Was the Cold War an Identity Conflict?

The Cold War was a controversial war. Unlike previous wars the main actors never really frontally fought each other. By using client states to fight on their behalf, the USA and Soviet Union fought for their beliefs and identities.
[1]Identity in IR can be associated with nationalism, and that is one of the reasons that the Cold War is seen as an ‘identity conflict’. The Cold War was in fact an opposition of different cultural, political, power and ideological identities.[2]
This essay tries to clarify the semantics of the word ‘identity’, when this word started to have importance between the scholars an[3]d in particular why it is so important in order to understand better International Relations.[4] In this essay the main protagonists and events related to the Cold War will also be reviewed. After  this important context is explained, the role of identities in the Cold War will be examined and described. By using some examples it should be clear why the Cold War was in fact an identity conflict.

What is Identity?

To understand the role of identities in the Cold War it is first necessary to understand what identity really means, in particular related to IR. Defining identity is not easy and if we look at the word in the Cambridge Dictionary we find this definition: “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others” [1]. But as James D. Fearon relates in his manuscript [2] dictionary definitions fail to capture the meaning of identity in every day and social science contexts.
According to many scholars, ‘identities’ play a central role in politics. Anthony Burke, for example, affirms that there would be no world politics, no people, no states and no international system without identity[3]. Before extending to groups such states or the international system[5] it is important to remember how the concept of identity starts from the individual. It is said that identity is what we make of it. Culture, education, family environment, media and many other factors shape every person’s identity. Another aspect that should be pointed out is that rarely is identity forever fixed, and in fact identities can change throughout places and time. Relationships, for example, are a powerful factor able to change one’s identity. Personal and national identities have a close connection as both mutually influence each other. A person’s identity is influenced by the national identity of the country he/she was born in, and at the same time national identity is formed by putting together the single people’s identities of its inhabitants. [6]But as Jervis Robert asks: “Can we treat national identity as singular in the face of internal differences?” [4]. That is the reason why understanding the individual’s identity and how they develop is important to understand how a group of identities work.
We can refer to many aspects as identity. Identity in IR can often be related to nationalism, and this will be explained better later on. If we refer to cultural identity it is necessary to remember Huntington’s theory about the Clash of Civilisations [5]
He argued that modern conflicts would happen mainly because of conflicts between civilisations. Regarding civilisations as cultural identities is evidence of how Huntington’s theory also applies to this case.

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Brief summary of the Cold War

Besides clarifying the definition of identity, it is also important to understand the reasons for and the protagonists involved in the Cold War. As is well known, the Cold War happened mainly because of the tension between the two opposing superpowers, the USA in the West and the Soviet Union in the East. The Soviet Union was a communist system where, based around a central ideology, everyone owned the means to create a Commonwealth[7] while the United States was a capitalist system where almost everything was privately owned and run for profit. These two powers never really frontally fought against each other, instead, after World War II they started spreading their influence through the world and fighting each other using proxy wars, intimidation, propaganda and espionage. The Soviet Union and the United States spread their influence in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, trying to overthrow the old European colonial regime.

Nationalism and identity

As human beings we are considered to be social beings and for this reason we feel the desire or the necessity of belonging to a community. As explained before, an identity is something that belongs to a person and it is indivisible. Everyone has his/her own identity but everyone as human being has the need for belonging to a greater community or identity. Extending this fact to a national view we can understand how nationalisms are born. The pride of belonging to a nation and the desire to make one’s own country the greatest  is a way of making yourself belong to a national identity, making your identity complete by being part of a greater identity.

In western counties, in particular in the US, the idea that one’s own country was better than other was common. And although Karl Marx believed that nationalism was something to avoid, communist countries, such as China and the Soviet Union, were strongly nationalist as well.

Nationalisms and wars are often  connected to each other or even though necessary for the existence of the other. [8]The pride of one’s own culture and identity that comes with nationalism can cause people to believe that their own country is always right and keeps motivated people to make sacrifices for their own country and be willing to fight for it.

We build our identity by excluding characteristics we don’t like. If we extend this concept to IR we can see how identities had a major role in the Cold War. Soviet identity, as an example, was shaped in opposition to the capitalist world as well, as Americans were constantly afraid of the spread of Communism (the Red Scare[6]). Americans believed that democratic ideology was the best , and that by globally spreading their ideologies they would assist the world to modernise and improve it. Communists from the Soviet Union had the same feelings about communism. By thinking like this it was inevitable that the two super powers would be pitted against each other.

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Geopolitical divisions = clash of identities

During the Cold War the clash of identities was physically and geopolitically visible. Germany, Vietnam and Korea are clear examples of how there was a clear division and conflict between the two super powers’ identities. During the  Vietnam War, the contrast between the two political and ideological identities was clear. South Vietnam was anti-communist and for this reason it was supplied by the US, while North Vietnam was pro-Communist and by using weapons from the USSR and China they fought against the south and against the US. The same scenario occurred in Korea and Germany,[9] in this last one by creating the material and physical division of the wall.
This clash of identities was sometimes also immaterial[10]. An example of this is the ‘Red Fear’ that was spreading in the US during the war. The fear of the ‘other’ and the fear of the contagion of unwanted ideologies, in this case, communism was a daily reality in the US during the Cold War. This fear was extended outside US borders

By this point it should be clear that the Cold War was an attempt of preservation of national identities. The curious thing after all was said, as Jervis Robert 4 debates, is that the Soviet Union and the US had in fact a lot of similarities or parallels. As he ascertains, both implied a form of universalism and both were founded on ideas instead of nationalities or myths of common heritage or blood. Robert testifies  that in a country where mostly everyone was an immigrant,[11] like the United States, it was possible to not be considered an American just by not believing in the ‘correct ideas[12]‘. Another aspect that they[13] had in common was that both believed they were the standard to be followed in order to obtain global progress and modernity.

How the Cold War ended

The way the Cold War ended is another clear example of the importance that  identities had in this war. In fact, the Cold War ended only when one of the two side’s identities ended as well. As this war was happening mainly because of the contrast of the two main identities, when one of them failed  there was no more reason for conflict to exist. 


To summarise, it has been noted that conflicts of identities, if extended to an international level, had a major role in the Cold War. This particular war cannot be explained by classic IR. Just by analysing the role of identities in the global system this particular war can be understood properly. As was explained, identity can assume many different forms (political, ideological, cultural), and it is clear now how preservation and spread of identities were the two main reasons that for the Cold War. The two main ideologies of capitalism and communism started from the United States and the Soviet Union but rapidly spread globally creating internal conflicts in countries such as Vietnam, Korea and Germany. These clear distinctions and divisions, the development of the War and finally the way the Cold War ended make indisputable the fact that  the Cold War was an identity conflict.

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• Adler-Nissen, R. ‘Stigma Management in International Relations: Transgressive Identities, Norms and Order in International Society’, International Organisation 68/1 (2014): 143-176

• Berenskoetter, F. ‘Identity in International Relations’ in R. Denemark (ed.), The International Studies Encyclopedia (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010): 3594-3611

• Burke, Anthony. Identity/Difference. In M. Griffiths (ed.) Encyclopedia of International Relations and Global Politics. London: Routledge, 2006: pp.394-6

• Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press

s.v. “Identity” http://www.dictionary.cambridge.org/dictio…/english/identity

• Fearon, J. What is Identity (as We Now Use the Word)?, unpublished manuscript (Stanford University, 1999)

• Jervis Robert. Identity and the Cold War. Cambridge University Press, 2010: pp.22-43

• Samuel P. Huntington 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Touchstone Books.

• Zachary Keck 2013, ‘How Geopolitics Doomed the Clash of Civilizations’, The Diplomat, <http://thediplomat.com/the-editor/2013/09/07/how-geopolitics-doomed-the-clash-of-civilizations/>.

Individual, transnational(means in the space between) identity

[1] Definition of “identity” from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press

[2] Fearon, J. What is Identity (as We Now Use the Word)?, unpublished manuscript (Stanford University, 1999)

[3] Burke, A. (2006): Identity/Difference. In M. Griffiths (ed.) Encyclopedia of International Relations and Global Politics. London: Routledge, pp.394-6

[4] Jervis Robert. Identity and the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

[5] Huntington, S. P. 1996. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[6] Premising that during the Cold War communists were often referred as “Reds” mainly because of the red color of the Soviet flag, the Red Scare was a kind of hysteria and paranoia that Americans had toward the spread of communism.  This phenomenon is also called “McCarthysm”, name derived from Senator McCarthy, a notorious anti- communist.

[1]Leave line spaces between paragraphs.

[2]Is this your argument?  Make the point of your essay clearer.

[3]Unclear what you mean or how this fits in.

[4]Makes no sense.  Do you mean why it is so important to international relations?

[5]Unclear what you mean.  Do you mean before discussing these broader areas?

[6]Makes no sense.  Do you mean by the collective identity of individuals?

[7]Not sure what you mean here.  Misunderstanding of Commonwealth perhaps?

[8]Makes no sense.

[9]No – not the same as there was no actual war.

[10]Wrong word.

[11]I see your point but this is not true. I assume you mean at some point in history everyone was related to immigrants or something?

[12]Makes no sense.  Avoid triple/double negatives


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