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The Nature of the Post-Cold War World

Authored by Mr. Charles William Maynes, Mr. William G. Hyland. | March 1993

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Are we in a new era in world affairs? It has become commonplace to assert this. But the best way to peer into the future--perhaps the only way--is to examine the past and to look for trends that appear to be shaping the present. If we understand clearly the contours of the international system after 1945, it will probably be easier for us to determine the extent to which we are now truly in a revolutionary era, one which will give us, whether we wish it or not, a New World Order.

In 1945 all thoughtful observers realized that the world was indeed at a turning point. Both domestically and internationally strategists understood that the world could not return to the policies of the interwar period.

The development of the atomic bomb guaranteed that. The existence of a weapon qualitatively different from all that had proceeded it convinced policymakers that the world was entering a new age. Strategists began to assert that the very nature of war had changed. Before the goal was to win wars. Now the goal was to avert war.

Also convincing statesmen that a page had been turned was the position of Europe after the war. In contrast to the First World War, which despite its destruction still left Britain, France and Germany as major international actors, the Second World War brought Soviet and American troops to the heart of Europe. The periphery of Europe, broadly considered, was now in charge of the center. The world had not seen such a development since 1815 when Russian troops marched in Paris and there was a comparable sense that a new page in history was being turned.

In the domestic realm there was also a sense of dramatic departure. Governments associated with the West announced their determination to avoid the mistakes of the interwar period, racked with social and class conflict. All parties agreed that there had to be a new social contract, which we know as the postwar welfare state. Even conservatives accepted that government would have a new role to play in the economies of their countries. All major parties recognized that society could not permit the kind of domestic conflict that had spawned the twin evils of fascism and communism. The major issue was not whether to draw up a new social contract but what its provisions should be and who should pay for the new state obligations.

Internationally the creation of the United Nations and the development of the Marshall Plan reflected a feeling that a newsecurity and social contract were needed abroad as well as at home. The consequences of unbridled nationalism were everywhere to be seen. With the establishment of the United Nations and its various affiliated organizations, the immediate postwar world saw the second attempt in this century at collective security. The international equivalent of the welfare state at home was attempted in the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as the notion emerged that economically powerful states had an obligation to promote growth and welfare not only in their own countries but throughout the globe.

Americans like to think that such attitudes reflect a special vein of American generosity or altruism and that only their country could have come up with the Marshall Plan. The new course did represent an impressive policy departure, particularly for the United States, but in retrospect it should be seen as part of a more general international phenomenon. America stood out, not because it was so much more generous than others in terms of its national character, but because it was so much richer than others in terms of its large treasury. Had other victorious nations had the resources of America, it seems likely that we would now be talking about the de Gaulle plan or the Attlee plan or even the Chiang Kai-shek plan. For indeed, once other nations recovered, they also began to display the same pattern of generosity that many Americans like to believe is restricted to themselves. Today other members of the OECD contribute more to ODA than the United States by the standard measure of per capita effort. Indeed, America is at the bottom of the list of donors in per capita terms. If the American people were inherently more generous than the people of other states, such a transformation would never have taken place. It did take place because of the general postwar tendency to believe that governments had an obligation to promote an improvement in economic and social conditions both at home and abroad that could reduce the likelihood of civil strife and war.

Other characteristics of the postwar era are worth noting. After 1945 the world witnessed the outbreak of two global wars that literally touched every country in the international system. The first was between white and non-white, European and non-European and the issue was liberation. The result was foreordained. Liberation prevailed. Colonialism ended.

The other global war was ideological. Indeed, the cold war was our first truly world war. In the first and second world wars, fighting did take place in several different regions. But there were major areas of the globe that remained relatively untouched, most of Africa, Latin America or South Asia for example. Because of the cold war's ideological character, the struggle was everywhere. All regions were touched. Every single country or dependency became involved and the superpowers found reason to intervene virtually everywhere.

With the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, this global civil war is effectively over. The future of communism is in the hands of aging leaders in China, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam. Their days are numbered and so is the future of the movements they lead. This fact appears to many of us to alter radically the course of history, leading to the kind of turning point we faced in 1945. It certainly seems to be the case that the future of international relations will henceforth be different if only because the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the United States are going to be so different. The primary organizing principle of postwar relations--the ideological struggle between the United States and the USSR--will no longer exist. That seems to be almost as significant a change as the arrival of American and Soviet troops in the heart of Europe.

No major new weapon has appeared on the international scene to rival the atomic bomb in its impact on international relations but other new features of the international system convince many that we are at a turning point: the rise of the trading state whose international power derives from its economic strength rather than its military might, the transformation of America from the globe's leading creditor into its leading debtor, the evolution of Japan into the world's most successful economy, the reunification of Germany, the globalization of world capital markets, and the rise of environmental dangers that affect the security of all countries regardless of political orientation. Yet of all the factors, the one that seems to have had the most immediate and profound effect is the end to the cold war.



America is redefining itself. A new generation is taking over the White House, and the national focus has shifted from foreign policy to domestic issues. At the same time, the end of cold war has also liberated foreign policy. New issues and new priorities are inevitable, but a new consensus on foreign affairs has yet to take shape.

The United States has nobroad international strategy. Rather it pursues a collection of policies; some are left over from the cold war, and some are relatively new.

The foreign policy agenda is far less dangerous and in most respects easier to deal with than the agenda that confronted Mr. Clinton's predecessors. Nowhere are American vital interests under attack, or even seriously threatened. The United States in 1993 is able to deter any conceivable attack, and to deal with any conceivable threat to its national security. Its international position is probably better now than at any time since 1920. Of course, attaining this unique position has been quite costly, and has contributed to America's burgeoning economic and social problems. This, of course, is one reason why Governor Clinton was elected: not to solve the world's ills, but to apply his laser-like concentration on America's ills.

One of the virtues of the end of the cold war is that the new president, unlike his predecessors, is free to reexamine the long-term interests of the United States in more propitious circumstances than at any time since Pearl Harbor. The new administration, if it chooses, can even reexamine a series of major security issues that heretofore have been sacrosanct.

America's role in the so-called new world order is still not clearly defined. Many observers believe the new world order is primarily an American responsibility. In the summer of 1991, President Bush said that "Our responsibility remains not only to protect our citizens and our interests but also to help create a new world in which our fundamental ideals not only survive but flourish." This comes fairly close to remaking the world in our own image.

It is not enough simply to invoke or rely on slogans about America's responsibilities. It would be a tragedy if the first post-cold war president sought refuge in reshaping the past. The best service President Clinton can provide the nation is to force an examination of the longer term national interest of the United States, measured against the new international landscape. Why the United States should want to bear the primary burden for creating a new world order is not clear in light of its internal problems.

In any case, the first term for President Clinton is likely to be a transitional period, if only because it is clearly a transitional era in the history of international politics. After 50 years of war and cold war, it will take at least 4 years, and probably more, to work out the so-called new world order.