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2.11: The Post-Cold War Era

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    1. A New Pecking Order. In the old days, nation-states used their military to compete for territory and resources. The new pecking order is based less on traditional measures such as military power, territory, resources and size, and more on so-called soft power, such as a country's economy, diplomacy, education and culture. Japan’s power comes from its large, advanced economy and high education levels, even though it has few natural resources and a small military. Some of its culture has proven exportable (karaoke, sushi and anime). Nigeria has a larger population than Japan, plus good land and huge oil reserves, but because of its corrupt government, poor economy and low education levels, has made much less impact on the world. In contrast, the small nation of Cuba has earned considerable international good will by sending doctors and nurses to other countries.

    The U.S. is one of the few nations with both hard and soft power on a large scale. It has the number one military, can send huge task forces to disasters like the 2004 South Asian tsunami, dominates international organizations and the international economy, has MacDonalds everywhere (with local adaptations like halal and vegetarian food), and is emulated by hip-hop artists everywhere. Its main problem has been inconsistent leadership.

    In particular, economic power has become more important. For example, Russia has thousands of nuclear missiles and bombs, enough to destroy the world several times over, but its economy is one-tenth the size of the U.S., has widespread corruption, and is dependent on oil and gas. (‘Nigeria with nukes.’) Russia uses the economic power it does have by leveraging its oil and gas resources to gain influence in Europe and Asia. It has built plants to export Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), built pipelines such as the Blue Stream pipeline to Turkey, the Nord Stream to Germany and the Power of Siberia to China, and twice cut off gas exports to Ukraine. Its invasion of Georgia was not just a nationalistic spat. It also put the one non-Russian-controlled pipeline from Central Asia in danger, and scared off financing for another non-Russian-controlled gas pipeline through the region. Russia also bought the electricity networks in Georgia and Bulgaria. Obviously military power still counts, but economic power is more important in today's world. For instance, after Russia’s recent takeover of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the West is attacking Russia with economic sanctions rather than making military threats.

    China has gained wide soft power influence by building massive infrastructure projects quickly in 60 countries in its Belt and Road Initiative, giving big loans to African, Asian and Latin American countries in exchange for copper, oil, and other commodities without the environmental and other conditions required by western lenders. There are about 3 million Chinese working on projects in Africa, who receive double pay plus free room and board to be separated from their families for years. The Chinese also export cheap consumer goods and start local businesses.

    When the Libyan war broke out, China sent ships to extract the 10,000 Chinese living there. China has also exported arms, surveillance cameras, facial recognition, phone and internet hacking and other spying software to other countries. Diplomatically, it has participated in every possible committee in every possible international organization and gradually worked up into senior leadership positions, but it has also set up alternatives to the existing western-dominated structures with organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the 2016 Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

    China has not attracted large overseas audiences with its politically correct radio, TV and films, but it has succeeded in gaining visibility with its TikTok app, by lending pandas to western zoos, setting up Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture, helping Philippine typhoon victims, participating in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and helping rescue stranded scientists in Antarctica. It has also bought or had proxies buy media outlets in many countries in Africa and Eastern Europe and provided local outlets with free news with the Chinese point of view. China also has a network of radio and TV stations in the U.S. China also reserves veto rights over the content of Hollywood movies before they can be distributed in the world largest market.

    China also retaliates when they feel disrespected. When the mayor of Prague in Czechoslovakia met with representatives from Taiwan and would not pledge to an anti-Taiwan policy, the Chinese embassy cancelled a lucrative visit to China by the local symphony, reneged on lending pandas to the zoo and threatened to cut off future investment. When a Houston Rockets executive tweeted a slogan from the anti-China Hong Kong protests, China pulled NBA games from television, demanded the executive be fired and cut back NBA activities in China. When a player on the popular British soccer team Arsenal tweeted criticism of Chinese oppression of the Uigurs in Western China, the team’s broadcasts in China were first cut, then finally resumed without the announcers ever once mentioning the player’s name.

    2. The Rise of the Rest. Another way there is a new pecking order is that the western powers are not as dominant as previously, with China, India, Brazil and several other NICs (Newly Industrialized Countries) such as South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey rising economically and in other dimensions as well. In contrast, the U.S. has massive budget and trade deficits and declining infrastructure and schools, and Europe, Russia and Japan’s populations are declining.

    3. Weapons Proliferation. One reason that military power is less important is that the spread of both weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons around the world has leveled the playing field between the great powers and smaller countries and groups. There are now eight countries with deliverable nuclear weapons, and North Korea is trying to join the club.

    In addition, cheap conventional weapons plus ‘asymmetric’ tactics such as roadside bombs, guerrilla war and cyberwar level the playing field between weak and powerful nations. In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. was defeated by Vietnamese fighters with inferior weapons but superior guerrilla war tactics and strategy. In the 1980s, the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan by tribesmen armed with cheap AK-47s and portable anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the U.S. Iranian-trained-and-equipped Hizbollah fighters used cheap roadside bombs to fight the extremely well-armed Israeli military to a stalemate in Lebanon. The 9/11 attackers used plastic box cutters to hijack multi-million dollar airplanes. Roadside bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s are effective weapons against the high-tech U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The proliferation of arms has another result; even small groups can be armed and have large impacts. In civil wars in the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, even poorly-organized and lightly-armed rebel groups managed to control local populations and resources such as diamond mines.

    4. Integration and Disintegration. Integration is most obvious in economics. The U.S., Mexico and Canada have the NAFTA free trade agreement (slightly renegotiated as the USMCA under Trump). The European Union goes further, with farm subsidies; infrastructure and regional development funding; free trade, investment, travel and study; a central administration with the European Commission, a European Parliament and Court, and a single currency. There is ASEAN in Southeast Asia; Mercosur in South America; the African Union, SADC and ECOWAS in Africa, and many others.

    Meanwhile, there is also plenty of disintegration and devolution. The biggest example is the breakup of the Soviet Union into several countries in 1991. Yugoslavia broke up soon after. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. In Britain, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments were given more power and Scotland may vote again on independence, while Britain voted to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) in 2016. In 2017, Catalonia voted for independence from Spain, but Spain cracked down and did not allow it. In Canada, Quebec tried to break away and in 1999 the native Inuit and Aleut peoples gained jurisdiction over huge areas in the North. There was a 30-year civil war in Sudan between the North and South that only ended in 2005. Other local cultures are also reasserting their identities, such as Native Hawaiians.

    5. Nonstate actors are becoming more important. Although nation-states remain the primary players in world politics, there are more international organizations with more power. The number of IGOs (International Governmental Organizations), NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and other non-state actors has skyrocketed. Multinational corporations dominate the global economy, constituting half of the largest 100 economic organizations in the world (the other half are countries). Terrorist and crime groups are also globalized. As a result, nation-states must increasingly deal with nonstate actors.

    6. Global trade has increased twice as fast as economic growth overall, and this means the nation-states of the world are increasingly interdependent. For instance, we get a lot of our computer chips from Taiwan and China, so if China attacked Taiwan, we would have a problem. Globalization of production, finance and labor has also increased.

    7. The disparity between the rich and poor is growing, both among and within nation states. About a quarter of the world is getting left behind as the top of the world gets richer. As the poor see the lifestyles of the rich on TV and cell phones, they are getting angrier. Thus more crime and terrorism.

    8. Finally, environmental and human rights issues, once ignored, are becoming increasingly important. Their importance is increasing, there is more attention paid to them, they are causing more conflicts and there are more international agreements.


    1. In the 1,000 years before 1500, who were the dominant world powers?

    2. Who were the major European powers in the 1500s and 1600s?

    3. List two purposes of the Concert of Europe/Treaty of Vienna. Give one example of success and its worst failure.

    4. Who were the two dominant colonial powers in the 1800s? Give two examples each of their colonies.

    5. How the Concert Powers respond to the revolts of 1848?

    6. What result of the 1871 Franco-Prussian War changed the balance of power in Europe?

    7. Briefly outline two causes and two aftereffects of WWI. What were two U.S. roles?

    8. What happened to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and the League of Nations?

    9. Briefly outline what France and Britain did in the Middle East after WWI. Who got what?

    10. What caused WWII in a) Europe and b) Asia. c) Who did most of the fighting against Germany? d) What was the U.S. role in the war in Europe and Asia?

    11. What was the most important reason for the start of the Cold War?

    12. What was the overall system structure during the Cold War? (multipolar, bipolar, etc.)

    13. What was the overall U.S. policy during the Cold War? Give three specific examples.

    14. Describe the system structure since the end of the Cold War.

    15. List five tendencies of the post-Cold War world system.

    This page titled 2.11: The Post-Cold War Era is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lawrence Meacham.

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