25 years after 1989: has global security improved?

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Benjamin Mueller's picture

“Every achievement contains within its success the seeds of future problems,” said James A. Baker III, the US Secretary of State who formally oversaw the end of the Cold War. A quarter of a century later, this statement has been borne out by events. Has the demise of a bipolar system of international security given rise to a new age of tumult? Certainly, a multitude of security crises across the globe demand our attention, most of which were not on the radar during the age of superpower competition.

In East Asia, China’s ascent to the status of a major power has profound consequences for regional security. China leverages its increasing national wealth by pouring money into the People’s Liberation Army. With an expanded set of military tools at its disposal, the country has become much more strident in asserting its claims over the South China Sea, prompting sabre-rattling and occasional naval skirmishes. As a result, Japan is on the verge of a major rearmament campaign, threatening a return of the Sino-Japanese rivalry that caused such bloodshed in the Second World War.

The Middle East is home to a cluster of crises. After the Arab Spring it quickly became clear that Islamism, not liberalism, is the most potent of the ideological waves that are battering the region’s regimes. A whole range of countries is destabilised: Libya is morphing into a failed state with Islamists battling secularists for authority. In Syria, 9 million refugees and 200,000 deaths is the horrifying toll of almost four years of slaughter; Bashar al-Assad has become the first leader to use chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Halabja in 1988. This orgy of violence has spawned the Islamic State, which unleashed sectarian carnage in the Levant of such savagery and effectiveness that it nearly brought about the fall of Baghdad. While Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States seem stable, their citizenry is the main source of money, soldiers and ideological support for the Wahhabi-inspired violence in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, Israel and Palestine continue their dance of death to the twin tunes of occupation and radicalism. All in all, the Middle East’s flame of hatred burns so fiercely that it has begun to blow back to Europe’s streets.

The Horn of Africa and Yemen are home to desperately poor populations ruled by ineffective and brutal governments who barely maintain control. Islamists are carrying out attacks in Africa in an arc stretching from Somalia all the way to the Maghreb. And in West Africa, the terrible state of governance has been exposed by the ongoing Ebola epidemic: governments struggle to contain the disease’s biggest-ever outbreak despite the fact that relatively basic hygiene protocols would suffice. Central Africa is home to endemic violence as ethnic disputes and fights over resources rage in Nigeria, the DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Closer to home, the seams around the Western zone of security are being undone. Violence in Mexico has cost at least 100,000 lives in less than a decade. Acts of barbarity have become so ordinary that news in September of 43 students burnt alive on the orders of a corrupt governor failed to shock. On Europe’s borders, Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine earlier this year to punish the country for overthrowing its pro-Kremlin puppet government. Russia is arming an insurgency in Donbass, risking tragedies such as the downing of MH17 and, in an act not seen in Europe since the 1930s, has annexed foreign land by force.

One can be forgiven, then, for arguing that international security has deteriorated 25 years after the end of the Cold War. However, this notion is false.

Following the end of the Second World War, the emerging confrontation between the US and the USSR ended up infusing almost every aspect of international affairs until 1989. This made it easier to understand the myriad of wars and troublespots that blighted the world: most could be cast as elements of global superpower rivalry. Perversely, this imposed a sense of ‘order’ on disparate political hotspots that were flaring up on all continents. This was order in a theoretical sense only – the reality of a world in which conflict abounded was no different during the Cold War (despite it sometimes being wrongly referred to as the Long Peace). For instance, during Henry Kissinger’s tenure as Secretary of State, he deployed US power either directly or through proxies in almost a dozen countries: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Angola, Ethiopia, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Yemen and Israel. This rather surprising list shows just how much today’s security context has changed since the Cold War era (only Yemen and Israel remain active security hotspots). Moreover, world security has improved immeasurably since the lifting of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the world. The threat of global nuclear war, once built into the very security DNA of the international system, is no longer a concern.

The disappearance of two competing superpower blocs has had paradoxical consequences that make international affairs less penetrable to sweeping analysis. Seemingly contradictory tendencies abound. For example, the world of nation states is far more tightly integrated than in 1989; this makes war costlier than before and explains why China and Japan won’t fight militarily anytime soon. At the same time, far from disappearing, armed conflict is moving down the scale, towards regional and sectarian fault-lines. The maxim that all politics is local has never been truer. Last year there were 50 million displaced peoples worldwide, a sad historical record. [1]

The increasing spread of communications technology makes all this suffering more vivid, but also creates an impression of chaos that mistakenly suggests the past was calmer. In 1982, Assad’s father massacred 10,000 of his countrymen in Hama, yet barely anyone outside Syria found out. The Halabja attack, too, was largely ignored by the world. And the brutality of Pakistan’s 1971 Bangladesh campaign, costing millions of lives, would not even have registered on the radar of world opinion had it not been for a Sunday Times expose by a sole, courageous Pakistani reporter. 

In 1989, democracies were in the minority, now they are the norm in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and most of Asia. [2] But politics is more contested, and the absence of an underlying ‘game’ – that of East v West – makes events more disjointed, regions more prone to volatility, and can ferment suddenly emerging threats like ISIS.

Many of the conflicts we face today are of a low-intensity, asymmetric and protracted kind. Because they are local in origin, they are hard for outsiders to solve. This is the challenge of our age that statesmen and thinkers must address: how should we prioritise and deploy scarce resources so as to best encourage the spread of civilised norms that have pacified large swathes of the developed world since 1945? The answer probably lies in a mix of values, incentives and institutions.

After 1989, the rigidity of the East-West confrontation gave way to a more fluid international system. A more dynamic world creates new opportunities for alliances and conflict resolution. Instead of despairing at the evils in our world, now is the time to apply thought to action, so as to tackle the pressing issues of our time.