How did the Cold War affect the world today?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the most obvious legacies of the Cold War affecting us today, in my opinion, is the presence of large, radical Islamic groups, from the Taliban to al-Qaeda to ISIS. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, the US, in spite of the fact that the president at...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

One of the most obvious legacies of the Cold War affecting us today, in my opinion, is the presence of large, radical Islamic groups, from the Taliban to al-Qaeda to ISIS. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, the US, in spite of the fact that the president at the time was the dovish Jimmy Carter, reacted as if this were a threat to world peace overall. The assumption, typical of Cold War thinking and the "domino theory," was that the Soviets would make Afghanistan a launching-base for further expansion, especially into the oil-rich Middle East, where things had already been thrown into disarray by the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. Beginning with Carter and even more so during the following administration of Ronald Reagan, the US gave support to Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan in an effort to expel the Soviets. By 1989, the Soviets realized they were in a quagmire similar to what the US had experienced in Vietnam twenty years earlier. The Afghanistan war, and the effort to keep up with the arms race accelerated by Reagan, helped to bankrupt the Soviets. In 1989, they were no longer able to rein in the satellite European countries: Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, which broke away and established non-communist governments, while East and West Germany were re-united. By 1991, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, with the constituent republics becoming independent, non-communist states: the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the central Asian republics such as Kazakhstan and the others.

Though it's a bit simplistic to attribute all of this to the reflexive Cold War thinking by US administrations about Afghanistan, the real result of the failed Soviet venture was, as stated, the empowerment of Islamic groups which had been supported by the US: first the Taliban, then al-Qaeda, then ISIS, which is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by radicals who had trained in the Afghanistan camps. This is not to say that continued Soviet control of Afghanistan would have been a good thing, or that the continuance of the Soviet Union would have been desirable. However, two things, apart from the establishment of Islamic radical groups, have also occurred, that are worth noting as aftereffects of the Cold War. First, the fall of communism, though at first welcomed by many Soviet citizens, resulted in an economic depression in the former Soviet countries in the 1990s. This, partly, led to the rise of an autocratic figure in Vladmir Putin, to whom the Russians looked up as one who would re-establish their former glory and power. And second, many in the US, ironically more in the Democratic party than the Republican, still have a reflexive anti-Russian stance. Putin is obviously a dictator presiding over a kleptocracy. But whatever his international ambitions and the degree of his power lust may be, Putin is regarded by the West in the same way as the communist leaders of the past who were feared as having the will, and possibly the power, to take over the world. And the Russians still react with hostility to the US, as we have seen in their attempts to use cyber attacks to influence internal politics in the US. All of these factors are part of the Cold War legacy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Cold War affected the world in a variety of ways, and the West in particular. The United States and Russia were forever changed as a result of tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. Although modern-day Russia and the United States now have peaceful relations, fear of nuclear war led to long-lasting tensions between governments and nations.

One of the most significant ways in which the Cold War affected the United States was the paranoia generated by fear that Russia would use a nuclear weapon. This fear led to the loss of numerous lives and a resurgence in international espionage. The United States also saw a resurgence in the incidence of "communist witch hunts" during the period of the Cold War, which led to undue suspicion and general mistreatment of anyone who was deemed to have ties, however tenuous, with the Soviet Union. The doctrine of containment forever changed United States foreign policy, fostering a sense of nationalism unlike any the country had ever seen before.

On the other hand, without the Cold War, it would have been impossible for the space program to develop as rapidly as it did. In fact, the "space race" led to a scientific renaissance in Russia and the United States, inspiring the formation of NASA. On a governmental level, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were formed as a direct reaction to the events of the Cold War. The Cold War also led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as the only remaining world superpower.

The Cold War was a trying period for the West and it permanently altered United States foreign policy. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Cold War is that it changed the way in which nations compete, shifting the focus from military competition to scientific advancements with military applications.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team