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National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Articles

Trends in Post-Cold War International Relations

Dr. Sharif M. Shuja

Three general trends can be identified in post-Cold War international relations.

First, on the security front, we have observed the decline in the salience of strategic nuclear weapons. The world is in transition from nuclear to conventional deterrence at the central (global) level. In the Cold War era, the strategic pillar of mutual assured destruction made conquest difficult and expansion futile by either camp. The futility of expansion accounted for robust deterrence. Moreover, nuclear deterrence was robust for at least two other reasons: (1) due to the futility of overkill, it was possible for the superpowers to reach a weapons parity, and thus equilibrium, bringing stability to the system; and (2) ever fearful of the massive destructive might of nuclear weapons, each superpower had a powerful incentive to constrain its followers, lest a reverse proxy war break out unwittingly.

Thus, on the security front, we recognize that there is a growing trend toward depolarisation, with the United States as the sole superpower. With the danger of thermonuclear warfare greatly diminished, the world has become more peaceful. But at the same time, the revival of nationalism, fundamentalism and ethnonationalist disputes in some part of the world has become a threat to international peace. New short- and long-term security challenges also have come to the fore, such as the ongoing mid-intensity regional conflicts, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and uncertainties surrounding the reform process in the former Soviet Republics and in other former socialist countries.

One important aspect is that the concept of security is now broadening to encompass issues, such as national development and economic interdependency, environmental protection and the promotion of democracy and human rights.

Secondly, on the economic front, there is a continuing trend toward tripolarity, with the European Union, North America, and East Asia as the major poles. Each of them accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world's gross national product. The importance of economic factors in defining international relationships has grown relative to polico-security factors, and one of the major economic challenges facing us today is, of course, the possibility of increased friction among the three major economic poles.

This perception of tripolar economic alignments, in turn, makes us ask ourselves the following questions: Will the transatlantic security partnership run into trouble? Will transpacific trade friction intensify? Can regionalism and interdependence coexist in such a way as to maintain an open trading system, despite, or perhaps facilitated by, the tripolar economic arrangement?

Finally, on the ideological front, the ideas of market democracy, civil society, transparency and accountability of government, and market economy are becoming universalized.

The collapse of communism left the United States and its allies as the pre-eminent voices in intellectual, policy and scholarly discourse. Command economies and many of the elements of socialism are in disrepute; market principles, private property and competition are hailed as the essentials of economic health. Communist Party monopoly of power and extensive and intrusive state bureaucracies are rejected; elections, democratic governments and civil society are widely seen as the hallmarks of good governance.

The values and institutions associated with Western societies during the Cold War do not, of course, provide panaceas. They will undoubtedly undergo serious challenge and modification. International politics will continue to influence such choices, but will presumably not dominate them to the degree that bipolar politics did during the past half-century. Scholarship will continue to shape and clarify social, political and economic options, but should operate in an atmosphere of greater openness and flexibility.

These fundamental transformations of international relations have undoubtedly produced profound changes in the Korean Peninsula. First of all, the major foreign policies and relationships of both the South and the North have undergone significant changes. Although Pyongyang seems reluctant to acknowledge this publicly, the tremendous changes that have taken place within its major allies and friends must have produced a profound impact on North Korea.1 The most obvious example is that North Korea together with South Korea as a Korean team participated in the XXVII Olympic Games here in Sydney from 15 September to 1 October 2000.

The Asia Pacific region is undergoing extensive and unprecedented change and the trend today is towards greater integration, democratization, and deregulation. Market forces have become the instruments of change and transformation in international relations and nowhere more so today than in the Asia Pacific region. The forces for global change are economic in origin, but they operate within particular political systems and deeply rooted cultures that will modify and condition their effect. The impact of global change upon the many disparate cultures and political systems of the Asia Pacific region is one of the most important issues of international relations today. Is globalisation a set of processes dominated by Western countries to their own advantage? This question is not easy to answer, but the implication is that globalisation refers to a complex of changes rather than a single one. No single country, or group of countries, controls any one of them. Economic globalisation, of course, has been and is shaped by U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Globalisation will not have the same effect in the Asia Pacific region as in North America or Europe, and it would be senseless to imagine that the impact would be similar, or that the results of globalisation would be uniform and comparable for all regions and cultures.

Globalisation and the Knowledge Divide

There is every indication that globalisation will increase. Western powers and the Western-based N.G.O.s are likely to continue to promote the universalisation of values, rules and institutions. However, the pressure for homogenisation will intensify the struggle for diversity, autonomy and heterogeneity. Dr Samuel M. Makinda of Murdoch University's School of International Politics argues:2

"The question of how to reconcile differences with uniformity, universalism with particularism, and globalisation with fragmentation, will remain central to policy makers at the national, regional and global levels. Political leaders will continue to determine policies that facilitate or frustrate globalisation, taking into account domestic and external pressures. But, at the same time, transnational forces will continue to lobby the states, regional organisations and the U.N. to try to influence those policies. It is this inter-subjective relationship between the policy-makers and the transnational forces that determines the character of globalisation."

However, the assumption that the real driving forces are the markets suits many political leaders. Government officials will "often try to blame globalisation for their policy failures. They will claim that they were powerless to do much for their countries in the face of globalising forces. But, as always, they will claim credit for any positive results from globalisation."3

Globalisation, no doubt, brings us into contact with one another, but it also strengthens profound divisions and fractures in terms of societies and income, and most importantly in our capacity to generate and utilize knowledge. There is a real risk of two civilisations emerging, with two ways of viewing and relating to the world: one based on the capacity to generate and utilise knowledge; the other passively receiving knowledge from abroad and deprived of the ability to modify it. The world now faces the prospect of this Knowledge Divide.

The huge income gap between rich and poor4 is now being exacerbated by a North-South "digital divide" between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. Although there have been tremendous advances in science and technology over the last few decades, the developing world is still far behind in the technological race. The world has seen a revolution, the third industrial revolution in technological know-how during the last thirty years, which has raised people's expectations to new levels. This revolution based on the information age and the rapid introduction of new technology into all facets of human life, is changing the world into a global one.

Paradoxically, this globalisation, far from creating a homogeneous global society, is subjecting societies to a logic of disintegration. It has created growing gaps and antagonisms between the rich and poor, and dominant and oppressed ethnicities.

British historian Professor Paul Kennedy, in his contribution to the "21st Century Talks" in Paris on 6 November 1999 said:5

"If we want to work towards a knowledge-based society in the coming century, over at least the next ten years, we need to make a concerted effort to bring poorer societies into the system of electronic communication. If we do nothing, then the growing gap between haves and have-nots will lead to widespread discontent and threaten any prospect of global harmony and international understanding. That is the most significant challenge we face."

The most obvious example is the wild scenes that recently erupted in Seattle, Melbourne and Davos. Anger was demonstrated by thousands of protesters. Similar ugly incidents also erupted in the Czech capital during the recent meetings by the G-7 ministers, World Bank and the I.M.F.

The Internet gives users immediate and huge access to knowledge, and the knowledge explosion is at the heart of the modernisation and globalisation of world society. The Internet may have more influence than any single medium upon global educational and cultural developments in this century.

According to a recent U.N. Human Development Report, industrialised countries, with only 15 per cent of the world's population, are home to 88 per cent of all Internet users.6 South Asia, with 23 per cent of the world's population, has less than one per cent of the world's Internet users. In Southeast Asia, only one person in 200 is linked to the Internet. In the Arab states, only one person in 500 has Internet access. The situation is as bad in Africa. With 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines,7 fewer than in places such as Manhattan or Tokyo. But moves now are underway to put high-tech to use for the world's poor. In July this year the world's wealthiest nations met in Tokyo and promised to support government efforts to bridge the digital divide.8


This article identifies four challenges that we should face in the 21st century. The first is that of peace. Since the end of the Cold War, a fourth category of countries has been particularly evident (in addition to the industrialised countries, the developing countries and those in transition). It comprises countries at war or emerging from conflict in which the state has been foundering in genocide and intercommunal massacres.

The second challenge: will this 21st century witness the onset of a new kind of poverty whose victims will live side by side with unprecedented wealth?

Sustainable development and the wise management of the global environment pose the third great challenge. Everywhere there is a depletion of resources which could have fed tomorrow's generation. It is necessary to find our way towards another type of development that is more economic and more intelligent.

The fourth challenge is that of the "erratic boat" syndrome. As a result of globalisation, many states appear to have mislaid their maps, compasses and direction-finding instruments, even the will to set a course. They are tossed about by apparently uncontrollable forces financial markets, raw materials markets, statistics of all kinds.

But awareness of these problems has sharpened and solutions exist. We need the international community to return to the basic principles of international co-operation and introduce the idea that a minimum level of science and technological capability, including access to the Internet, is an absolute necessity for developing countries, and should be the subject of international solidarity. And greater co-operation between nation states, multinational corporations, N.G.O.s and the global business community is needed in meeting these challenges. Unless this occurs, we may all end up living in an increasingly denuded and unnatural world, a world of irresponsible pragmatism and expediency, a world where the quality of human life is unduly subordinated to the chimera of economic growth.

1. Sharif M. Shuja, "The Survival of North Korea in the Twenty-First Century," The American Asian Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3 (Fall 1999), pages 85-102.

2. Samuel M. Makinda, "Globalisation as a Policy Outcome," Current Affairs Bulletin, Vol. 74, No. 6 (April/May 1998), page 10.

3. Ibid.

4. Earlier this year Mr. Louise Frechette, the United Nation's deputy secretary-general, told the annual conference of the U.N. International School that the average per capita income in the world's twenty-five richest nations (about £16,740 each) is 58 times that of the fifty poorest.

5. Paul Kennedy, "The Electronic Gap", The Unesco Courier, February 2000, page 9.

6. Cited in Geographical, Vol. 72, No. 7 (July 2000), page 73.

7. Ibid.

8. Selina Mitchell, "Helping World's Poor Get Net Knowledge," "The Australian", 22 August 2000, page 55.




National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001