan was forced to change. The plan shifted from one where the USand Great Britain would keep order in Europe, to one where Great Britainand the USSR would keep order in Europe as local superpowers, and the USwould act as an impartial, world wide mediator. Roosevelt hoped for thecreation of an Anglo-American-Russo world police force.
However, Roosevelt, underestimated the power of the Russian ideology. He believed that the Russians would back away from communism for thesake of greater stability and union with the West. Roosevelt saw theSoviet Union as a country like any other, except for her preoccupationwith security (the safety corridor in Eastern Europe that Stalininsisted on), but he thought that that this could be explained by thecultural and historical background of Russia. It was not thoughtunreasonable to request a barrier of satellite states to provide a senseof security, given that Russia and the USSR had been invaded at leastfour times since 1904. It was felt that granting the Soviet Union someterritory in Eastern and Central Europe would satisfy their politicaldesires for territory. It was only after experiencing post World War IISoviet expansion, that the Soviet quest for territory was seen to beinherently unlimited.
Roosevelt felt that the position in EasternEurope, vis–vis the Soviet Union, was analogous to that of LatinAmerica, vis–vis the United States. He felt that there should bedefinite spheres of influence, as long as it was clear that the SovietUnion was not to interfere with the governments of the affectednations. The reason that Roosevelt did not object to a large portionof Eastern Europe coming under the totalitarian control of the SovietUnion was that he believed the weakness in the Soviet economy caused bythe war would require Stalin to seek Western aid, and open the Russiansto Western influence. Many historians feel that Roosevelt was simply naive to believe that theSoviet Union would act in such a way. Arthur Schlesinger saw thegeopolitical and ideological differences between the United States andthe Soviet Union.
He stressed however, the ideological differences asbeing most important. The two nations were constructed on opposite andprofoundly antagonistic principles. They were divided by the mostsignificant and fundamental disagreements over human rights, individualliberties, cultural freedom, the role of civil society, the direction ofhistory, and the destiny of man. Stalins views regarding thepossibility of rapprochement between the USSR and the West weresimilar. He thought that the Russian Revolution created two antipodalcamps: Anglo-America and Soviet Russia.
Stalin felt that the best wayto ensure the continuation of communist world revolution was tocontinually annex the countries bordering the Soviet Union, instead ofattempting to foster revolution in the more advanced industrialsocieties. This is the underlying reason behind the Soviet Unionsannexation of much of Eastern Europe, and the subjugation of the rest. The creation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe did not come as atotal surprise. Roosevelt thought that Americas position after the war,vis–vis the rest of the world, would put him in a very good positionto impose his view of the post-war world order. The Joint Chiefs ofStaff however, predicted that after the German defeat, the Russianswould be able to impose whatever territorial settlement they wanted inCentral Europe and the Balkans.
World War II caused the USSR to rapidly evolve from a military farce, toa military superpower. In 1940 it was hoped that if the Soviet Unionwas attacked, that they could hold off the Germans long enough for theWest to help fight them off with reinforcements. In 1945 the SovietArmy was marching triumphantly through Berlin. Was this planned byStalin in the same way that Roosevelt seems to have planned to achieveworld supremacy? The answer to this question must be a somewhatambivalent no. While Stalin desired to see Russian dominance inEurope and Asia if possible, he did not have a systematic plan toachieve it.
Stalin was an opportunist, and a skilful one. He demandedthat Britain and America recognise territory gained by the Soviet Unionin pacts and treaties that it had signed with Germany, for instance. Stalins main plan seemed to be to conquer all the territory that hisarmies could reach, and create to socialist states within it. From this it can be seen that one of the primary reasons for thesuperpower rivalry was Roosevelts misunderstanding of the Sovietsystem.
Roosevelt and his advisors thought that giving the Soviet Unioncontrol of Central and Eastern Europe, would result in the creation ofstates controlled somewhat similar to the way in which the United Statescontrolled Cuba after the Platt Amendment. The State Department assumedthat the USSR would simply control the foreign policy of the satellitenations, leaving the individual countries open to Western trade. Thisidea was alien to Soviet leaders. To be controlled by the Soviet Unionat all was to become a socialist state; freedom to decide the domesticstructure, or how to interact with the world markets was denied to suchstates.
Stalin assumed that his form of control over these states wouldmean the complete Sovietization of their societies, and Roosevelt wasblind to the internal logic of the Soviet system which in effectrequired this. Roosevelt believed that the dissolution of Comintern in1943, along with the defeat of Trotsky, meant that Stalin was looking tomove the Soviet Union westward in its political alignment. While Stalinmight have been primarily concerned with socialism in one country,communist revolution was a paramount, if deferred policy goal. Roosevelts desire for a favourable post-war settlement appears to benaive at first glance. The post war plan that he had created wasdependant upon the creation of an open market economy, and theprevailing nature of the dollar.
He was convinced that the Soviet Unionwould move westward and abandon its totalitarian political system alongwith its policy of closed and internal markets. When seen from such aperspective, Roosevelts agreement to let the Soviet Union dominatehalf of Europe does not seem as ludicrous. His fundamentalmisunderstanding of the nature of the Soviet state can be forgiven, onceit has been allowed that an apparently peaceful nature was apparent atthe time, and that it had existed for a relatively short time. Whilethe United States wanted to eschew isolationism, and set and example ofinternational co-operation in a world ripe for United Statesleadership, the Soviet Union was organising its ideals around thevision of a continuing struggle between two fundamentally antagonisticideologies.
The decisive period of the century, so far as the eventual fate ofdemocracy was concerned, came with the defeat of fascism in 1945 and theAmerican-sponsored conversion of Germany and Japan to democracy and amuch greater degree of economic liberalism. Such was the result ofAmerica attempting to spread its ideology to the rest of the world. TheUnited States believed that the world at large, especially the ThirdWorld, would be attracted to the political views of the West if it couldbe shown that democracy and free trade provided the citizens of a nationwith a higher standard of living. As United States Secretary of StateJames F. Byrnes, To the extent that we are able to manage our domesticaffairs successfully, we shall win converts to our creed in everyland.
It has been seen that Roosevelt and his administration thoughtthat this appeal for converts would extend into the Soviet sphere ofinfluence, and even to the Kremlin itself. The American ideology ofdemocracy is not complete without the accompanying necessity of openmarkets. America has tried to achieve an open world economy for over a century. From the attempts to keep the open door policy in China to Article VIIof the Lend-Lease act, free trade has been seen as central to Americansecurity. The United States, in 1939, forced Great Britain to begin tomove away from its imperial economic system.
Cordell Hull, thenSecretary of State, was extremely tough with Great Britain on thispoint. He used Article VII of the Lend-Lease, which demanded thatBritain not create any more colonial economic systems after the war. Churchill fought this measure bitterly, realising that it would mean theeffective end of the British Empire, as well as meaning that GreatBritain would no longer be able to compete economically with the UnitedStates. However, Churchill did eventually agree to it, realising thatwithout the help of the United States, he would lose much more thanGreat Britains colonies. American leadership of the international economy–thanks to theinstitutions created at Bretton Woods in 1944, its strong backing forEuropean integration with the Marshall Plan in 1947 and support for theSchuman Plan thereafter (both dependent in good measure on Americanpower) created the economic, cultural, military, and political momentumthat enabled liberal democracy to flourish in competition with Sovietcommunism.
It was the adoption of the Marshall Plan that allowed Western Europe tomake its quick economic recovery from the ashes of World War II. Theseeds of the massive expansion of the military-industrial complex of theearly fifties are also to be found in the post war recovery. Feelingthreatened by the massive amount of aid the United States was givingWestern Europe, the Soviet Union responded with its form of economic aidto its satellite counties. This rivalry led to the Western fear ofSoviet domination, and was one of the precursors to the arms-race of theCold War. The foundation for the eventual rise of the Superpowers is clearly foundin the years leading up to and during World War II. The possibility ofthe existence of superpowers arose from the imperial decline of GreatBritain and France, and the power vacuum that this decline created inEurope.
Germany and Italy tried to fill this hole while Britain andFrance were more concerned with their colonial empires. The UnitedStates and the Soviet Union ended the war with vast advantages inmilitary strength. At the end of the war, the United States was in thesingular position of having the worlds largest and strongest economy. This allowed them to fill the power gap left in Europe by the decliningimperial powers. Does this, however, make them Superpowers? With the strong ideologiesthat they both possessed, and the ways in which they attempted todiffuse this ideology through out the world after the war, it seems thatit would.
The question of Europe having been settled for the most part,the two superpowers rushed to fill the power vacuum left by Japan inAsia. It is this, the global dimension of their political, military andeconomic presence that makes the United States and the USSRsuperpowers. It was the rapid expansion of the national andinternational structures of the Soviet Union and the United Statesduring the war that allowed them to assume their roles as superpowers. BibliographyAga-Rossi, Elena. Roosevelts European Policy and the Origins of theCold War Telos.
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