How the Cold War helped spur West European welfare state reform

By Astrid Hedin
Associate Professor, Global Political Studies (GPS)
Malmö University, Sweden

The idea that Soviet communism, as both competitor and role model, helped fuel the development of West European social policies is longstanding, but has rarely been researched. Already in 1946, in a lecture at Oxford University, the British historian E.H. Carr pointed out several policy areas – including social equality, state planning and economic democracy – where the Soviet example, consciously or unconsciously, had helped spur West European reforms.

Today we know that by the late 1960s, the impact of the Soviet model on West European politics had grown even stronger, helping propel a wave of radical activism in Western Europe. Indeed, at the time, many believed that West European welfare states and East European communism would eventually converge into “reformed socialism”. Arguably, this belief in itself may have strengthened West European demand for policies that many perceived to be socialist, such as industrial democracy, gender equality, educational reform, and anti-colonialism.

In historical hindsight, the 1970s emerge as a watershed decade for West European welfare states, when traditional collectivist policies were radicalized and replaced by increasingly individualist policies and individual human rights. If the competition from authoritarian Eastern Europe in effect strengthened democratic social policy in Western Europe, this is an interesting paradox and puzzle that social science should address.

Traditional studies of policy diffusion build on the assumption that international policy convergence is the result of rational learning and lesson-drawing, and that actual policy content is transferred and implemented. In contrast, new institutionalist approaches – such as the world polity school – argue that policy diffusion tends to be superficial, de-coupled from contents and implementation, and occurs at the level of myth and ceremony.

…the United Nations’ specialized agencies were an authoritative source of documentation on policies of the Soviet sphere…

The central empirical finding of world polity studies is that the norm setting activities of international organizations guide and re-enforce global trends of policy-making, where nation states adopt isomorphic policies i.e., policies that are similar at the superficial level of label, myth and ceremony. World polity thinking developed out of the research of John W. Meyer and associates at the Stanford School of Education. Their studies of the post-war expansion of education showed how reforms spread like fashion across the globe, irrespective of important differences in nation level needs.

The conclusion of these studies was that – analogously to people in human society – states are ‘socialized’ by the world polity into accepting dominant norms and behaving appropriately. Furthermore, world polity studies have highlighted how a formally scientific procedure for the formulation and discussion of policy lends legitimacy to policy scripts, and accelerates their international communication.

Arguably, this social constructivist approach may be especially pertinent when studying the international influence of non-democratic regimes, such as the impact of Soviet type regimes on Western Europe. Importantly, communist governments had a singular degree of control over the flow of information concerning their own domestic policies and how they were implemented. Vice versa, Western audiences lacked independent sources of information on how communist regime policies really worked. For Western audiences, the United Nations’ specialized agencies were an authoritative source of documentation on policies of the Soviet sphere – which makes the historical production of, and battles over, knowledge and expert discourse within international organizations a vital object for study.

As contemporary research observed at the time, post-Stalin Soviet foreign policy was explicitly geared towards maximizing communist regime influence within the UN system. In effect, by the mid 1970s, the U.S. perceived itself to be ‘in opposition’ in the UN General Assembly.

A Yugoslavian stamp commemorating the ILO’s 50-year anniversary.

This trend applied, for example, to the expert discourse within the International Labor Organization (ILO) on the issue of worker participation in management decision-making at the work place. From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Yugoslavia, but also Poland and even the Soviet Union, struggled to win the bureaucratic legitimacy of the ILO for their domestic workplace participation policies. Verily, ILO publications legitimized and spread these communist regimes’ self-portrayals. And expert discourse within the ILO came to treat East European workplace participation reforms as relevant, comparable, and even exemplary to the West European experience. Indeed, despite the long historical heritage of worker councils in Western Europe, the very first ILO thematic conference on workplace participation policies was hosted in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, in 1969.

Did the competition and communication with communist regimes help drive West European reforms? Undeniably, the time line supports this theory. In fact, the West European wave of workplace participation legislation during the 1970s – which today remains a core feature of the European social model – was preceded by much reporting and dialogue within the ILO concerning the earlier East European reforms that happened during the late 1950s and 1960s (see figure 1 below). This pattern, with a wave of East European reforms preceding a wave of reforms in the West, supports E.H. Carr’s original thought concerning the Soviet bloc impact on the West.

Number of workplace participation laws in Eastern Europe, as rendered in ILO publications (red); and laws in the future EU-15 countries (blue), by year of enactment. Source: Hedin, Astrid (2016).

This historical case of East-West policy isomorphism prompts several questions, which are also relevant today. First, how can non-democratic regimes help shape global policy trends? This question is relevant to our current predicament, with strong conflict within UN institutions between democracies and authoritarian states, such as the debates surrounding China’s stance on human rights.

Secondly, there is the issue of our common European history – and the place of Eastern Europe within it. Classic accounts of the historic development of West European social policy have traditionally by-passed international factors. More recently, a new agenda on transnational influences has centered on rational policy diffusion from democratic countries. Still however, the symbolic and discursive role of communist Eastern Europe in shaping Western welfare state trends during the Cold War remains unexplored.

Astrid Hedin is senior lecturer and associate professor of political science at Global Political Studies (GPS), Malmö University, Sweden. She holds a PhD from Lund University, a docent degree from Uppsala University, and has been an Anna Lindh fellow of the Europe Center, Stanford University. Her article on ‘Cold War Isomorphism’ sets a research agenda that goes into dialogue with the world polity theory of globalization. (Available at: