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The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s has had a dual impact on international relations. On the one hand, the Soviet military withdrawal from Eastern Europe and the Third World brought an end to the Cold War, allowed democratization to proceed in many states previously ruled by Marxist dictatorships, and led to significant progress in resolving several Third World conflicts that had become prolonged during the Cold War. The reduction in East-West tension also resulted in a great decrease in inter-state conflicts, some of which occurred due to the superpower ideological rivalry during the Cold War. Even it became fashionable to argue that force, used here as military power, has run its course in international politics. And it is true that defense budgets in many parts of the world radically decreased (See, for example, United States, Government Accountability Office, 2008). This trend, despite very few contrary examples (for instance China), appears to holding.
On the other hand, however, it would be rather unwise to argue that the world is now at peace. The collapse of the “Soviet Empire” was followed by the emergence, or re- emergence, of many serious conflicts in several areas that had been relatively quiescent during the Cold War. Some of these new conflicts have been taking place within the former Soviet Union, such as the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno- Karabakh, and the fighting in Chechnya. But some conflicts also erupted or intensified in several countries outside of it and many Third World conflicts in which the superpowers were not deeply involved during the Cold War have persisted after it, like the secessionist movements in India, Sri Lanka, and Sudan.
Ethnopolitical conflicts aside, there have been other threats to international order that are, indeed, beyond the full control of major powers, even the United States, the victor of the Cold War. The most notable ones include religious militancy, terrorism, North-South conflict, and severe competition over scarce resources. Thus, the end of the Cold War can be said to have brought about both stability and instability to international relations. The purpose of this article is to evaluate nearly two decades of the post-Cold War era in terms of the elements of stability and instability. In this respect, the study will start with an overview of the general characteristics of the international system. This will be followed by a more detailed discussion on basic trends and new threats in international relations. Several observations will also be outlined in concluding the study with respect to possible future directions of international affairs.
THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM AFTER THE COLD WAR
- With the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and disintegration of the Soviet Union, the bipolar international system dominating the Cold War period disappeared, leaving its place to basically a unipolar system under the leadership of the United States, speaking especially from a military/political point of view. Other countries have turned to American military protection. The American influence in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the Middle East has incresed, in general, where the armed forces of the United States have established a semi permanent foothold and thousands of soldiers deployed at bases keep a watch on Iran, Syria, and other “potential enemies.”
- From an economic/political point of view, on the other hand, the international system can be said to be multipolar, rather than unipolar. The United States certainly a great economic power, but it is not the only power. There are other power centers, most notably, the European Union, the Organization of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, as well as many nation-states outside of these integrations or organizations .
BASIC TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
- Another feature of the post-Cold War era is that since the West has become the victor of the East-West ideological rivalry, Western systems and Western influences, in general, started to dominate the whole world.
- The region of Caucasus was formerly under the Russian sphere of influence. But the United States managed to enter this energy-rich region with some new allies, used to be the part of the Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Georgia. Although Russia certainly did not want the United States presence in the region, its ability to prevent it has remained limited.
- Likewise, NATO expanded to involve Eastern Europe, a region also used to be under Soviet influence.
- In the same way, the European Union expanded towards Eastern Europe.
- Although the ending of the Cold War clearly increased the willingness of governments to work through the United Nations and other international channels to resolve conflicts and keep peace around the globe, several new threats have emerged in the post-Cold War era that are, indeed, beyond the full control of nation-states, even major powers. One of the greatest threats, in this regard, is the prevalence of intra-national conflicts, conflicts occurring within the borders of states. These are mostly ethnically-driven conflicts over self-determination, succession or political dominance.
- Despite contrary expectations, however, a fresh cycle of ethnopolitical movements have re-emerged recently in Eastern Europe (including the Balkans), Central Asia, Africa, and many other parts of the world.
- The post-Cold War period also witnessed the resurgence of North-South economic antagonism. Such confrontation is not new. It has occurred before in international arena. But in accordance with the decline of ideological clashes, it has begun to occupy a more significant agenda in international affairs.
In discussing the post-Cold War developments and the emerging world order in that era, several concluding remarks can be drawn from the above analysis, summarized as follows:
- The new international system in the post-Cold War period has been marked by a seeming contradiction: on the one hand, fragmentation; on the other, growing globalization. This trend will likely to be holding.
- On the level of the relations among states, the new world order is based on major power cooperation. The international system contains at least five major powers – the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, and China. There appears to be no serious challenger to these powers. That means the world politics in the near future will largely be shaped by the above-mentioned major powers.
- Among major powers, the United States will continue to be the greatest hegemonic power in the short run, but its military and economic power will gradually decline. In the long run, some growing states or integrations will likely to get close to the United States’ power. Hence, the international system will possibly gain a multipolar character in the future, though it may take some decades to reach that point.
- International relations have become truly global in the post-Cold War world. Communications are instantaneous and the world economy operates on all continents simultaneously. A whole set o issues has surfaced that can only be dealt with on a worldwide basis, such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, the population explosion, and economic interdependence.
- In conjunction with increasing international cooperation, inter-state wars have declined and “low politics” gained greater importance in international affairs. The years to come, however, are likely to witness severe competition of major powers on natural resources, particularly, energy resources. In this regard, disputes about unfair trade practices and worries about dependence on externally concentrated or monopolistic sources of goods, services and technologies will remain to be addressed. But the prospects for collective rules and regulations, rather than unilateral accusations and restrictions, will seem to be improved.
- With the spread of global market economy and rapid expansion of foreign investments, developing countries, though they are cautious about foreign investments, are likely to be doing better in the future. But structurally-rooted North-South inequalities will seem to remain as a potential source of international conflict.
- The North-South conflict aside, the post-Cold War world faces several other threats, most notably, ethnically-driven conflicts, religious militancy and terrorism, supported by some revisionist powers. These are particularly challenging threats as they are beyond the full control of nation-states, calling for international cooperation if they are to be effectively dealt with. Thus, the future of the world will depend on whether major powers, in particular, and the international community, in general, are able to show the will to cooperate on these serious problems.
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