The Search for Balance: The United States and Multilateral Export Controls, 1946-1991

Sparling, Margaret, History, University of Virginia
Hitchcock, William, History, University of Virginia

Export controls—or the process of restricting the trade of specific goods and technologies in hopes of directly altering a country’s economic, military, and industrial capabilities—are an integral component of US economic statecraft and played a vital role in US national security policy throughout the Cold War. Few historians, however, have written about their use during this period nor analyzed their broader impact. This thesis seeks to address this issue.

This thesis thus analyzes the use and application of multilateral export controls throughout the Cold War and aims to answer the following research questions: How did the United States use multilateral export controls—institutionalized through the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM)—as a tool of economic statecraft during the Cold War? How did its approach change over the course of the Cold War? Did U.S. allies support these multilateral restrictions, and if so, why? Were U.S. export controls an effective policy to constrain the Soviet Union’s war-making capabilities and technological development? Did they contribute to the weakening of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union? If so, to what degree?

Drawing on a wide array of primary sources from the Department of States’ Foreign Relations of the United States series to archival documents from the International Trade Administration held at the National Archives, this essay will argue that U.S. officials used export controls as a vital foreign policy tool to operationalize vague concepts like containment and détente. It will demonstrate that export controls were never a core driver of U.S. strategy but rather emerged in response to broader political developments. This work will additionally argue that Western Europeans supported multilateral export controls only under three conditions: when facing pressure from the United States, when there was a shared belief in the controls’ end goal, or when support for export controls advanced other European security and foreign policy goals.

There were, however, many times when the United States’ European allies worked counter to U.S. interests and failed to back U.S. trade policies. European opposition to multilateral controls—particularly the stricter policies—resulted from: the fact that export controls sometimes ran counter to European economic interests, they were politically challenging to implement, and they conflicted with European reconciliation efforts. This work ultimately concludes that while export controls constrained Soviet military and technological developments in some key areas and limited the Soviet bloc’s range of action, multilateral export control policy did not fundamentally alter the trajectory of the Cold War and often served as a signaling mechanism to communicate the United States’ foreign policy agenda to its adversaries.

This work also fills a substantial literature gap in the historiography of U.S. economic statecraft during the Cold War. Addressing this gap not only enriches our understanding of the Cold War, but can also provide insights for how the United States cooperates with its allies today. The United States continues to rely on export controls as an instrument of foreign policy, especially in times of significant overseas conflict such as Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine or during geopolitical tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Thus, understanding changing Cold War policies can help current policymakers refine these policies and better understand their benefits and limitations.

BA (Bachelor of Arts)
Economic statecraft, Export controls, Cold War, National security, US Foreign Policy
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