World History 2 274 - 15.4.1 Instability in the Post–Cold War World

When the Soviet Union dissolved on December 31, 1991, most in the West celebrated the end of the Cold War, believing that a new world that would uniformly embrace liberal democracy and capitalism was in the process of being born. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama even published a book on the idea in 1992 called The End of History and the Last Man. The argument presented in the book was that the world had been marching toward a Western liberal democratic future for centuries, and with the Soviet Union gone, it had reached the inevitable end of its “ideological evolution.” With the United States as the only remaining superpower, many also assumed the Cold War’s bipolar world would soon evolve into a mostly unipolar one based on U.S. military, cultural, and economic dominance.

With this idea in mind, U.S. president Bill Clinton drafted a foreign policy platform geared to revising and expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the alliance for mutual defense forged by the United States and other Western democracies during the Cold War. Clinton aimed to strengthen relationships in Asia, bring post–Soviet Russia into the international community, and address ethnic and political strife in the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Latin America, and East Africa. These goals occasionally required using the country’s military, such as in 1995 when Clinton sent a force of twenty thousand to the Balkans as part of a NATO operation to enforce a cease-fire and protect upcoming elections.

One of the most pressing concerns for the United States and the world, however, was the need to secure the thirty-five thousand nuclear weapons then installed in thousands of sites around Eurasia. Many were in states that had separated from the former Soviet Union such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Because these countries were going through a difficult period of transition and instability, many feared that non-state actors, meaning terrorist groups not tied to a specific country, might gain access to the armaments or the material necessary to make them and cause catastrophic damage. Some of the work had begun even before the Soviet Union collapsed. In the summer of 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), agreeing to each reduce their arms stockpiles by more than 80 percent.

After the disintegration of the USSR, however, the need to secure these stockpiles became more pressing. The solution proposed by the United States and supported by Russia was to denuclearize those states that had split from the former Soviet Union but still possessed nuclear weapons. While successful, the effort did run into some difficulties, particularly in Ukraine, which felt that preserving its nuclear weapons would be the best way to deter Russian belligerence in the future. Only after it had secured assurances from the international community that its borders would be respected did Ukraine allow its nuclear weapons to be removed and disassembled in Russia.

Nuclear proliferation elsewhere around the world was also a problem. India, for example, had become a nuclear power in 1974. At the time, it claimed it was not pursuing nuclear weapons capability, but since then, it has embraced these weapons as an important part of its security platform. Given the history of hostility between India and Pakistan, international observers in the 1970s worried about the implications of a nuclear-armed India. Some of these fears were realized in 1998 when Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapons, a goal toward which it had been building since before India became a nuclear power. While India maintains a no-first-use doctrine for its nuclear weapons, Pakistan has not reciprocated. Today, the countries have approximately one hundred nuclear weapons each, as well as long-range ballistic missile delivery systems.

Only a few years after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon, the illusion of an enduring post–Cold War peace was further shaken when on September 11, 2001, nineteen militant Islamic hijackers took control of four large passenger airplanes and crashed two of them into New York City’s World Trade Center (Figure 15.24), one into the Pentagon, and the fourth—after its path was deflected by passengers—into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was soon determined that the terrorist attack, which killed nearly three thousand people from many nations, had been orchestrated by al-Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist organization then based in Afghanistan that was financed and led by a militant Saudi Arabian national named Osama bin Laden. According to bin Laden, the attack was carried out in response to U.S. support for Israel and its continued military presence in the Middle East.

A picture of a crumbled building is shown. Firemen and other people in hard hats are walking amid the twisted and burnt rubble, moving objects and picking things up. Two tall gridded walls are seen on the left side and in the back bent against the rubble on the ground. A large red crane is shown at the right and the American flag with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue background in the left corner is shown flying in the left side of the picture next to buckets strewn about.
Figure 15.24 Less than two hours after hijackers flew two jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York, both its towers crumbled to the ground in a pile of rubble. Those still inside were all killed. (credit: “New York, NY, September 19, 2001 -- Rescue workers climb over and dig through piles of rubble from the destroyed World Trade Center as the American flag billows over the debris” by Andrea Booher/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

After assessing the damage and collecting global support, the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan with the stated purpose of finding those responsible. This offensive represented the beginning of the U.S. war on terror and resulted in the collapse of Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government, many of whose officials fled to the southern parts of the country or into neighboring Pakistan. Most of al-Qaeda’s leadership also escaped, however, including Osama bin Laden. Over the next several years, the U.S. military pursued a policy of eliminating al-Qaeda, rebuilding civil society and infrastructure in Afghanistan, and propping up a democratically elected regime in the country. These efforts were made more difficult, however, by the decision of President George W. Bush to launch a war against Iraq in 2003.

The United States supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) but came into conflict with it during the Gulf War in 1990, when Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait. The United States, Great Britain, and thirty-three other nations came to Kuwait’s defense by bombing Iraqi targets and then launching a ground invasion. A mere one hundred hours after the coalition’s ground invasion began, Iraqi forces had retreated from Kuwait, and a cease-fire was in place. Immediately following, uprisings took place in Kurdish and Shi‛ite regions of Iraq that sought to topple President Saddam Hussein’s government. Hussein brutally crushed the attempted revolts, but the coalition forces withdrew from Iraq, leaving him in power.

In 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. foreign policy leaders began to worry that Hussein might acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), possibly including biological weapons. The Bush administration wanted to prevent this and to channel the international goodwill showered on the country after the 2001 attacks toward the goal of removing the Iraqi leader. To this end, the United States built a new coalition of Asian, European, and Latin American countries. It sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to present the argument that Iraq had connections to al-Qaeda and possessed WMDs that made it a threat to international security (Figure 15.25). Even though at the time some in the U.S. intelligence community felt the evidence on which Powell relied was weak or flawed, to secure support for a U.S. invasion, members of the Bush administration such as Vice President Dick Cheney claimed the WMDs existed.

A picture of a man sitting in a blue and white striped chair in front of a small black microphone is shown. He wears a dark pin striped suit coat, white shirt, maroon striped tie, and wears an American flag pin in his left lapel. He has black and white wavy hair, wears glasses, and is shown looking at a white vial in his right hand. Behind him portions of two men in suits can be seen.
Figure 15.25 Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a powerful presentation about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations in 2003. At one point, he held up a model vial of anthrax (a bacterium that causes a serious infectious disease) to highlight the danger of biological weapons that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have. (credit: “Colin Powell anthrax vial. 5 Feb 2003 at the UN” by United States Government/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The invasion began on March 19, 2003, just a few weeks after Powell’s presentation. By 2005, it had become obvious to the world that Iraq did not possess WMDs, and the hypothetical al-Qaeda connection had not been demonstrated. The invasion contributed to the violent unraveling of Iraqi society, however, which the coalition forces then struggled for years to bring under control. There were countless civilian casualties; Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates that between 184,382 and 207,156 civilians were killed. While the United States could point to some successes, such as the 2005 Iraq elections and the 2006 conviction of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity, the nation’s reputation as a global force capable of projecting power to bring about positive change in the world had suffered greatly.

The consequences for the United States became more obvious in October 2006 when communist North Korea launched its first nuclear weapons test, an event the U.S. government had worked for years to prevent. The test was the culmination of decades of work inside the isolated country. North Korean leaders believed nuclear weapons would guarantee its survival in the post–Cold War world. But the United States and neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan worried that the unstable North Korean regime might use the weapons against them. Given the problems in Iraq and diminished global standing of the United States, it was unclear whether North Korea could be deterred from attempting additional tests, or whether the United States could discourage Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax