A Post Cold War

The Cold War is generally recognised as being the period from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Characterised by enmity between the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies and the US and NATO, the Cold War was in effect a bipolar superpower era, with the USSR and the US in ‘a state of protracted and extreme tension.’ (Heywood, 2002, 132)

The Cold War ended as the USSR fragmented. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika allowed for the relaxing of central state control through openness in government and reformation of economic and political systems. This process encouraged popular uprisings leading to the breaking away from the USSR of the Warsaw Pact states and eventually the breakup of the Soviet Union. By 1991 fifteen new states had emerged from the USSR. Russia was left in economic disarray and without the Warsaw Pact which in turn left the US as the sole world super or hyperpower. Factors contributing to this dramatic collapse of the USSR are numerous and still debated but certainly economic pressure contributed to the Gorbachev era reforms.

Seen as the most significant development in international politics since the end of the Second World War, Realism, the dominant theory in international relations, failed to predict a peaceful end to the Cold War. Realism’s ‘a nation’s survival is its first and ultimate responsibility’ (Kissinger, 1977) was not compatible with the Gorbachev policies of reform. The Liberal, Francis Fukuyama, ‘interpreted the collapse of communism as marking the final end of one particular phase of history, when collectivism had posed a very real challenge to bourgeois society, and the beginning of another, where liberal principles would now be dominant’ (Baylis, 2008, 74). The ending of the Cold War saw a restructuring of state allegiances and a period of sustained economic growth partly due to the opening up of new markets for trade.

This opening up of post Soviet states to the world economy and involvement in a global capitalist system has in part led to globalisation. A term rarely used before 1989, globalisation ‘describes a one-world system where all actors have to play by the same economic rules’ (Baylis, 2008, 75). Globalisation theory is hotly debated but it is generally recognised that post Cold War we live in an interconnected global society dominated by transnational business with a one world economy dependent upon universally available technology. Globalisation theory also includes global warming and pollution as well as international issues such as the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The integration of former Soviet states into a global economy was achieved by the triumph of Western Liberal Democracy, a process that had been gaining momentum in Asian, Latin American and African countries. With the unification of Germany and the Westernisation both politically and economically of the Post Soviet states globalisation and liberalism together enabled a vision of a ‘New World Order’ (Bush, 1991). This liberal vision espoused ‘A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognise the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak’ (Bush, 1991). This vision was outlined against the backdrop of the first Gulf War and saw the U.S. as the hegemonic power, with President Bush emphasising this when saying ‘In the pursuit of these goals America will not be intimidated’ (Bush, 1991).

U.S. economic and military might has dominated the international political environment since the end of the Cold War, with the U.S. effectively becoming the world’s police force. The broad United Nations led coalition that supported Desert Storm seemed to confirm President Bush’s vision of ‘shared responsibility for freedom and justice’ but subsequent inaction most notably in Rwanda and Sudan allied with the U.S. failure in Somalia and mistakes in Kosovo have weakened the belief in ability of the New World Order and the U.S. to effectively adopt the role of a global police force.  This weakening of the Liberal moral high ground has continued with events subsequent to 9/11. The War on Terror invasions of Afghanistan, and of Iraq in particular, have greatly damaged U.S. standing in the international community and has further diminished respect for national sovereignty. Guantanamo Bay and the use of torture has exacerbated U.S. loss of international respect. It is also clear that where there is a national interest in strategic resources action is far more likely to commence. The United States led humanitarian interventions ought then to be seen as a masking of traditional military actions to defend and increase a powerful states interests.

It was hoped that the United Nations, freed from cold war Security Council veto’s, would play an active and leading role in global management, in truth an effective world authority overarching the anarchic nature of the state system. In reality, states no longer fearful of global Armageddon, with old allegiances gone and with the further development of new institutions within larger political/economic alliances, such as within the European Union, the U.N. has struggled to gain the resources both financial and political, to take this lead role. Furthermore the Bush Doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’ undermined the U.N’s. authority and old animosities ensure that the Security Council veto is still in use. The U.N’s. Responsibility to Protect, signed by 119 states in 2005, structures the operational principles for intervention on humanitarian grounds. This policy change, placing the U.N. as the arbiter of any intervention or war for humanitarian reasons, highlights the issues that face the U.N’s. inaction. With the right to veto intact, without a standing army to deploy and with states choosing their own definitions of humanitarian necessity, often covertly defined by allegiance or political/economic benefit, the U.N. it seems, will only be able to act when a major power or coalition of states decides to do so.
The recent hostilities in Georgia saw the surfacing of cold war tensions and at the time there was debate concerning a new cold war, although how this would be shaped remains to be seen. U.S. interventionist policies in the Caucasus and insistence on the NATO missile defence shield in light of Russia’s loss of influence over the states on their borders and revived nationalism were key factors in this conflict. Interestingly it was the increasingly influential E.U. through the intervention of the E.U. President Nicolas Sarkozy, that brokered the cease fire. Perhaps this is evidence of the importance of regional economic unions and their increasing role in international relations. This further highlights the inability of the U.N. to react quickly and thus take a lead role in brokering world peace.

Although a new cold war has not yet occurred the possibility of a multipolar world with the emergent economic dominance of China, Germany and the E.U. and Japan alongside Russia’s vast natural resources and nuclear arsenal is certainly to be envisaged. The U.S. currently in economic disarray and militarily overstretched would seem to be losing its hegemony and status as a hyperpower, although, as with predictions of a new cold war, this is yet to be seen. Furthermore the proliferation of WMD’s, evidenced by both India and Pakistan gaining nuclear weapons and with other states sure to follow suit, can only further complicate the future nature of the international political scene.

The globalisation of the world economy has seen a failure of the liberal capitalist system that is worldwide in its scope, with a global recession that is dominating international politics. Although international collaboration subsequent to the end of the Cold War, scientifically, politically, economically and increased migration assisted the economic boom of recent years it is the economic collapse that will shape the years to come.

The time for change was the end of the cold war, a time of hope across Eastern Europe and the threat of global nuclear Armageddon, at least in people’s consciousness, erased. Unfortunately, the new world order envisaged by President Bush has done little to effect the main cause of global instability, poverty. Despite the G8 summit in 2005 declaring an end to poverty little is spent to redress the balance or to have a more equitable sharing of the world’s resources. Furthermore, gendered language remains dominant, with gendered groups still effectively removed from major participation in international politics.

It would seem then that with a still impotent U.N. and a destabilised global economy, with new states wishing to become nuclear powers and with a U.S. in decline the future nature of international politics is yet to be seen. For now though, despite greater interdependence, the realist’s claim that ‘might is right’, as recently evidenced by the bombardment of Gaza, remains dominant.  


Baylis, Smith, Owens (2008) The Globalization of World Politics, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Bush, G.H.W. (1991) Speech to joint session of Congress and the nationhttp://www.sweetliberty.org/issues/war/bushsr.htm (Accessed 01/03/09)

Heywood, A. (2002) Politics, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan

Kissinger, H. (1977) American Foreign Policy, 3rd edn, New York, W.W. Norton