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26.02.2009 Feature Article

The World after the Cold War

The World after the Cold War

Unconditional war can no longer lead to unconditional victory. It can no longer serve to settle disputes. It can no longer be of concern to great powers alone. For a nuclear disaster, spread by winds and waters and fear, could well engulf the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the committed and the uncommitted alike. Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.
John F. Kennedy

The Cold War was a period of tension and hostility between the United States of America and the Soviet Union from the mid-40s to the late 80s. It began with the end of the Second World War. It was called the Cold War because there was no active war between the two nations, which was probably due to the fear of nuclear escalation. There were many indirect conflicts like the Vietnam and Korea wars. There was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 which was the closest the world ever came to a nuclear war. An American U2 spy plane took photographs of Soviet intermediate ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. The Soviet Union sent a total of 42 medium range missiles and 24 intermediate range missiles to Cuba. The US threatened to invade Cuba over the issue. Ultimately the Soviets removed the missiles on America's promise of not invading Cuba.

Although the Soviet Union and China started off as allies in 1949 an estrangement emerged between them, which was cleverly exploited by the Americans. In 1971, to contain the Soviet Union, the Chinese signed a pact with the US. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, which led to the United States and its allies boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia. The Soviet Union and together with its allies also boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games which came on in Los Angeles, USA. The US financed and armed the Afghan guerrillas to fight against the Soviet troops. The Afghan War was a major factor in bankrupting the Soviet Union.

In the '80s President Ronald Reagan of the US dubbed the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and predicted that it would be consigned to the ash heap of history. He announced a major weapons buildup and the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) also dubbed "Star Wars". The Soviet Union was too economically enfeebled to reply in kind. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. He adopted a conciliatory attitude towards the Americans and many arms reduction pacts were signed. In 1989 there was a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and in 1990 the Soviets agreed to the reunification of Germany. Movements against communist governments in Eastern Europe followed this. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 marking the end of the Cold War.

When the Cold War came to an end in 1989 with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, when the countries of Eastern Europe regained independence, and when finally the Soviet Union disintegrated, there was widespread feeling throughout the world that at long last universal peace had descended on Earth. The fear of a war in which weapons of mass destruction would be used had vanished.

It was a beautiful moment but the euphoria did not last long. Skeptics feared that there was plenty of conflict left in the world, which had, however, been overshadowed or suppressed by the Cold War. In other words, as long as the confrontation between the two camps continued, all kinds of other conflicts, which seemed minor at the time, would not come into the open. On the contrary, the Cold War had in a perverse way been responsible for the preservation of some order in the world; it had been a stabilizing factor.

And it was also true that the danger of a new, horrible world war had probably been exaggerated. For there existed a balance of terror; there was mutual deterrence— precisely because there was a big arsenal of devastating weapons. And since both sides in the conflict were acting rationally, because they knew what the consequences of such a war would be, peace was preserved.

Would such mutual deterrence still be in force once the Cold War had ended? Or would the new age result in great disorder? The Cold War had not put an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction. But it had certainly slowed it down. This is no longer true today; there is not just the danger that a few more countries would achieve these weapons. The real threat is that the acquisition of these weapons by a few will generate a general rush to follow them, because their neighbors will feel exposed and threatened.

Furthermore, can it still be taken for granted that those in possession of weapons of mass destruction will act as rationally as the two sides in the Cold War did? Or will they, driven by religious or nationalist or ideological fanaticism, forget the suicidal risk they would run if they used the weapons? Or will they perhaps persuade themselves that they could use these weapons with impunity against their enemies and yet obliterate their traces in a proxy war?

There have been few volunteers to act as world policemen—it is admittedly not an attractive job, unpaid, with little gratitude to be earned. Perhaps it is unnecessary, perhaps the international order will somehow take care of itself?

Possibly, but scanning the world scene there is not much reason for excessive optimism. Russia has not yet accepted its new status in the world; there is resentment, not unnaturally, as the result of the loss of empire. There is a strong inclination to make all kind of outside factors responsible, and some are dreaming to restore the old power and glory.

There is Africa, with its millions of victims in horrible civil wars, which the international community failed to prevent.

Above all, there is the Middle East with its many tensions and terrorism, national and international. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the annals of mankind; it is as old as the hills. It has appeared in many forms and guises, nationalism-separatist, inspired by the extreme left and the radical right. But contemporary terrorism fueled by religious and nationalist fanaticism, operating in failed states, and sometimes instigated, financed, and manipulated by governments, is more dangerous than ever before.

There have been and are many misconceptions about the origins of terrorism. It is often argued that poverty and oppression are the main causes. And that when poverty and oppressions are removed terrorism will disappear. But terrorism does not appear in the poorest countries, and ethnic conflicts are seldom easily solvable; what if two groups claim the same territory and are unwilling to compromise?

The real danger is, of course, not the victory of terrorism. History shows that terrorism can operate only in free, or relatively free, societies. There was no terrorism in Nazi Germany or in Stalin's Russia; there was (or is) none even in less harsh dictatorships. But this means that in certain circumstances, if terrorism has been permitted to operate too freely and become more than a nuisance, a high price has to be paid in terms of limitation of freedom and human rights to put an end to it. Naturally, free societies are reluctant to pay such a price. This is one of the great dilemmas of our time and no one has so far found a painless way to solve it.

In the 1990s war has taken on new and disturbing features. Though every war has different roots, most have several features in common. They are in the two-thirds world and the former USSR. They are waged with weapons that were designed and exported worldwide by the US, Russia, France, the UK, and China. They are fought over conflicts between groups within states, especially where states have been unable to meet all their peoples' need for social and economic security. They last longer; they cause the collapse of states and the flight of millions of people to other countries. They kill few soldiers, but thousands of civilians. They destroy the delicate fabric of entire societies by turning whole populations into victims who are maimed, orphaned or made "stateless" through sieges, ethnic cleansing, and the practice of atrocities, such as public rape, mutilation, and torture. They turn teenagers—and sometimes children—into soldiers and unemployed people into mercenaries, death squads, and warlords' militia.
The international system for controlling war and providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and victims was designed to help countries co-operate in putting war behind them. Though the ideal was often undermined, it has worked for many conflicts between states.

The 35 full-blown wars in our world almost all have placed on the United Nations and its member states' obligations that were scarcely imagined when it was founded 50 years ago. The UN's traditional peacekeeping and diplomacy roles have been outstripped by the changing nature of war, the changes in military technology and the widespread availability of arms in even the poorest states. At the same time, modern telecommunications have made most of us witnesses to the intense suffering of people in places like Somalia, Angola, Bosnia, and Sri Lanka.

"Nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread ... and we weren't counting days or hours, but minutes."
-Soviet General and Army Chief of Operations, Anatoly Gribkov

Throughout the period that the cold war lasted many wars were fought between the allies of the super powers. It could said that security situation that existed in the Global Community was very volatile. This could be partly because US and Russia all possessed Nuclear weapons which were capable of annihilating the entire world if they come to war. The United States armed forces were at their highest state of readiness ever and Soviet field commanders in Cuba were prepared to use battlefield nuclear weapons to defend the island if it was invaded by the Soviets.

True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

The security situation of the world is much stabilized now as compared to era during the cold war. However it would be a great mistake to say the world is much peaceful as compared to the cold war era. What happen during the cold war was an unrest situation between two super powers of the world and their allies. The conflict situation now is an intra-state conflict where countries are having internal wars. Most of these conflicts are in the African Region and the Middle East. But of course the invasion of Iraq by the US can also not be overlooked as a major security threat to the world.

Though there are now more intra-state wars than there were during the cold War era, the security situation of those countries are just a small fraction to the overall security of the entire as compared to situation as existed during the Cold War era.

Credit: Richard Abbey
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Richard Abbey
Richard Abbey , © 2009

This author has authored 7 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: RichardAbbey

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