The disposition, discourse, or spirit of small countries seeking to resist being drawn into a “Cold War” or conflict between the world’s major powers was best illustrated by Afghanistan’s former president, Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan, when he famously said: “I feel the happiest when I can light my American cigarettes with Soviet matches.” But that delicate balancing act ultimately led to Daud losing his life in a palace coup carried out by Soviet agents in 1978. Thus, even if small countries seek to get the “best of both worlds” or independence or even isolation from major power conflict, it is rarely the case that small countries can fully disentangle themselves from major power competition and conflict.
The case of Cuba in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s best demonstrates this point. After overthrowing an American-backed dictatorship in 1959, Fidel Castro was courted by both the American and Soviet bloc. Castro’s initial preference was to remain independent. But with American pressure to coerce him into the American bloc, even to the point of assassination attempts and an attempted coup which failed, Castro decided to lean towards the Soviet bloc. In turn, Castro’s decision to align with the Soviet bloc triggered the infamous “Cuban Missile Crisis,” which ended when Washington agreed to remove missiles aimed at Russia from Turkey.
In sum, small countries only have two choices in the midst of major power conflict. For one, small countries can either “hedge” – which means putting one foot in one door and the other foot in the other door – or small countries can “bandwagon,” which means joining one side over another in a major power conflict. But as mentioned before, “hedging” is not a sustainable position in the long run, and as a result, small powers are eventually compelled to make a decisive choice.
But there is more to just military and economic competition which prompts the major power conflict that puts smaller countries in a bind. Odd Arne Westad, a prominent Cold War expert and scholar, argued that “the most important aspects of the Cold War were neither military nor strategic, nor Europe-centered, but connected to political and social developments in the Third World.” Westad argued:
“In an historical sense – and especially as seen from the South – the Cold War was a continuation of colonialism through slightly different means. As a process of conflict, it centered on control and domination, primarily in ideological terms. The methods of the superpowers and of their local allies were remarkably similar to those honed during the last phase of European colonialism: giant social and economic projects, bringing promises of modernity to their supporters and mostly death to their opponents or those who happened to get in the way of ‘progress.’”
In sum, a renewed ‘Cold War context’ and thus competition and conflict between Washington and Moscow strike at the very heart of individual and collective culture and identity by seeking to maintain a racial hierarchy in international society. As E.H. Carr wrote:
“In the United States full and equal rights are accorded to every citizen irrespective of national origin; but any tendency towards the growth or survival of national consciousness in particular groups is watched with anxiety and any step calculated to encourage it studiously avoided.”
“Moreover, both in the Soviet Union and in the United States a conscious attempt is made, through educational and other channels, to substitute a wider allegiance, conceived in terms of common ideals, for narrower national or racial loyalties – to inculcate the virtues of a Soviet or an American “way of life.”
In turn, one of the three prerequisites of international peace and global order – aside from the “harmony of interests” between major powers and the curtailing of the autonomy of central bank money – is a reckoning with the pluralistic nature of international society. But as it appears, the reckoning has yet to happen, which in turn explains the situation in places like Ukraine and elsewhere to a large extent.