How states create and maintain order in a world of sovereign powers has been the fundamental and so far insoluble problem of international relations. During the cold war, the super-powers, driven by the fear of nuclear war, devised, by trial and error, a network of rules and restraints aimed at avoiding direct military collision. Now the world faces new circumstances whose implications it is just beginning to discover, and the problem of order has become even more complex than before.
One reason for this is the unexpected increase in the number of independent states; even five years ago no one predicted the end of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. A second reason is that the states, while still playing the traditional game of diplomatic and strategic competition, are now also engaged in an intense competition for economic and financial power that does not entail the use of force. In the past, when such activities did not dominate the plans of states as much as they do now, order was provided by the rules set by the economically dominant nation: Britain in the nineteenth century, the US after 1945. What order there was broke down when the dominant nation’s hegemony was challenged (as Britain’s was after 1870) or when there was none, for example during the period between the two world wars. Today, the predominance of the US has been put in doubt, both by Japan and by the rise of a united Western Europe increasingly dominated by Germany.
In any case, world politics, and therefore world order, are no longer monopolized by states; on the one hand, they are constrained by the world capitalist economy, which limits their domestic and external freedom of maneuver, particularly when it comes to supplies of raw materials such as petroleum. On the other hand, the various peoples of the world, as opposed to governments, are more turbulent than ever before. From Algiers to Uzbekistan, they demand participation in public affairs, or a state of their own if they feel oppressed, or neglected, in a multi-ethnic state; and they also want both more wealth and a more equitable distribution of it—demands which are usually both unachievable and incompatible.
As a result, while the world no longer lives under the shadow of a superpower nuclear confrontation, the numbers of actual and possible conflicts, both among and within states, seem bound to grow, whether because of aggressive ambitions, as with Saddam Hussein, or border disputes and rival claims over the same territory, as in the case of Palestine, or domestic crises and policies that have effects abroad, causing other states to threaten external intervention, as with Yugoslavia. The breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia and the USSR is already causing refugees to flee toward their neighbors.
Two sources of international insecurity seem to me especially important. The first derives from the hardly understood workings of the global economy, and includes poverty, overpopulation, and migrations …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.