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Cold War Bipolarity

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Was the bipolarity of the Cold War more stable than the unipolarity of today?

The Cold War had an impact all around the globe and changed the essence of international relations. The end of the Cold War, most prominently marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, lifted the ‘Iron curtain’ and let in ideas and hope for freedom, democracy and human rights. Since then 20 years have passed and these aims have not necessarily been realized in the way they were envisaged back then. The basic system under which the world operates has not changed, a supra-states world government is yet to be founded and as it is every state prolongs in acting mainly in self-interest. However, the international system has been altered in the way that it moved from bipolarity, namely the United States and the USSR opposing each other, to a unipolar world, in which the US is highly dominant. The communist threat is said to have been diminished. Most experts had not foreseen the sudden end of the Cold War, which was never allowed to erupt due to the existence of nuclear weapons. As one historian put it ‘There is nothing worse than bipolarity, apart from perhaps unipolarity’. Bipolarity gave stability to the world to some extent, however the threat of nuclear war was always present. On the other hand unipolarity in which the US has major powers over most factors, also has its advantages and disadvantages as potentially harmful. The term ‘globalization’ only started being used regularly after 1989 but is now one of the most prevalent means by which international politics is defined.

Bipolarity supposedly has offered the world a certain amount of stability during the period of the Cold War. The nuclear threat meant that the war was never allowed to get ‘warm’ as the whole world population could be erased, this was an accepted, although tense, term, bound to the interdepence concept. In 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed between them, under the mutual recognition of the need to avoid a nuclear war. There was an approximate balance of power which helped some degree of security and order, especially in Europe where the military confrontation was highest and most likely. The 40 years of war have been seen as a period of calm, arguably the longest since the early part of the 20th century before this. Kenneth Waltz in his book (!!) celebrated the superpower relationship and argued that the balancing powers limited the actions of the other and managed conflict, they ‘fought in a framework of a set of informal rules’. Thus bipolarity has sometimes been seen as desirable and defensible.

Nevertheless, the bipolarity, mainly caused by the fear of the spread of communism, during the Cold war meant a division of the world for a period of 40 years. The nuclear threat was omnipresent and potentially events could have taken place differently and the outcome would have been disastrous. Further, Asia and Europe stood in the shadow during this period and had to rely on the ideological leader of their block, for economic as well as general living reasons. The most perilous situations were the Berlin crisis in 1961 and the Cuban crisis in 1962, where the risk of direct military confrontation with nuclear weapons was at its highest. Additionally during the period of the cold war at least 25 million people died, mainly in the 3rd world.

‘final end of one particular phase of history, liberal principles would now be dominant’ Fukuyama. He claimed this, believing that with the collapse of communism, one particular history has ended. Many claim that the unipolarity we’re living under at the moment is stable and has a lot to offer, namely democracy, capitalism and hopefully lasting peace. US policy during the Cold war, such as The Truman Doctrine, Containment and the Marshall Plan were all defensive measures, necessary in 1947 for the rebuilding of Western Europe. Since the end of the Cold war, and under unipolarity things have turned out pretty well so far. New bodies were set up to facilitate the transformation from the divided world to a united one, such as NATO, the UN, and European Union. Despite Europeans being initially at odds about key issues, such as European integration, economics strategy and the foreign policy objectives of the EU, Europe benefitted largely from the end of the cold war: Germany got reunited, the Eastern European States have achieved self-determination and the EU is seen as a success with 27 member states. Europe’s introduction of the Euro worked smoothly. Europe has however seen the need for hard power. In 1998 an EU security and defense policy was issued, due to the need of being able to engage with international affairs, as isolationism is not an option. Globalization has also done its share of aiding to bring about the world we are experiencing. As US President Clinton claimed ‘compete not retreat’, there is no escaping its competitive logic and the countries not willing to compete will essentially not be able to succeed, the worst thing is seen as being outside of the process. China and India are leading examples of how globalization can lead to high levels of development. It has even been suggested that China and the EU are potentially equal powers to the US, which would give a new balance of powers. This however, is not yet a realistic prospect.

Living in a unipolar world, however, also means a certain degree of uncertainty as the US now has the opportunity to act more assertively and with less restraint. It moved from being a superpower to a ‘hyperpower’. In the past US has had power as well and mainly used it wisely, so what many ask is why should they not do the same in the future? However, it is an unrivalled leader, with only few thoughts on how to use it, it was described as a ‘reluctant warrior’. Could it be even worse for the world if the US does not lead despite their economic leadership and leadership elsewhere, they have been described as a ‘superpower without a mission’? After the debacle in Somalia the majority of Americans were disinclined to see US forces abroad. This was altered after 9/11. After 9/11 the US has displayed more rhetoric and action with a new degree of willingness to employ power in order to protect its vital interest. The Iraq war has been questioned as to whether the notion of hyperpower contributed to the making of the decision to go to war. The ‘war on terror’ to remove Sadam Hussain has been challenged by those that claim that there is no direct connection with 9/11 and that the US simply searched for a way to access the huge oil reserves inside the country. By going to war with Iraq the US has disturbed the Middle East even more than it previously was, and possibly gave Iran more power. The Iraq war has thus been described as a strategic error, and the long-term effect that President Bush’ doctrine will have is yet to be found out. Russia is another issue. The first president Boris Yeltsin was often accused of not acting in Russian national interest and selling out to the west. His successor Vladimir Putin, in return took up a more authoritarian regime, returning Russia’s economics resources back under state control and following a more nationalist foreign policy as this is what the Russian public seemed to desire. It is uncertain which way Russia will go from here, some are still suspicious of their actions. Generally Globalization has been claimed to pose a problem for a sovereignty based international system and after a two-decade long period of expansion and experimentation Europe has reached a ‘dead end’. Current issues in Europe include the Turkish membership of the EU, China’s economic challenge and the position of Europe’s Muslims. Generally inequality generates security challenges in the form of migration, refugees and one very prominent worldwide issue at the moment is the expansion of radical Islamist movements of resistance to western ideas, who are threatening to use weapons of mass destruction to achieve their aims. Further still, local wars are still happening.

In conclusion, the end of the Cold war left the world with high hopes, what we face at the moment however is an uncertain future. In the last 20 years, peace has reigned in Europe, but other parts of the world have not been this fortunate. Globalisation has benefitted many but also has its drawbacks. There is also the argument that the US hegemon is losing the capacity it once had, partly due to the long-term impact of President Bush’ doctrine, and that their loss of leadership might be near, as the world is moving towards a world ruled by multipolarity. ‘Rising China’ is claimed by realists to change the current status quo, whereas other others think it can rise peacefully. Nuclear threat by terrorists remains and will probably not be removed soon.


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