The period described as Post-Cold World War is not clearly defined, but in most cases, it refers to either the period following the signing of the nuclear disarmament in 1989 or the collapse of the US's nemesis, USSR, in 1991. In either case, the period is characterized by the emergence of a relatively robust United States of American and a weakened Soviet. The weakness of Russia arises out of the collapse of the larger and more powerful USSR. The 1990s witnessed many events in the international arena which combined to shape the history of the world immediately following the end of the Cold War. First, the US emerged as a powerful nation ready to take on the planet to protect the weak and safeguard its national interest. Second, the USSR crumbled, and most of its constituent countries declared independence weakening the country economically and militarily. Third, Japan, which has been rising economically based on export-oriented manufacturing hit a dead run and economy stalled. Third, the fall of Japan's economic power coincided with the rise of China as an economic powerhouse. All these events helped shape the character of international relations after the end of the Cold War. The rise of intra-national conflicts and new threats of violence from terrorism forced the Western Leaders to change their approach to international conflicts in the post-cold war world.
The end of World War II conflict heralded the emergence of the US and Russia as the new superpowers and demise of Germany and other powerful axis allies (Levering, 2016). The changes essentially meant changes in the character of conflicts as well as the processes of resolving them. The end of the world war which ended with the defeat of Hitler and his Third Reich in Germany brought to the fore a simmering conflict between the emerging superpowers. Even though the two superpowers (USSR and US) fought on the same side during the Second World War, they were mere friends of convenience. The US was concerned and opposed to the communist Agenda and the Autocratic regimes of the USSR while the latter bore a grudge against the US for getting into the WWII too late to prevent the Massacre of Russians by the Germans. Also, the Russian leaders were not happy about the US's reluctance to recognize the USSR as a legitimate player in international affairs.
The cold war started as soon as World War II ended and the leading players were the two allies who fought on the same side to defeat the Nazi hegemonic agenda. The leading cause of the cold war conflict was a distrust between the USSR and the US originating from WWII. First, the USSR had for long desired to be recognized by the US as a superpower with legitimate claims in the international arena which the US was reluctant to do. Second, the USSR had for years requested the US to enter into the World War II conflict to prevent further escalation of the crisis, but the US kept off until the Pearl Harbor incidence. By the time the US entered into the battle, the German axis had conquered most of Europe and almost decimated the USSR Army. The incursion into the Russian territory was only thwarted by inclement weather and the lack of proper planning on Hitler's side. The resentment for the US was heightened by its increasing interventionist policies in world affairs, and the US top officials' aggressive attitudes. Also, the arms race placed the USSR as a front runner, and it was determined to come on top in the fight for the country with the most complex and potent weapons on the face of the earth.
On its part, the US was wary of the Autocratic and evil regimes that sprouted in the USSR, which posed a threat to their citizens and the world at large. Second, the US was against communist ideology propagated by the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist system existent in the US and other democracies. The USSR had an unbridled desire to conquer the world and spread its communist agenda across the world, and the US could not sit on its Laurels and allow it to go unchallenged.
After the end of World War II, Britain and the US on one side and Russia and its allies on the other established a pact that divided Germany and in effect Europe into two. The US and Britain took control of the western half of Germany while the USSR took the eastern side of Germany. The first actions of the Russian Federation were to impose communist regimes in the whole eastern region of Europe, which rattled the US and its allies. The move was viewed as Russia's first step in its world domination process. However, to Russians, placing the Eastern region under its communist control was a preventative measure against a possible attack from a resurgent Germany.
The simmering conflicts between the US and the USSR escalated after the end of World War II. The two countries were not ready to go to war because they had just come out of a long and involved conflict. The two countries virtually agreed to fight each other through proxies and shadow boxing which ushered in the era of the cold war. During the cold war, the USSR planned on taking over the world through spreading of communism, while the US planned on countering the Russian offensive by funding the destabilization of the communist regimes and installation of US-leaning administrations.
The war against the USSR has fought abroad and at the home front. On the home front, the war came in the form of the Red Scare, spearheaded by House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committees' primary function was to root out perceived communist sympathizers from society and prevent them from spreading their communist malaise to the rest of the American capitalist society. Left-leaning politicians, movie stars, academicians and business people were forced to denounce their associations with communist ideas. The communist witch-hunt that ensued witnessed thousands of people losing their jobs with some serving jail-terms due to their perceived relationships with communism, and by extension the Russian state. Colleagues and friends were forced to testify against each other creating a sense of fear in the whole country. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the public face of the movement to rid the US of communist workers both at the state and the Federal level.
The US top officials including President Harry Truman and Diplomat George Kennan believed that it was virtually impossible to have a peaceful arrangement with the Soviets, and resolved to engage a policy of “containment” to deal with the emerging threat. In the containment policy, the US would take an active role in the regime changes in communist states to stop the spread of the ideology and by extension the spread of the Soviet influence on world affairs.
The two countries were not content at the show of might on the surface of the earth: the arms race extended to space. Russia was the first to showcase its technological and military prowess by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (R-7) into space. The launch took the US by surprise for two reasons. First, it showed the capacity of the Soviets to launch a nuclear warhead into the US' airspace. Second, the US thought that it was the only country interested in space and was, therefore, not taking the potential inherent in the Space with the seriousness it deserved. In a few years, the US launched its Explorer I (satellite). In the same year, the government deemed space exploration a serious undertaking and established a department, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), charged with the role of coordinating all the activities related to Space.
The Soviets continued showing their superiority in Space matters by launching the first man in space in 1961. The USSR appeared to be one step ahead in issues of Space exploration which shook the US into more focused creativity. The US went a step further and placed the first person on the moon. By placing Neil Armstrong on the moon, the US claimed victory on the Space explorations and the competition between the two adversaries moved elsewhere.
Research Question (1): What made the world leaders change their approach to international conflicts post-cold world war?
Research Question (2): How did the use of politics with a powerful active military refined the view of conflict and interventions?
The collapse of USSR and communism heralded the era of post-cold war with a seemingly invincible America playing the role of the world police and spreading democracy and preventing the reoccurrence of violence in the world. People felt that now that the US had defeated the great post world war two era enemy, USSR and its communist ideology, democracy would spread and with it the benefits of peace, wealth and tranquillity.
The US policy was thus based on supporting countries in their democratic aspirations and standing guard against any inter-national conflicts that could arise. Few disputes occurred in the world between nations after the Cold war compared to the ones that happened before it. However, it was not all calm and peaceful. Inter-national conflicts were replaced by intra-national ones heralding a new era in international relations. Rwanda is a case in point where internal conflicts between the Hutu and the Tutsis led to the death of over eight hundred thousand people within a month. During the massacre in Rwanda, the world watched and waited for the citizens of the said country to resolve their differences without external interventions.
The US seems to have learned a bitter lesson on the futility of interventionism during the Korean and Vietnam's conflicts. When The USSR-supported communist North Korea regime invaded the Western-leaning and Capitalist South Korea, the US took it as the first shots in the war of dominance by the Russians. The US immediately intervened in the Korean conflict by sending the army to support South Korea's armed forces to repulse the North Korean Attackers. The war dragged on for about three years and ended up in a stalemate where no side could claim victory. More conflicts around the world would follow in quick succession including the Cuban Missile crises and the Bay of Pigs invasion. The battle that held the world's attention was the Vietnam crisis.
The Vietnam crisis started with the desire of Communist North Vietnam to bring South Vietnam into its fold thereby unifying the two countries. However, the process of unification was not easy as the two Vietnams had different ideologies, with the North aligned to communism and the south more inclined to follow the Western capitalist ideas. The US saw the North's attacks on the South as an attack on the capitalist ideologies and resolved to support the south to fend off the attacks from the north. The US sent in its military and channelled funding support to South Vietnam to defeat and root out the North Vietnam forces. Russia and China got into the conflict on the side of communist North Vietnam's side supporting it with armaments and military personnel. In the end, a conflict between two closely related countries became a battlefield for the superpowers (Levering, 2016). The dispute dragged on for years and in the end, millions lost their lives, and the US government faced a revolt which forced the administration out of power.
The Rwandans case gave the US and the UN an awakening call on the need for the multinational coalitions to intervene in various instances to stave of massacres like the one witnessed in Rwanda. Immediately after the Rwandan issue, Bosnia, and Herzegovina crises emerged, and the US and its allies under the UN umbrella intervened and resolved the crisis before too many lives could be lost. Following the success of the Bosnia case, the community of nations realized that spreading democracy alone was not successful in maintaining peace and harmony. The voting members in the United Nations passed a resolution to expand the mandate of the organization to include military interventions in deserving cases.
However, the US went further to engage in active military intervention in Muslim countries to promote democracy and ostensibly free the people from the claws of dictators. However, the majority of most of those countries lie in ruins and conflicts. Countries like Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are embroiled in disputes to date following the US interventionism (Madej, 2019).
Democracy is not necessarily a bad thing, but the US’ focus on helping countries to democratize makes the situations of the people worse instead of better. Kaplan (2000) opines that aid in developing nations should focus on the needs of society and not imply the idea of a democracy. He further argues that an obsession with the concept of freedom is not healthy as it leads to the assumptions that democracy is a panacea for all evils in the society. He objects to the funding of democratic processes in a country where the majority of the people live below the poverty line. It would be more beneficial if the funds were channelled to food production projects to lift the living standards
True democracy spread and there was relative peace between states. However, the democracy that spread in most parts of the world which had earlier been under communism was a shallow one, and in most cases, it exploited issues like ethnicity or religious differences leading to massacres as it happened in Bosnia which forced the US and other countries to send military interventions. Kaplan contends that democracy does not work everywhere, and that forcing it on the people end up doing more harm than good (Kaplan, 2000).
Theoretically, countries engage in military interventionism for two reasons: Offensive realism and defensive realism (Waltz, 1979). Offensive realism deals with the country's desire to protect itself by neutralizing the potential threats before they develop the capacity to inflict harm on it effectively. In the wake of terrorism, the US has used the offensive rationale to intervene in the various countries ostensibly to forestall stop those countries from developing enough capacity to attack it or its allies. A case in point is the Iraqi invasion to remove Saddam Hussein and get rid of potentially devastating weapons of mass destruction. The issue of the real motives of the attack and the non-existence of the said weapons does not feature as part of the discourse on the necessity of the interventions in the first place.
On its part, Defensive Realism refers to the action of a state intervening militarily in the affairs of another country to remove an already identified threat to ensure there is maximum security on the country engaging in the intervention. The September eleventh terror attack had a very devastating effect on the psyche of the Americans, and the government took the cue as a green light to seek out the masterminds and destroy their capacity to ever inflict such pain on the Americans. The security investigators in the US tracked down the masterminds of the attacks to Afghanistan. The government sent in the military to seek the perpetrators out and neutralize them. However, the sympathizers of Osama Bin Laden grouped and opposed the US forces' presence in the country.
The US military battled the Mujahedeen supporters of Osama Bin Laden in asymmetrical warfare. The US army brought with it superior weaponry and warfare tactics but could not easily defeat a ragtag army using guerilla warfare, and the conflict lasted close to ten years (Scott, 2000). In any dispute between a foreign army with superior warfare inside a nation and rebels with inferior armaments, the former rarely defeat the latter as the latter already has a vast knowledge of the territory. The superior military trained for conventional war is no match for the inferior army’s guerilla tactics. In the end, the US military found their target and neutralized it, but left the country in tartars.
The interventionism supporters do not see all gloom and doom in the activities of the US as it intervenes in other countries, stating that the intervention does more good than harm to the two countries involved. Most of the interventionists are concerned with democratization processes and neutralizing threats to the country. The proponent of military interventionism point to various cases where military interventions save lives, for instance, in the Balkans as compared to the conflict in Rwanda where the allied forces failed to intervene.
Furthermore, the proponents of the interventionism are convinced that in as much as the nations are autonomous, it is critical for the super-states to intervene in case of internal conflicts which can spill out into the neighbouring countries. The Balkans’ crisis exemplifies the need for intervention to prevent escalation. Failure to intervene in the battle would have seen it spiral out of control and engulf most of the countries previously under the Soviet Union. Such conflicts have the capacity to spark off-world wars if not immediately nipped in the bud.
China replaced Japan as an economic powerhouse, and with economic power, it has started flexing its military muscle. The chance of an all-out armed conflict with the US is not possible as the two have nuclear weapons which would ensure their mutual destruction. However, the US needs to intervene to protect the small countries in conflict with China, especially over territorial boundaries in the China Sea. Also, the US needs to keep on developing its military capacity to serve as a deterrence against such countries. The belligerence of North Korea poses an existential threat to the US and its allies. North Korea has some of the most potent weapons in the world and is routinely testing new weapons. To counterbalance the threats posed by the two countries, the US needs superior firepower.
It is worth remembering that China, Russia, and North Korea have had conflicts in the past. The containment policy was to be founded on a robust military foundation. The National security drafted a report, NSC-68 which provided the rationale for increased military funding. The report formed part of the policy that would support the four-fold increment in the financing of the military operations to support the containment policy. The military support would end up funding rebel groups opposed to the Russian-supported communist regimes and supply of physical weapons to such groups. The interventionism spread across the globe where the Russian influence was taking root from Africa to Europe.
The US was not content in production and supply of conventional weapons to aid regime changes: it needed to set itself apart from other countries in the world as the only superpower. The atomic bombs that ended Japan's involvement in World War II was an appealing prospect, and the government increased funding for the production and updating the same.
The Soviet Union had its ideas of proving their superiority in the world and was secretly producing their variety of Atomic bombs. Once it tested its atomic bomb in 1949, the arms race started in earnest. After the test, the US, through its president, Truman, announced that it would produce an even more lethal weapon in the forms of a Hydrogen Bomb (super bomb). The USSR was not about to be left behind, and Stalin announced that it was also in the process of creating a hydrogen bomb.
The US emerged out of the Cold-War is the only stable country with little competition. The land was active militarily and economically, and since it had defeated a significant threat in the world, people across the globe believed that the US had the moral duty of ensuring that conflicts do not arise in the world. They did not think that the country would have to intervene in countries as there was a general feeling that the world had moved on from wars and conflicts. Even the policymakers in the US were content in basking in the victory over Russia and did not see the need to formulate new international affairs policies. However, it was clear that America would still need to intervene as the conflict moved from the political level to the intra-national level characterized by warfare between clans or tribes. The emerging conflicts and their nature led to the world leaders to change their approach to international disputes.
Kaplan is on point in his assertion that the intervention on humanitarian grounds has been abused by the western powers to destroy rather than support the development of stable countries (Weiss, 2007). He proposes that preemptive strikes do not prevent conflicts from getting to the West. Instead, they foster resentment against the western powers in effect acting as a recruitment ground for the terrorists.
To reduce terror acts, the West and especially the US, should reduce its interventionist tendencies and only do so when the security of its citizens is under direct threat. Leaving countries such as Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq in ruins in the name of protecting the citizens from the Autocrats provides hunting grounds for terror groups which in effect increases the security threat to the US.
America should only engage in internal conflicts of nations only in extreme cases to secure the safety of the citizens. In the case of international conflicts, interventions are warranted where the threat of the conflict engulfing more countries is a foreseeable possibility.
Kaplan, R. D. (2000). The coming anarchy: Shattering the dreams of the post-Cold War. New York: Random House.
Levering, R. B. (2016). The Cold War: A post-Cold War history. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Madej, M. (2019). Western military interventions after the Cold War: Evaluating the wars of the West. London; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group.
Scott, J. M. (2000). After the end: Making U.S. foreign policy in the post-cold war. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.
Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of international politics, (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub.Co.
Weiss, T. G. (2007). Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action. Cambridge: Polity Press
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