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World: Analysis from Washington -- An End To The Post-Cold War World?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 29 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Three events this week -- the explosion of Pakistan's nuclear devices, the chaos in Russian financial markets, and the apparent inability of the West to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo -- may mark the end of the post-cold war world.

Both singly and collectively, they call into question the optimistic assessments about political and economic change both nationally and internationally that had governed thinking in many capitals. And they thus usher in an era far more dangerous and unstable than the ones that have gone before.

Pakistan's decision to test five nuclear devices on Thursday is the most obvious indicator that the assumptions that governed post-cold war thinking are no longer valid.

It showed that national governments are going to act in terms of self-defined national interests and not according to any broader international principles, particularly if the international community cannot provide them with the security they need.

Thus, Pakistan tested its nuclear devices because Islamabad feared the consequences of not doing so in the wake of India's decision to mount nuclear tests because of concerns about the growing power of China.

And at the same time, the Pakistani decision shows that outside powers seldom have the willingness or even the ability to offer enough incentives or impose enough penalties to override these national interests.

The Pakistanis saw the international response to the Indian tests, heard the warnings that the world would do the same things to them, and decided to go ahead anyway.

Unless the penalties imposed on these two countries have a greater impact in the future than they have had today, other countries are likely to follow the reasoning of the Pakistanis and thus dramatically enlarge the size of the nuclear club in the coming months.

The second event, Russia's current financial crisis, also undermines three widely-held assumptions that had governed the post-cold war world. It demonstrates that the transition from communism to capitalism is going to be far harder and more painful than anyone had wanted to admit.

It shows the increasing impact of private and uncontrolled capital flows on all countries, flows that in many cases can undermine any prospects for long-term economic reform and that in some can disorder a political system.

And it too highlights just how little influence the international community can exert on either of these processes at least in the short run.

In Russia and other emerging markets, the combination of the developments that dashed these assumptions may lead some to blame outsiders for their current woes. And that in turn may lead some of them to make demands for more nationalistic policies.

And the increasingly obvious dimensions of both the problems to be overcome and the means needed to do so are likely to prompt many in the international donor countries to retreat from even the commitments they have made up to now.

Finally, the inability of the United States, Western Europe and Russia to come up with a common strategy that will block Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from conducting a new round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo also undermines the optimistic self-confidence of the post-cold war world.

Not only do these disagreements highlight differences in national interests, styles and calculations of these countries, but they send a message that anyone who conducts ethnic cleansing may be able to get away with such a policy, whatever the leaders of the international community may say.

And because playing the ethnic card, even to the point of ethnic cleansing and genocide, can win some leaders enormous political support at home and prevent the emergence of an organized opposition to them, some other leaders around the world may decide to follow a similar course.

Many in countries not afflicted by such leaders and policies are then even more likely to conclude that there is nothing they can do, an attitude that almost certainly guarantees that what are currently classed as the domestic problems of other countries will be transformed into international conflicts.

To say that these three events have shattered the assumptions underlying much of the thinking in the post-cold war world does not mean that there is no role for those who hope for a better and more secure future.

Instead, it means that everyone involved may now be forced to adopt a more realistic perspective, one that recognizes the limits and possibilities of any action and also the dangers of not acting at all.

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