Sub-Project D04: The USA and the Soviet Union: Transformations within a Global Competition over Political Order, 1975 - 1989


The Cold War was a global conflict between two mutually exclusive forms of political and industrial social order that both claimed universal legitimacy. This conflict can be divided into phases, in which the overall constellation of this global competition over order changed in fundamental ways (cf. Eckart Conze).

The first study looks at the question of why détente politics faced increasingly critique towards the end of the 1970s after having reached its climax earlier in the decade, and how this ultimately led to highly explosive international tensions. The second study investigates how this communicatively coerced “Second Cold War” in the mid-1980s was able to give way to a new phase of nuclear disarmament and how this “new détente” ultimately led to transformations within this competition over social order between the two major superpowers.

Project D04 works with the premise that the reciprocal discourses of threat and the competition over social order between the superpowers were decisively influenced by structural changes in modern industry and domestic political problems. It aims to develop a conceptual framework that links the international history of the Cold War from 1975 to 1988 with intra-societal transformation processes.

Project Team

Project Leaders:

Prof. Dr. Georg Schild

Dr. Katharina Kucher

Ph.D. Students:

Martin Deuerlein, M. A.

Roman Krawielicki, M. A.

Academic Disciplines and Orientation

Contemporary History

Project Description

Project D04 examines the global competition over social order between the USA and the Soviet Union. In their efforts to attain dominance and influence around the world, both superpowers saw the existence of a competing system of social order as a threat to their own vision of society.

Working from this perspective, the individual studies in Project D04 direct their gaze at the changing discourses of threat emerging from behind both sides of the iron curtain that shaped the contours of international Cold War tensions. Their primary focus is on the communicative strategies and practices of high-ranking political leaders and influential advisors. This thematic approach makes it possible to understand the history of the Cold War as an interactive process, and thereby show how the governments in Moscow and Washington were integrated in complex communication structures that affected not only their rhetoric, but also their perceptions and interpretations.

The studies deal with two consequential, yet interlocking time periods in which the general nature of the Cold War changed fundamentally. Whereas the first study looks at the escalation of international conflicts and the related discourses of threat from 1975-1983, the second study examines the de-escalation processes that came into play in 1983/84 and ultimately transformed this competition over social order.

1st Study

The first study (Martin Deuerlein) pursues the question of how the détente, which had ensured for a seemingly stable international system of social order, gave way to an intensified confrontation between the two superpowers in the second half of the 1970s. It looks at how different groups in both states wrestled over the issue of how the Cold War should be fought. It analyses how patterns of perception that were shaped by ideology often led decision-makers on one side of the iron curtain to judge political statements and processes coming from the other side as a threat, and how this then led to the build-up of tensions between Moscow and Washington. Furthermore, the project seeks to answer the following:

The ultimate goal of the project is to use these topics to illustrate the reciprocal dynamics between the escalating discourses of threat between the superpowers and far-reaching intra-societal transformation processes.

2nd Study

The so-called “Second Cold War” reached its climax in 1983. In March, Ronald Reagan held his famous “Star Wars” and “Evil Empire” speeches; in September, the Soviet Air Force shot down a Korean civilian airliner (KAL 007) near Sakhalin Island; in the fall, the NATO arms build-up began; and in November, some of the Soviet leaders sincerely believed that NATO was planning a nuclear first strike as part of its Able Archer manoeuvre. Especially the last incident clearly illustrated to political leaders just how threatening the mutual mistrust on both sides had become. This turning point is the “launch site” for the second study in Project D04 (Roman Krawielicki). Its aim is to analyse the de-escalation process within discourses of threat from 1984 onwards and to show how the persistent struggle over social order between the superpowers was defused within the framework of disarmament. It looks at how fears that had previously blocked potential diplomatic measures gradually lost their political clout. Moreover, this project pays special attention to the following questions:

The aim of the project is to comprehensively explain how social and political shifts in the Soviet Union and in the USA were influenced by de-escalation within existing threat discourses. Face-to-face meetings, popular movies, and media reporting contributed to the de-construction of established threat scenarios. The fear of the ideological enemy was replaced by the fear of a nuclear Holocaust; the “re-humanisation” of the global competitor increased demands for corresponding political action and thereby fostered the transformation of this global competition.

Project D04 within the CRC

Project D04 contributes to the CRC as a whole in three major ways: First, it explicitly deals with a threat related to the competition over social order inherent in the Cold War and looks closely at an era in which the terms “threat” and “threatened” (in terms of nuclear self-destruction) were used in an almost inflationary way in the political and journalistic language of the time. Secondly, it looks at the relationships between perception, communication, and emotions; it seeks to develop conceptual frameworks that help explain how individual processes of perception are linked to the social communication of threat. And lastly, in that the project examines the social dimensions of this international history, it seeks to reveal how international social order is interwoven with intra-societal social order in a threat situation. Consequently, it promises to make a beneficial contribution toward the question of how to define the “configuration of social order” in light of the dynamic interdependence between external threats and internal structural fractures in such a way that it can be used to analyse accelerated social change.

Project-related Lectures and Publications

Deuerlein, Martin

Krawielicki, Roman

Kucher, Katharina

Schild, Georg

Congresses, Workshops, and Conferences

Project-related Courses

Deuerlein, Martin

Krawielicki, Roman