World Order after the Cold War

EDITORIAL, 14 May 2018

#534 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Cold War ended abruptly and surprisingly, not only preceded by the Gorbachev softening of the ideological dimension but his offers to the world of an uplifting alternative to geopolitical rivalry and predatory neoliberal globalization:  war prevention and common security, as well as internal democratizing reforms summarized by the Russian glasnost and perestroika. At first, it seemed to sympathetic observers an overhaul of socialism that resembled the program of reform that Franklin Roosevelt had put into practice in the United States to rescue the country from the depths of the Great Depression, but the West watched with glee as the Soviet system unraveled instead of lending this innovative leader in Moscow a helping hand. How different, and better, the world might have been!

Unfortunately, instead of seizing Gorbachev’s olive branch, the West did its best to hasten the Soviet collapse, thus turning its back on this golden opportunity to transform the negative bipolarity of the Cold War era in the direction of positive bipolarity. The essence of positive bipolarity would be a turn away from the war system and predatory capitalism as the basis of world order combined with an embrace of common security at the level of sovereign states, human security as the level of society, and a reliance on lawmaking multilateralism in the face of such global challenges as nuclear weaponry and climate change.

The aftermath of the Cold War exhibited several forms of dysfunctionality: failures by the American-led West to recognize and act upon a new global agenda that served the human interest rather than continue to pursue geopolitical ambitions by relying on coercive diplomacy and militarism. With disaster in the offing, it is more urgent than ever to explore whether there remains an emergent possibility of positive forms of world order.  A brief overview of what went wrong after the Cold War ended serves as a prelude to exploring what might go right..

The Failed Response: Unipolarity

With the Cold War over, a unipolar moment appeared to be the most accurate way of regarding the geopolitical structure of world politics after this geopolitically painless ending of bipolarity, fortunately coming without a major war or civil strife. The United States was then facing a wide open window of opportunity, yet it seemed not to notice, and instead built a bridge to nowhere.

It does appear in retrospect that U.S. suffered from a paralyzing version of triumphalism after the Soviet collapse, typified by various narratives of its victory, most influentially, perhaps, by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Some found promising the American-led response to Iraq’s attack and annexation of Kuwait in 1991, especially the peacekeeping consensus at the UN, and proclamation by George H.W. Bush of ‘a new world order’ based on the new potential for P-5 cooperation and a more robust UN role, in keeping with Charter intentions. Unfortunately, these hopes were never well founded, and proved in any event to be transitory.

The Bush, Sr. presidency showed quickly its lack of commitment to the emergence of a new world order beyond the opportunistic relevance of the label to help mobilize an anti-Iraq consensus to support a questionable armed attack. The idea that this was the beginning of more serious forms of collective global governance in the aftermath of the Cold War was just not part of the American political imaginary. Rather the efficiency of the military operation at the core of the Gulf War was mainly interpreted as restoring the United States’ confidence lost after enduring defeat in Vietnam that its war machine could prevail quickly in time and at acceptable costs.

Bill Clinton’s presidency was no more capable of shaping a constructive international response to the new realities of international life. Clinton promoted the predatory capitalist view of the new world order by giving priority to the efficiency of transnational capital at the expense of the wellbeing of people. This goal of facilitating the transnational flow of capital contributed to a perverse shift of ideological emphasis from Keynesian to neoliberal economics, further marginalizing concern for the harmful human consequences of unregulated markets. This shift to neoliberalism is significantly responsible for the severe inequalities that now afflict the internal public orders of many states, and help explain the rise of freely elected autocrats whose popularity rests on a mindless hostility to the established order.

Perhaps the most tragic effect of such responses to the end of the Cold War was the lost opportunity to exert two major forms of positive U.S. leadership: seriously proposing international negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament and other forms of demilitarization; and strengthening the UN by adding non-Western permanent members to the Security Council to reflect the new geopolitical landscape, as well as limiting the veto to circumstances of self-defense..

The 1990s did achieve a temporary depolarization in international relations yet without accompanying normative improvements by strengthening international institutions to uphold global interests. U.S. leadership was focused on narcissistic geopolitics, accentuated by the rise of neo-conservative influence that favored relying on military superiority to promote strategic interests, especially in the Middle East.

Mishandling Mega-Terrorism after 9/11

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were apparently the work of a non-state actor, heralding two broad developments affecting the structure and processes of world order: first, the resecuritizing of international relations, which meant reasserting the primacy of politics over economics as the vector of geopolitical behavior; secondly, deciding that the proper response to the attacks should be shaped by the war paradigm rather than the crime paradigm, which had been relied upon in the past by governments when dealing with terrorism.

In one respect, the war on terror was an extension of unipolarity, especially given the political logic articulated by George W. Bush to the effect, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists.’ Beyond this demand for solidarity with the counter-terrorist side, there is the sense that territorial sovereignty of any country can be legally breached if its government is unable or unwilling to eliminate terrorists from its soil. There are no safe havens if the entire world becomes the battlefield.

The decision of the Bush Jr. presidency to treat the 9/11 attacks as ‘war’ rather ‘crime’ has caused many concerns about civilizational decline, and the abandonment of international law and common humanity. The names Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are appropriately invoked to epitomize what went wrong in the response to 9/11. As with the earlier failure to take advantage of the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attack were another lost opportunity to enhance world order by devising a regime of common security. Such a regime could be adapted to regulating non-state violent political crimes and transnational extremist movements by inter-governmental police cooperation.

The 9/11 response by way of a series of controversial and costly international wars that did not achieve their security goals despite a massive military commitment weakened international law, the UN, and multilateralism generally. It also seriously compromised the quality of democratic life in liberal societies by encroaching on civil and political rights.

While the U.S. was engaged in military adventurism at a time when war was losing its historical agency, China, India, Brazil, Russia were gaining influence and making impressive developmental progress. The G-20 was established to create a more representative venue for global economic policy but its lack of institutionalization and authority are part of a confusing situation that features inadequate international regulation of the world economy. States increasingly rely on narrowly nationalistic economic policies posing rising risks of trade wars and regressive forms of protectionism. What has emerged is an ineffectual form of multipolarity that leaves at risk the agendas of trade, investment, and development. In relation to global security there seems to be emerging an amalgam of military unipolarity without political effectiveness, exhibiting a helpless passivity with respect to repeated atrocities and massacres, typified by pathetic responses to the Syrian War raging since 2011.

Alternatives to Anemic Multipolarity

The sort of anemic multipolarity just described is inherently unstable given the increasing tensions and harms resulting from insufficiently attended contemporary challenges of global scope. As seems obvious, either a creative alternative will emerge or there is likely to be a series of regressive trends and events associated with worsening conditions arising from one or more of these unmet challenges. The most plausible positive alternatives under these conditions are benevolent leadership for either multilateralism or bipolarity with benevolent leadership. The assumption here is that the United States under Trump, as reinforced by a reactionary Congress, is no longer motivated or capable of exercising the kind of leadership role that it had  assumed since 1945, admittedly always with mixed results..

What might multilateralism with benevolent leadership mean? China has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for soft power extension of influence together with the greatest surge of economic growth in all of history. China seems to have a mature appreciation of the need for global problem solving and management of global warming, nuclear policy, and the world economy. Whether it can deliver the kind of leadership needed at this stage of history is an unanswered question. As the most promising next global leader China will need to address several issues: the fact that Chinese is not spoken outside its borders; China lacks a globally traded currency; China has little experience in global, as distinct from regional, diplomacy; China has a poor human rights record at home; and Chinese ideology is without many foreign adherents even if its own practice is pragmatic.

Maybe it is premature to count the United States as out of the leadership game. It seems possible, maybe likely, that the Trump presidency will, in one way or another, be rejected by means other than global catastrophe, that is, by electoral rejection, impeachment, resignation. It also seems that a progressive backlash to Trumpism will occur in the United States and perhaps elsewhere, as well as a rejection of the recent wave of exclusivist nationalism. A new global mood might be receptive to a robust revival of multilateralism, vitality for the UN and other international institutions, and display support for more compassionate global public policy processes that are dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests.

A variant of this kind of more hopeful world order scenario would result from a new global political atmosphere induced by a shared recognition of urgent challenges. Such an atmosphere could lead to what might be called benevolent bipolarity in which the United States and China collaborate much as wartime alliances have produced strong cooperative relations among seemingly antagonistic political actors. This was the case with the anti-fascist coalition. Such bipolarity would complement multilateralism by concentrating policymaking in these two governmental centers of authority, status, influence, and capabilities, and extending their reach to encompass common and human security systems that gradually rendered the war system obsolete and reduced the domain of coercive geopolitics. During this process security would increasingly be assessed from the perspectives of human rights, global justice, civilizational equality, and ecological sustainability.

This would achieve a new kind of two-level world order: (1) leadership exercised by the collaborative efforts of China and the United States; (2) multilateral lawmaking and policy formation by states, as influenced by civil society actors around the world.

A Concluding Remark

We are living in a period of radical uncertainty, although clearly imperiled by palpable world order challenges. The dominant current trend is highly problematic, configured by various expressions of resurgent and exclusivist nationalism, and irresponsibly unresponsive to an array of global challenges. It is highly unstable because the challenges on the global agenda urgently require an unprecedented scale of cooperation and global leadership or catastrophe is almost certain to follow. We hope for the best, especially the resilience and initiatives of civil society accompanied by the reemergence of visionary leaders of state and non-state actors sensitive to their global responsibilities.

What is politically feasible at this point will not do. The peoples of the world deserve and require a politics that recognizes what is necessary and aspires to achieve what is desirable.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 May 2018.

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2 Responses to “World Order after the Cold War”

  1. Joanna Santa Barbara says:

    Dear Richard Falk,
    I would like to read your report, with co-author Tilley, on whether Israeli practices with respect to Palestinians amount to apartheid, written for ESCWA. It is not to be found on the ESCWA website, as you doubtless know. Is there another link by which I might find it?
    Thanks for you untiring work on many important issues,
    Joanna Santa Barbara.