The End of the Cold War



 The hugely symbolic breaching of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989 ushered in the end of the cold war and culminated in the Soviet Union spiraling out of existence by December 1991. This historic watershed marked the end of the age of bipolarity (East and West dominance of the global order) giving way first to a ‘moment’ of unparalleled US hegemonic dominance or uni-polar preeminence before the rise of what can now be considered to be a genuine multi-polar order comprised of a number of influential state and non-state actors with multipolar spheres of influence. The global distribution of power has profound implications for global stability, security, peace, conflict, prosperity & development. In the first four chapters we will look at the end of the cold war, the processes which led to its demise, the threats and challenges to global peace and security that have emerged over the last 25 years and the uncertainties present in the emerging global order.

 The Road from Helsinki

“We had a wonderful record on the hydrogen bomb. We tested it, perfected it and never used it – and that served to win the cold war”

 Edward Teller (“Father” of the hydrogen bomb)

 “We didn’t win the cold war. We were just a big bank that bankrupted a smaller bank because we had an arms race that wiped the Russians out.”

 Norman Mailer (Author)

 For almost 50 years after the conclusion of the Second World War international politics was conducted through the prism of superpower relations and whilst other processes such as decolonization and independence struggles, ‘third world’ development, global economic governance and terrorism were of significant importance they were regarded as second-tier issues against a wider backdrop of cold war rivalry and tension. The global reach and influence of both superpowers was unparalleled in human history and the distribution of power internationally was held to be a zero sum game, whereby a gain for the US or its allies was a direct loss for the Soviet Union and its allies, and correspondingly, any Soviet gains implied a dilution and loss of US influence. Each bloc was fixated with the idea that any development carried with it the threat of ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ the cold war. It was this rivalry – economic, political, military and ideological- that fueled more than eighty expansionist wars over spheres of influence in Latin America, South East Asia and Africa throughout the cold war period, a rivalry that was, literally, deadly. Conservative estimates of at least 100m deaths directly attributable to cold war conflict are commonplace.[1]

The rival claims for territory and geo-political influence also gave rise to a tendency towards a balance of power enshrined in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Both superpowers had become resigned to the realist orthodoxy[2] that nuclear weapons parity or near-parity had become essential in ensuring the fragile peace between the two blocs. Hostility, mutual distrust and paranoia were a perpetual feature of this entirely dysfunctional superpower relationship within which the doctrine of the balance of power was held to be an essential guarantor of the uneasy ‘peace.’ The nuclear balance of power was assumed to mean that a 3rd World War in the form of direct nuclear conflict had become unthinkable, and thus, in being unthinkable, had been rendered impossible. Assured of the certainty of total devastation neither bloc would seek to directly attack the other. Vast armouries of different classes of nuclear weapons on both sides and the dreadful certainty of annihilation kept the ever-fragile ‘peace’. Bureaucrats, politicians and generals (indeed their populations) on both sides of the divide grew comfortably accustomed to inhabiting a ‘groupthink’ mindset in which the arms race had become an immutable law of international politics. The functional necessity of parity between the two blocs became a desirable de facto cornerstone of foreign and defence policy. Nobody challenged this orthodoxy because to do so risked shattering the uneasy peace that had prevented war. This balance of power (or balance of terror) was paradoxically both inherently stable and unstable. In October 1962 the superpowers stared into the nuclear abyss over the issue of Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba and only averted a nuclear conflagration by the most slender of threads. Miscalculation or misinterpretation carried with it the most serious consequences, no less than the very survival or obliteration of humanity itself. The conditions that had prevented nuclear Armageddon paradoxically made it more likely – whilst the finality and horror of that prospect, it was assumed, made it impossible. The terrible paradoxical logic of mutually assured destruction (or MAD) could never have been more aptly named.

Throughout the cold war there were precious few opportunities for a thaw in east-west relations. On the contrary most of the whole of the period is characterised instead by flashpoints and rising tensions: the crisis in Berlin in 1948 and 1949[3]; workers uprisings in East Germany in 1953[4]; the Hungarian uprising in 1956[5]; the Suez crisis of the same year[6]; the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961[7]; the Korean[8] and Vietnam[9] wars the Cuban Missiles crisis[10]; the U2 Spy Plane incident[11]; the Prague Spring of 1968 and its ruthless suppression[12]; destabilisation and regime change in Iran[13], Chile[14] and elsewhere; the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988)[15]; rising tensions between Moscow and Beijing in 1969[16], uprisings in Poland in 1970[17]; the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979[18]; and the panic induced in the Kremlin in November 1983 by NATO exercises[19] provide ample evidence that the cold war was far from stable even if direct nuclear and military confrontation between the superpowers was ultimately averted. Perhaps the most significant and promising of the few rapprochement opportunities that did arise came from the Helsinki process[20] between 1973 and 1975. Helsinki offered a tantalising glimpse of what might be achieved through dialogue, co-operation and detente and culminated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975[21] creating the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe which acted as a forum for defusing tension, resolving disputes, sharing technology, promoting human rights and fostering greater economic cooperation. The Conference was formally established with 35 member states and is now a fully fledged organisation (the OSCE) with 57 members and a further 11 partner states representing the Mediterranean, The Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Oceana. The Helsinki process and the Helsinki Final Act were important for a number of reasons but in the main they set a tone for the conduct of international and superpower relations that was markedly less belligerent than had been the case for some time. The very idea that amidst the flash-points, crises, and tensions a new relationship forged on security and cooperation could come to dominate the European political landscape and reset Soviet-USA relations appeared imprudent, fanciful and even naive.

Not so, at least not initially. Real progress had been made for example with concrete reductions in ABMs (anti-ballistic missiles) agreed in 1972[22] fostering an atmosphere of greater trust and cooperation. The very fact of a protracted Helsinki process engendered confidence that both blocs were increasingly inclined towards rapprochement even if the task of getting there proved arduous. German Chancellor Wilhelm Brandt’s Ostpolitik[23] signalled a new understanding between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic and symbolically therefore between East and West. Co-existence, cooperation and mutual understanding were to be the new cornerstones of superpower relations.

 The Cold-war warrior


The promise of detente and the ‘thaw’ in East-West relations gave way to the ‘second‘ cold war (1979-1985) in the blink of an eye. SALT II (Strategic arms limitations talks) between the USA and the USSR had faltered and stalled with agreement proving elusive.[24] When it was eventually negotiated after 7 years of talks (1972-1979) it was never implemented. Whilst the Helsinki process had offered a glimmer of what could be achieved in fields such as economic and scientific cooperation, shared security frameworks and human rights, these hopes were dashed by two separate developments. The first had been the Soviet Union’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the symbolism of which amounted to a reassertion of the aggressive impulses of the Soviet Union. These ‘impulses’ would always trump whatever accords, protocols or treaties the Soviets had signed up to. The second was to have a longer lasting impact on events. In November 1980 Ronald Reagan, a hard-line anti-communist, quasi-evangelical Republican, was elected the 40th President of the USA. Reagan wasted little time in establishing his cold war warrior credentials.[25] Both events had the effect of leaving detente in tatters. Developments thereafter merely reinforced the idea that the default relationship between the two superpowers was one of antagonism. A new arms race began in earnest with massive deployments of Soviet SS20s in Eastern Europe and equally massive deployments of Pershing Cruise missiles in Western Europe.[26] In Poland, General Jaruzelki’s hard-line crackdown on the opposition movement Solidarity[27] in December 1981 bore chilling echoes of the Budapest and Prague repressions in 1956 and 1968 and in 1982, in an inflammatory speech before both Houses of the British Parliament, Reagan predicted that Marxism-Leninism was destined for the “ash heap of history.” “Regimes planted by bayonets”, he noted, “do not take root.”[28] In March 1983 Reagan described the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world[29] whilst the White House’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative[30] terrified an aged and paranoid Politburo seeing hostile intent in every speech, every policy and every military exercise. “Reagan is unpredictable,” they noted. “We should expect anything from him.”[31] In November 1983 the Kremlin became convinced of the imminence of a US first strike wipeout following highly realistic NATO exercises along the Rhine under the codename Able Archer.[32] In terms of how close the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation this was no less then Cuba 62 redux – the Soviet Command was in the latter stages of preparation for a full-scale preemptive nuclear assault on the West.

The delicate balance of terror, long advanced as the best means of preventing war was not a doctrine shared by Reagan. Specifically the policy of co-existence implied that there was a moral equivalence between the capitalist and the communist blocs. For Reagan it was self evident that ‘freedom and democracy’ were on the right side of history and communism was not. The Soviet Union was indeed an “evil empire” – there could be no moral equivalence between West and East. If that were true then neither could there be any ‘peaceful coexistence.’ One bloc (on the ‘right’ side of history) would need to ‘bury’ the other.

Neo-Realists such as Waltz believed the bipolar balance of power to be inherently stable, [33] but to the astonishment and alarm of his strategists and the State Department Reagan repudiated the doctrine wholesale and in doing so tore up thirty years of established orthodoxy on the functional necessities of parity. Reagan instead insisted that the best way to end the threat of nuclear annihilation was to face down the Soviets and beat them in an arms race they could no longer afford to run. Once he had accomplished that task he could set about securing the most unlikely dream a right-wing conservative Republican President could possibly have – genuine bilateral nuclear disarmament – as a precursor to a world free of nuclear weapons. No one had noticed that Reagan was a committed and sincere – if arguably naïve – nuclear abolitionist.[34]

 The reformer from Stavropol


Gorbachev, for his part, had long since come to a similar conclusion. The arms race with the United States could not be won. The security and political and economic future of the Soviet Union could only be achieved through internal reforms and external rapprochement. This view arose from a practical hard-headed assessment of internal and external realities, though such an assessment was without any doubt also informed by the fact that by temperament and ideological inclination Gorbachev was also an idealist. What were these internal and external realities? The Soviet command economy was stagnating and had done so for more than two decades. Shortages of basic commodities were rife. Bureaucracy and party control stifled innovation whilst dissent and nationalist sentiment was stirring and becoming increasingly difficult to contain. In terms of foreign policy and defence the cost of maintaining the arms race was consuming a vast proportion of GDP. Opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan was stirring whilst the ruling elite by the mid 1980s had become complacent and ineffectual. The Soviet Union was also gripped by an alcoholism epidemic. On taking office Gorbachev summed it up in one simple phrase: “We can’t go on like this.” Just as Reagan had repudiated the doctrine of MAD, Gorbachev repudiated the Brezhnev doctrine[35], adopted after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The doctrine had held that each country in the Soviet Bloc must take its instructions from Moscow, imposed by force of arms if necessary. To openly show defiance and deviate from any line taken by Moscow risked invasion as had been the case in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Gorbachev spoke before the UN General Assembly on 7th December 1988 making this repudiation unambiguous. “It is evident, for example, that force and the threat of force” he said “can no longer be, and should not be instruments of foreign policy. […]” [36] The tumultuous events of 1989, and Gorbachev’s reaction to them, were to prove that Gorbachev was as good as his word.

What Gorbachev had intended was to end the arms race, seek a new relationship with the West and reform the Soviet system by attempting to introduce a form of Scandinavian style social democracy that was both economically and politically viable – in short, a tilt at peace abroad and prosperity and pluralism at home. Gorbachev’s intentions though were neither here nor there and were exceeded by the consequences in the grandest terms imaginable. In seeking to make socialism function more effectively Gorbachev instead succeeded only in unravelling it. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc simply could not cope with the pressure forced upon it by the arrival of Reagan at the White House in January 1981. It could no longer contain growing dissent from within and it could no longer sustain the crippling cost of maintaining parity in the new arms race.

 A leap of faith

Less than a month before Gorbachev’s UN General Assembly speech a relatively young and unknown Miklos Nemeth, the new Hungarian Prime Minister, had been rapidly drawing towards the same conclusions on the necessity of reform. In particular Nemeth wanted to introduce multi-party democracy in Hungary. There had already been a terrible precedent set in 1956 when similar reforms had been implemented. Would Gorbachev repeat the 1956 exercise and impose under the Brezhnev doctrine single party rule by force? In March 1989 in a visit to Moscow, Nemeth put the question directly to Gorbachev who responded with the utmost precision and clarity. Moscow did not agree with the Hungarian decision to introduce multi party democracy, but that was Hungary’s “problem” not Moscow’s. There would be no repeat of the 1956 “exercise”.[37] Nemeth’s seemingly insignificant decision not to renew the barbed wire fence and border with Austria was to have dramatic consequences. Many East Germans took vacations in Hungary but now there was a breach in the iron curtain between Hungary in the East and Austria in the West. Nemeth had negotiated a deal with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to allow any East Germans already in Hungary to go to the West. As tens of thousands of East Germans flooded into Hungary the hard- line East German Communist Honecher was presented with nothing more than a face saving fait accompli which involved the asylum seekers passage to the West through East German soil so that Honecher would be allowed to claim he had expelled them. The rapid pace of events had thrown the communist old guard into a state of confused, dithering impotence. Briefly contemplating a ‘Chinese solution[38] to the wave of protests in East Germany, Honecher was swiftly replaced by Egon Krenz who lacked the will and ruthlessness to impose any such order by force. Slaughter was thus narrowly averted in Leipzeg, East Berlin, Prague, Sofia and elsewhere (Ceaucescu of Romania on the other hand did not go quietly.)[39] The reformers were in the ascendancy and the old guard were ‘history’s men.’ The Iron Curtain which had descended from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, the barbed wire and concrete fortress which had so long divided Europe was fatally breached; the hated Berlin wall was transformed in an instant from a symbol of repression and totalitarianism to a breached relic of a bygone era. The swift and momentous ‘velvet’ revolutions had ended the cold war, overthrown communist regimes who ruled by secret police and fear and consigned to history the dreadful certainties that had dominated East and West for over forty years. How the consequences would unfold was anyone’s guess.


 “ The Wall will remain so long as the conditions that led to its erection are not changed. It will be standing even in 50 and even in 100 years…”

 Erich Honecher, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, Berlin, 19 January 1989

 “Those in power are frightened by the rebel, the non-conformist. They know that even small acts of resistance can have unforeseen consequences”

 Vaclav Havel – poet, play-write, dissident, President

 The ‘sudden’ turn of events in 1989, culminating in the end of the cold war, were arguably not so sudden or unexpected after all. Hindsight provides 20/20 vision and with the benefit of hindsight there is much evidence that the tumultuous events of that autumn were the logical – even inevitable – consequence of the developments of the previous decade or so. Faltering detente, the growing tide of dissent, Reagan’s repudiation of coexistence and MAD, the collapsed Soviet economy and Gorbachev’s internal reforms and abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine, all played their part in fermenting the events of the 1989 watershed. Following the Helsinki Final Act (1975) the undertakings given by the Soviet delegation and those of other Eastern bloc countries may have been insincere but they acted nonetheless as a catalyst to various groups of dissidents who meant to exploit these undertakings to maximum leverage and effect. In the aftermath of Helsinki Eastern Europe (and even Moscow itself) witnessed a flourishing of dissident (Helsinki) groups throughout the bloc.[40] The repression following the Prague Spring in 1968 had a short-lived effect and the Czechoslovak regime was forced to deal with a resurgent de facto ‘rise of dissent.’ In less than a decade the dissidents were again making their presence in Prague felt. In January 1977 a group of activists published a manifesto called Charter 77 calling on regimes to give effect to the human rights undertakings made in Helsinki. In Poland, which had witnessed a swiftly suppressed uprising in 1970, an unauthorised independent trade union movement, Solidarity, was formed under the charismatic leadership of Lech Walesa, a humble electrician from the Lenin shipyards of Gdansk. The movement spread rapidly prompting fears of a Kremlin sponsored intervention. General Jaruzelski dithered and then announced a hard line crackdown with the imposition of martial law in December 1981 – “the last nail in (the regime’s) coffin,” as Walesa put it on his arrest.[41]

Equally important was the loss of continuity from the Kremlin. The cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis persuasively argues that it was not so much Gorbachev who abandoned the Brezhnev doctrine but Leonid Brezhnev himself, petrified of an uprising or (worse still) a conflict with the west if Warsaw Pact countries once again intervened militarily to correct the ‘anti-socialist’ forces at work in Poland and Prague. In Czechoslovakia, Charter 77 activists had been spied upon, harassed, dismissed from work and in some cases imprisoned. When Reagan observed that “regimes planted by bayonet do not take root” he was onto something. What was “taking root” however was a growing tide of dissent that was proving very difficult to contain. Havel was right. Even the smallest act of disobedience can have unforeseen consequences and those in power had more than enough reason to be fearful. There was a visible transfer of fear from the hitherto cowed populace to the previously arrogant regimes. The Kremlin was no longer minded to intervene in the cause of “socialist unity,” thus enhancing the fragility of the regimes which had so long relied on just such a threat to maintain internal order and cohesion.

In Poland the imposition of martial law had the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of crushing opposition and dissent the crackdown galvanised it. What the world was witnessing was a preview to a new reality that would descend upon the Eastern bloc in unpredictable and unexpected ways. The Soviet Union’s iron will of 1953 (East Germany), 1956 (Hungary) and 1968 (Prague) was beginning to wilt. With the death of Brezhnev in November 1982 a replacement was found in former KGB Chief Yuri Andropov. Andropov was to last barely 18 months only to be replaced by the elderly Konstatin Chernenko who himself died in March 1985. It was against this background of drift, dissent, uncertainty and forced change that the Politburo turned to its rising star, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev came with a growing reputation for reform without ever jettisoning the language of socialism in his speeches. His speech to the 27th Congress of the Soviet Union in 1986 set out a very carefully coded reform agenda. No-one, at least not yet, saw that glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructuring), rapprochement with the west and the abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine would send the whole of the Soviet bloc spiraling into a deathly tail spin.

 How different it all had looked at the beginning of the decade. To all outward appearances the Soviet ‘bear’ was as strong as ever. It had flexed its muscles in Afghanistan, achieved nuclear dominance over the United States[42] and was accelerating manufacture and deployment of yet more Intermediate Nuclear Force weapons in Eastern Europe. Its satellites such as Poland and Czechoslovakia had cracked down on dissent and the West had suffered a series of decisive reverses with communist success in Vietnam, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua again in 1979. The Cold War seemed to be a permanent feature of the global order, destined to last for decades. But in the very moment of its ‘permanence’ the seeds of its demise had already been sewn. It had largely been held that mutually assured destruction and the prospect of mutual annihilation had prevented the cold war from becoming ‘hot’. The terrible paradoxical logic of mutually assured destruction had served to keep the peace. This realist orthodoxy remained largely unchallenged on both sides of the iron curtain for more than four decades. But at the heart of this argument is a curious paradox. The repudiation of MAD by Reagan, rather than its continuation, is what led to the end of cold war, and it did so almost without loss of life. Experts, as with the global financial crash, reassure us that under their guidance nothing can go wrong, or at least the consequences of that which does can be managed and minimised. But when the orthodoxy was shattered, taking most expert opinion by surprise, there was an outbreak of peace rather than war. Realists began to lose their intellectual dominance over the academic study of International Relations. The repudiation of parity and the dramatic increase in USA dominance disrupted the balance of power to such a degree that it was no longer credible to maintain that balances of power kept the peace.


 No-one who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter of a century ago can doubt the scale of the reverberations around both Eastern and Western Europe of that truly historical event. Those reverberations are still being felt in many ways today. More than an ugly artificial concrete and barbed wire barrier between inhabitants of a divided city in the middle of a divided Germany and in the middle of a Europe fell on November 9th, 1989. As “The Wall” fell the tottering regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as that of Soviet Union itself ultimately spiraled out of existence. Whilst publicly lauding the changes and avoiding any temptation to make life more difficult for Gorbachev than it already was, the West had many particular concerns, chief amongst them being the inevitability of German reunification.[43] This was also of concern to Gorbachev who feared that the inexorable impetus was towards a unified Germany becoming a member of NATO. Chancellor Kohl not only welcomed this prospect but positively championed it, causing dismay and anxiety in equal measure in both Paris and London. Thus a current Warsaw Pact member would be absorbed into the West’s security alliance, a precedent which would inevitably call into question the future of the Warsaw Pact and the status of other Eastern European countries in relation to NATO (as well as the European Union). The North Atlantic security alliance would conquer the East by default and revive historical Russian fears of encirclement. The debate over whether the West gave Gorbachev assurances that there would be no Eastward expansion of NATO rages even today and is still a potent source of grievance in Moscow. Nationalist and ethnic tensions, which had been kept largely under lock and key by the Soviet empire, were another distinct threat. The army was demoralised following the disastrous Afghanistan adventure and the loss of The Soviet Union’s status as a superpower. Economically the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were on the brink of collapse. Conditions were ripening for collapsed state authority, economic meltdown, civil conflict and anarchy. Russia also feared, correctly as it turned out, that the Soviet Union would face ceaseless pressure to break up into its constituent parts and that the republics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus etc) would demand independence from Moscow. This was not after all a great deal different from what Moscow had acceded to in respect of Eastern Europe. The disorderly break up of the world’s largest nuclear power was a very real and credible threat. The possibility of a military coup in Russia or one or more of the republics seemed a grim distinct scenario, and in August 1991 there was a botched coup attempt against Gorbachev.[44]

Threats and Challenges

 Over the past 25 years the face of international politics and the established global order itself have changed fundamentally. As a result, the challenges and threats to global peace, stability and security have also changed. The age of bipolarity, in which the post war world was divided into two hostile and antagonistic blocs is gone. However, it remains unclear as to what the shape of the new global order is. The London declaration (1990)[45] may have ended the cold war but a new catalogue of uncertainties has emerged. In place of the threats of Soviet expansionism, Western mistrust of Soviet intentions and the aptly named doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) as well as cold war conflicts by proxy in East Asia, Latin America and Africa, the threats to security and stability the world now faces come in very different forms.

The dominant political issues of the late 1980s and early 1990s have rapidly evolved into different security threats and challenges. Many former Soviet bloc countries have been absorbed into a western European sphere of influence, with German reunification and Romanian, Bulgarian and Croatian accession to the European Union (2007 and 2013) following the 2004 accession of 8 former Soviet bloc countries. Poland and Hungary are full members of NATO as are Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Albania. European expansion and integration continues apace, despite the significant strain placed upon the EU and especially the core membership within the Eurozone following the financial crash of 2008. Democracy and free market capitalism, however imperfectly, have been embraced in the former Communist bloc, and former adversaries, the United States and Russia, briefly co-operated on a number of platforms, undreamed of when the first tentative steps of the Helsinki process were taken in 1975, or when Gorbachev and Reagan were struggling to find common ground in Reykjavik. That post cold war optimism has faded significantly since the 2008 Georgian Crisis and a familiar cold war east west antagonism has returned especially (but not solely) over Ukraine.

Yet, superficially, some familiar aspects of the global politics of two decades ago remain. The Israeli – Arab conflict continues, as does the West’s dependence upon middle-eastern oil. The organisation and ownership of the international political economy continues to be in the hands of the few richest states and the familiar problems that face the developing world are far from being eradicated. The main international institutions have struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing world order, though some, such as NATO, have been more successful than others.

What of the role of the United Nations in ensuring global peace stability and security? Is it an ineffective institution, desperately in need of ‘proving its relevance’? Does it need to be reformed so that it is no longer structured to reflect post WWII realities? Is there an urgent need to reform the Security Council and create additional permanent members such as Germany, Japan, India, Brazil or even the EU? What of Security Council resolutions which are never enforced or acted upon? And what of unilateral wars of aggression such as the invasion of Iraq which were never sanctioned or authorised by the UN? What can be done to ensure that the authority and credibility of the UN is not diminished by compliance failure? Why can NATO act when the UN seems to have its hands tied? And, in terms of the North Atlantic Alliance, does it still have a role and if so what should that role be? Do emerging tensions between Europe, the European Union and the United States threaten the long-term viability of the transatlantic alliance? Has America now ‘pivoted’ towards Asia? What also of the emerging tensions between Europe and Russia? How have these come about after the apparent triumph of democracy over totalitarianism?

Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the burgeoning arms trade, civil conflict, ethnic strife, genocide, virulent nationalism, ecological and environmental degradation, poverty, disease, drug and human trafficking and global terrorism are all issues that have appeared swiftly and dramatically upon both the international and domestic political agenda. The concerns of just two or three decades ago have not entirely vanished, but they are taking recognisably different forms. Concern over a direct nuclear conflagration between East and West has diminished. Despite renewed tensions the prospects of a direct nuclear war between Russia and Western Powers or perhaps even between the USA and China seem remote, though certainly not impossible. Where nuclear weapons are concerned, the focus is now over horizontal nuclear proliferation. As well as the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (The USA, Russia, Britain, China and France) we may also add Israel, India and Pakistan as fully subscribed members of the nuclear club. In addition other states, most notably Iran, had active nuclear weapons development programs and North Korea have successfully tested nuclear weapons, and are improving their long range ballistic missile capability. What protection do the provisions of the 1968 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty actually afford and what are the implications of nuclear proliferation for future peace and global security? Nuclear weapons are not the only concern. Non-proliferation treaties and protocols also seek to address threats to stability, peace and security posed by the development and acquisition of biological and chemical weapons. In August 2013 Chemical weapons were fired in the Syrian conflict leading to the horrific deaths of more than 200 civilians.[46] It is also relevant to note the buoyancy of the global arms trade, worth in excess of $45bn per annum,[47] itself a threat to stability and security, especially in the world’s poorest regions.

 Similarly concerns over terrorism are now much more than merely domestic, and have become trans-national and even global in reach and importance, witnessed by the events of September 11th 2001 and the Bali,[48] Madrid,[49] London bombings,[50] the Paris attacks of 2015[51] and the rise of Islamic State (Daesh), Boko Haram and Al-Shabbab, as well as the fractures and fissures evident in the international response to such threats. In the 1970s nation states were primarily concerned with combating internal terrorism: The IRA/INLA in the Republic of Ireland and the UK, the Red Army Faction in West Germany, ETA in Spain, Action Directe in France or Brigate Rossi in Italy. Whilst it is true that there has always been an international dimension to the activities of terrorist groups such as Black September, or the PLO, as well as some degree of international cooperation on countering the threat posed, the new ‘war on terror’ possesses altogether different dimensions.

The iconic attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001, etched permanently upon the American national psyche, ushered in the war on terror, a war which many argue cannot be won. It is not a conventional symmetrical war, state upon state, but a coalition of states intent on defeating an ever-growing number of complex ‘umbrella’ of ‘franchise’ terrorist organisations with no conventional structure and no single national identity. It is asymmetrical warfare and points to a potential future in which alliances will tackle multi-lateral and amorphous threats to security – Al Qaeda has spawned a number of ‘affiliates’ or ‘rivals’ such as Boko Harem[52] in Nigeria, Al Shabbab [53]in Somalia and Kenya and ISIS in Syria & Iraq.[54]

Atrocities, such as those committed by Pol-Pot in Cambodia,[55] still occur but there has been at least some willingness upon the part of the international community to address how best to respond, with, for example, the establishment, under the Rome Statute, 1998 of the International Criminal Court. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur and other acts of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia suggest that the international community has yet to come to terms with how to prevent or deal with crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and wars of aggression. What, if anything, has been the positive impact of the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague? How damaging is it for the ICC that all the indictments, cases and most situations are from African countries? Is it conceivable that Western leaders could be tried for pursuance of war crimes or prosecuting an illegal war of aggression? Is the practical (rather than legal) jurisdiction of the court limited in this regard? Despite the UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay stating that both Israel and Hamas ‘may’ have committed war crimes in the summer of 2014[56] the international community seems unable to stop these grave violations of international law, much less bring perpetrators to account before a properly convened international court. What of other international courts? Can the International Court of Justice become a fully-fledged international court with the ability to make binding its decisions, or are international institutions merely and always dependent upon the will of nation states to accept their jurisdictions?

 Other threats to stability and security are also present. Global warming is now, according to virtually all peer reviewed scientific evidence, accelerating at such a pace that the trend will soon be irreversible.[57] Climate change brings with it instability and catastrophe from which even rich nations will have no immunity (As illustrated by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina). But the inevitable catastrophes will strike the poorer nations first and harder, because they lack the resources to mitigate the impact or recover from such disasters. How urgent is the political will on this matter and to what extent are politicians paying more than mere lip service to the problem? Once again, the question of the effectiveness of international treaties and protocols, such as Kyoto, raises itself.[58]

 In regards to international aid and development, declarations of good intent, for example at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2005,[59] or the Millenium Development Goals have made little immediate impact in countries (and continents) afflicted by poverty and disease. Can the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank be a force for alleviating poverty, or do they simply serve to support the interests of the world’s richest states? In an increasingly trans-national age, how secure, or indeed relevant, are national borders, and what measures need to be taken for more effective detection and prevention of human trafficking, tackling refugee crises and drug trafficking?[60]

 The end of the cold war prompted George H.W. Bush to declare the ushering in of ‘a new world order’, in which the bipolar age of rivalry between the communist east and the capitalist west, had been swept away by the tide of history to be replaced with a fundamentally different global balance of power. Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced his ‘end of history’ thesis,[61] in which liberal democracy and capitalism would triumph as the end state form of most countries, in most regions of the world. What shape this new world order will take has not yet been decided. There are many potential permutations. Will it be one of American hegemony and unilateralism? In his farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan had seen the United States as a beacon – The City on the Hill[62] and a benign hegemon. The initial post cold war view was that there had been a shift from bipolarity to uni-polarity but this unrivalled dominance of one ‘hyper-power’ appears to have been short lived. The Global financial crash hit the US very hard but so did more subtle factors such as its loss of moral authority, largely squandered after 9/11 where the oceans of goodwill the US could rely upon turned into a global backlash with the illegal invasion of Iraq. Has a genuinely multi-polar order emerged, as states such as China, India and non-state actors such as the EU grow in economic, diplomatic, political and military influence and act as a counterweight to US dominance? And what are the prospects for a future global commons based on peace, security, stability and universal democracy? The nature of the international order will continue to change at an ever-increasing pace. Today’s certainties are few and there may be even fewer tomorrow.

[1] Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century, Milton Leitenberg Cornell University, Peace Studies programme, Occasional Paper No. 29 3rd ed. © 2003, 2005, 2006 Milton Leitenberg. All rights reserved.

[2] The classical realist position is that states are egoistic, acting in their own interests and the interests of survival. Politics is a zero sum game and states are motivated to seek maximum advantage. It is this logic that informed the doctrine mutually assured destruction. Strength and deterrence will prevent aggression.

[3] The Berlin Blockade (June 21, 1948 to May 11, 1949). The Soviet Union blocked railroad and street access to West Berlin. The crisis abated after the Soviet Union did not act to stop American, British and French airlifts of food and other provisions to the Western-held sectors of Berlin following the Soviet blockade.

[4] The riots in East Berlin began among construction workers, in June, 1953. Leaders of the protest issued a call for a general strike, the resignation of the communist East German government, and free elections. Soviet forces struck quickly and without warning, scattering protesters and ending the uprising.

[5] The Hungarian Uprising began in October 1956 lasting 18 days before being crushed by Soviet tanks. The head of the new reformist Government Imre Nagy was executed.

[6] In October 1956, Israeli armed forces pushed into Egypt toward the Suez Canal after Egyptian president Nasser (1918-70) nationalized the canal in July of that same year, initiating the Suez Crisis. The Israelis were joined by French and British forces who withdrew their troops in late 1956 and early 1957.

[7] The Berlin Wall was built by the communist government of East Berlin in August 1961, in order to prevent people from fleeing East Berlin. It was the perfect symbol of the “Iron Curtain” that separated Berlin, Germany and Europe during the Cold War.

[8] On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. In July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war. The Korean peninsula is still divided today.

[9] Vietnam was the longest war in American history and the most unpopular American war of the 20th century. It resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and in an estimated 2 million Vietnamese deaths.

[10] During the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense, 13-day political and military standoff in October 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba. Disaster was avoided when the U.S. agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s (1894-1971) offer to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. promising not to invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

[11] An international diplomatic crisis erupted in May 1960 when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) shot down an American U-2 spy plane in Soviet air space and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (1929-77).

[12] On August 20, 1968, approximately 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring”–a brief period of liberalization in the communist country.

[13] On August 19, 1953, the military, backed by street protests organized and financed by the CIA, overthrew Mossadeq.

[14] Chile’s armed forces staged a coup d’état against the government of President Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America. The U.S. government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had worked for three years to foment a coup against Allende.

[15] Started by Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein in September 1980, the war was marked by indiscriminate ballistic-missile attacks, extensive use of chemical weapons and attacks on third-country oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The end came in July 1988 with the acceptance of UNSC Resolution 598.

[16] Armed skirmishes occurred during the spring and summer of 1968, with both sides contributing to a massive military buildup in the region. For several harrowing months, as the world watched, China and Russia teetered on the brink of a nuclear conflict.

[17] Strikes over price rises were met with lethal force. The bloodshed claimed hundreds of victims embittered millions of workers. Many of the future leaders of Solidarity and other opposition movements gained their formative political experiences in 1968 and 1970.

[18] In an attempt to stabilize the turbulent political situation in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union sends 75,000 troops to enforce the installation of Babrak Karmal as the new leader of the nation. The new government and the imposing Soviet presence, however, had little success in putting down antigovernment rebels. Thus began nearly 10 years of an agonizing, destructive, and ultimately fruitless Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.

[19] Able Archer 83 was a ten-day NATO command post exercise starting on November 2, 1983 that spanned Western Europe.Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a coordinated nuclear release. The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union led some members of the Soviet Politburo to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces. The incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

[20] The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), convened in Helsinki, Finland, on July 3, 1973, and concluded there (after continuing deliberations in Geneva) on August 1, 1975. Attended by representatives of 35 governments—including the NATO countries, the Warsaw Pact nations, and 13 neutral and nonaligned European states—the conference had as its principal purpose a mutually satisfactory definition of peace and stability between East and West, previously made impossible by the Cold War. In particular, the Soviet Union wished to gain recognition of its western frontiers as established at the end of World War II (which ended without the conclusion of an omnibus peace treaty). The West, with no realistic territorial claims of its own, sought concessions primarily on security requirements and human rights, largely in that order.

[21] 1st August 1975 35 countries sign the Helsinki Final Act

[22] SALT I, as it is commonly known, was the first of the Strategic Arms Limitation talks between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.  Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, met with U.S. President Richard Nixon in November of 1969 to come up with a treaty that would contain the arms race.  The negotiations lasted until January of 1972, and by May 26 of that same year the treaty was finalized.  The two treaties signed that day were the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, or ABM, and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.  Provisions of the ABM treaty included regulation of antiballistic missiles that could possibly be used to destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) launched by other countries.

[23] Ostpolitik, (German: “Eastern Policy”) West German foreign policy begun in the late 1960s. Initiated by Willy Brandt as foreign minister and then chancellor, the policy was one of détente with Soviet-bloc countries, recognizing the East German government and expanding commercial relations with other Soviet-bloc countries. Treaties were concluded in 1970 with the Soviet Union, renouncing the use of force in their relations, and with Poland, recognizing Germany’s 1945 losses east of the Oder-Neisse Line. The policy was continued by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

[24] In June 1979, Carter and Brezhnev met in Vienna and signed the SALT-II agreement. The treaty basically established numerical equality between the two nations in terms of nuclear weapons delivery systems. It also limited the number of MIRV missiles (missiles with multiple, independent nuclear warheads). In truth, the treaty did little or nothing to stop, or even substantially slow down, the arms race. Nevertheless, it met with unrelenting criticism in the United States. The treaty was denounced as a “sellout” to the Soviets, one that would leave America virtually defenseless against a whole range of new weapons not mentioned in the agreement. Even supporters of arms control were less than enthusiastic about the treaty, since it did little to actually control arms. Debate over SALT-II in the U.S. Congress continued for months. In December 1979, however, the Soviets launched an invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet attack effectively killed any chance of SALT-II being passed, and Carter ensured this by withdrawing the treaty from the Senate in January 1980.

[25] When he entered office in 1980, Reagan believed that the United States had grown weak militarily and had lost the respect it once commanded in world affairs. Aiming to restore the country to a position of moral as well as military preeminence in the world, he called for massive increases in the defense budget to expand and modernize the military and urged a more aggressive approach to combating communism and related forms of leftist totalitarianism.

[26] The following source confirms that 654 SS-20s, with three warheads each were deployed until the conclusion of the INF (Washington) Treaty in December 1987. NATO by contrast deployed 108 Pershing II missiles in Italy, Belgium, and West Germany and 464 GLCMs (Ground Launched Cruise Missiles)

[27] General Jaruzelski was chiefly responsible for the imposition of martial law in Poland on 13 December 1981 in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy movements, which included Solidarity, the first non-Communist trade union in Warsaw Pact history. Thousands of journalists were silenced and opposition activists interned without charge; as many as 100 of them were killed. The resulting socio-economic crisis led to the rationing of basic foods including materials and consumer products, while the median income of the population fell by as much as 40%.

[28] President Ronald Reagan’s Speech to the British Parliament June 8th 1982


[30] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Penguin Press 2005 p.228

[31] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Penguin Press 2005 p.227

[32] See footnote 19.

[33] Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” Daedalus, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Summer 1964)

[34] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Penguin Press 2005 p.226

[35] Extract from Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s speech to the UN General Assembly, 7th December 1988. Gaddis argues however that in failing to intervene in Poland in 1981 Brezhnev had effectively abandoned the Brezhnev doctrine before Gorbachev put it to rest.

[36] See note 35

[37] Miklos Nemeth’s account of his meeting with Gorbachev in March 1989. The Cold War, Episode 23 The Wall comes Down, CNN.

[38] Throughout the late 1980s, the East German Protestant church played a significant role cultivating and sheltering the leading figures of the popular opposition. in order to prevent a confrontation between the armed police and the demonstrators – what Erich Honecker had been referring to openly as the “Chinese solution.” Source Berlin Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, “GDR Crisis: The Honecker Era Fades Quickly,” 20 October 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed August 13th, 2014).

[39] In December 1989, a popular revolt inspired by the velvet revolutions and aided by the army, pushed the Ceaucescus from power, captured them and charged with genocide and other crimes. Shortly after their conviction, the Ceaucescus were led outside and executed by a firing squad. Nicolae Ceausescu. [Internet].

  1. The website. Available from: [Accessed 13 Aug 2014].

[40] In January 1977, Charter 77 was founded in Czechoslovakia, and in September 1979, the Helsinki Watch group was founded in Poland. Although all these groups were persecuted by their governments, they continued their activities. In 1982, the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to disband (it was re-organized in 1989), yet its pioneering efforts had inspired others to call attention to violations of human rights. Groups were formed in several European countries, in Canada, and in the United States.

[41] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War, Penguin Press 2005 p.222

[42] “US and USSR nuclear stockpiles” by Created by User:Fastfission first by mapping the lines using’s Calc program, then exporting a graph to SVG, and the performing substantial aesthetic modifications in Inkscape. – Own work Source data from: Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Global nuclear stockpiles, 1945-2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 62, no. 4 (July/August 2006), 64-66.

Online at Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – 

[43] The Cold War, CNN Turner Broadcasting, Episode 24: Conclusions.

[44] On August 19th, a group of high-ranking officials in the Soviet Union approached their leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in his holiday dacha in the Crimea, and informed him that they were removing him from power. When he refused to accept this, they detained him there, claiming he was resigning due to ill health, and dispatched the military to surround the White House, the seat of the Russian Parliament in Moscow. However, after Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave an address from atop a tank outside the White House denouncing the coup, a large number of Muscovites marched on the parliament and formed a barricade between the building and the tanks, sparking a two-day stand-off which culminated in the military backing down. Despite the failure of the coup, Gorbachev resigned his position within months, and Yeltsin declared the Communist Party illegal; the Soviet Union crumbled and fell apart.

[45] 6th July 1990. A formal declaration by NATO members in London formally ends the Cold War. Source: Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council (“The London Declaration”). [ON-LINE]. [London]: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, [02.12.2003]. Available on


[47] According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, the countries that produce official data on the financial value of their arms exports account for over 90 per cent of the total volume of deliveries of major conventional weapons. By adding together these data it should therefore be possible to arrive at a rough estimate of the financial value of the global arms trade. However, there are significant limitations in using this data in this way. First, the data sets are based on different definitions and methodologies and may not be directly comparable. Second, several states-including the United Kingdom-do not release data on ‘arms exports’, while others-including China-do not release any data on ‘arms exports’, ‘arms export licenses’ or ‘arms export agreements’. By adding together the data that states have made available on the financial value of their ‘arms exports’ it is possible to say that that the total value of the global arms trade in 2011 was at least $43 billion. However, the true figure is likely to be higher.








[55] Pol Pot (1925-1998) and his communist Khmer Rouge movement led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 to 8 million died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. Some estimates place the death toll even higher. One detention center, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless peasant society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. An invading Vietnamese army deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979.Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever being brought to justice.

[56] “Both sides [Israel and Hamas] were violating international humanitarian law and international human rights law, specifically the indiscriminate killing of civilians..”





[61] “What we are witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama, Francis; The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama, Francis New York : Toronto : New York : Free Press ; Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; Maxwell Macmillan International, c1992

[62] President Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation, 2 PUB. PAPERS 1718, 1722 (Jan. 11, 1989) [hereinafter Reagan, Farewell Address]. Reference 241


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