One of the definitive transformations in global politics after World War II was the shift in the locus of power from Europe to the United States and the Soviet Union. It was American aid or Soviet power that guided the reconstruction of Europe after the war, and both superpowers proved themselves more than capable of making policy decisions for the countries within their respective spheres of influence. The Soviets directly controlled Eastern Europe and had an enormous amount of influence in the other communist countries, while the United States exercised considerable influence on the member nations of NATO.
Thus, many Europeans struggled to make sense of their own identity, with the height of European power still being a living memory. One issue of tremendous importance to most Europeans was the status of their colonies, most of which were still intact in the immediate postwar period. Many Europeans felt that, with all their flaws, colonies still somehow proved the relevance and importance of the mother countries – as an example, the former British prime minister Winston Churchill was dismayed by the prospect of Indian independence from the British commonwealth even when most Britons accepted it as inevitable. Many in France and Britain in particular thought that their colonies could somehow keep them on the same level as the superpowers in terms of global power and, in a sense, relevance.
There were a host of problems with imperialism by 1945, however, that were all too evident. Colonial troops had played vital roles in the war, with millions of Africans and Asians serving in the allied armies (well over two million troops from India alone served as part of the British military). Colonial troops fought in the name of defending democracy from fascism and tyranny, yet back in their home countries they did not have access to democratic rights. Many independence movements, such as India’s, refused to aid in the war effort as a result. Once the war was over, troops returned home to societies that were still governed not only as political dependencies, but were divided starkly along racial lines. The contrast between the ostensible goals of the war and the obvious injustice in the colonies could not have been more evident.
Simultaneously, the Cold War became the overarching framework of conflict around the world, sometimes playing a primary role in domestic conflicts in countries hundreds or even thousands of miles from either of the superpowers themselves. At its worst, the Cold War led to “proxy wars” between American-led or at least supplied anti-communists and communist insurgents inspired by, and occasionally supported by, the Soviet Union or communist (as of 1949) China. There was thus a complex matrix of conflict around the world that combined independence struggles within colonies on the one hand and proxy conflicts and wars between factions caught in the web of the Cold War on the other. Sometimes, independence movements like those of India and Ghana managed to avoid being ensnared in the Cold War. Other times, however, countries like Vietnam became battlegrounds on which the conflict between capitalism and communism erupted in enormous bloodshed.
The newly-founded United Nations generally failed to prevent the outbreak of war despite its nominal goal of arbitrating peaceful solutions for international problems. It was hamstrung by the fact that the two superpowers were among those with permanent seats on the UN Security Council, the body that was charged with authorizing the use of force when necessary. Likewise, the two “camps” of the Cold War generally remained loyal to their respective superpower leaders, ensuring that there could be no unified decision making when it came to Cold War conflicts.
In addition, while some independence movements that avoided becoming embroiled in the Cold War were able to secure national independence peacefully, others did not. In many cases, European imperial powers reacted violently to their colonial subjects’ demands for independent governance, leading both the bloodshed and grotesque violations of human rights. Here, again, the United Nations was generally unable to prevent violence, although it did at times at least provide an ethical framework by which the actions of the imperialist powers might be judged historically.
Thumbnail: The emblem of the United Nations. (Public Domain)