In today’s world there are numerous examples of popular demand for political change. They generally arise at a time when politicians seem unable to deliver on their promises. Take, for example, the year 2008 – described by Amartya Sen (2009) as ‘a year of crises’. First, there was a food crisis that impacted on poorer consumers, especially across African states, as the staples of their diet often became unaffordable. Second, there was a spike in oil prices that raised the cost of fuel and petroleum products globally. Finally, in the autumn of 2008, there was an economic crisis in the United States that quickly spread, compounding prior issues, and the global economy faltered. What does economic downturn have to do with the ‘voices of people’? The answer lies in the newly interconnected nature of our world.
For the bulk of the world’s population, daily life is characterised by easy and speedy communications. Of course, some areas of the developing world still suffer from poverty and infrastructure issues and so lack the benefits of global communications. That said, it is not uncommon to find mobile phones, which are ever cheaper, proliferating in the poorest regions of the world – such as across sub-Saharan Africa. Improved communications are a fundamental aspect of a wider phenomenon: globalisation. Globalisation enables us, via the communications revolution, to learn quickly and consistently about events all over the world, almost as soon as they happen. Globalisation has in a real sense shrunk the world and made it interactive. When something happens in one country, it can quickly affect others. This may be an economic matter, such as the global economic downturn referred to above, but terrorism is also an issue.
The era of deepening and sustained globalisation coincides with global events following the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s it gave way to a range of newly independent post-communist states that redrew the map from central Europe to central Asia. Fifteen new states were created, including Russia. It also initiated a dynamic phase of globalisation which affected our understanding of international relations in a number of ways. First, the end of the Cold War threw the study of international relations into a state of flux. Soon after the Cold War ended, there was talk of a new international order. This reflected a widespread optimism that there could be improved international co-operation and a fresh commitment to strengthening key international organisations, especially the United Nations. The aim was to achieve various goals, including better, more equitable development; reducing gender inequalities; defusing armed conflicts; lessening human rights abuses, and tackling environmental degradation and destruction. In short, to manage multiple global interdependencies it would be necessary to improve processes of bargaining, negotiation and consensus-seeking, involving both states and various nonstate actors, including the United Nations.
It soon became clear, however, that there was a lack of ideas as to how the desired international improvements might be achieved. During the 1990s there were serious outbreaks of international conflict. Many were religious, ethnic or nationalist conflicts that spilled over into neighbouring states. When these events occurred, local or national issues quickly spiralled into regional or international crises. Examples of these include conflicts in Africa – in Burundi, Haiti, Rwanda and Somalia – and also Europe, where Yugoslavia tore itself apart during the 1990s, eventually splitting into seven states. All these led to serious, and in many cases still unresolved, humanitarian crises requiring external intervention. These conflicts showed how difficult it is proving to move from the problems of the old international order that had characterised the Cold War to a new era marked by international peace, prosperity and cooperation.