The Post-Cold War Era

Implications for Educators


Maurice A. East

Following the end of the Cold War, international relations experts are looking at the world in new ways. No consensus has yet emerged on
how to describe and analyze the current era of international relations. Is the world today multicentric? Unipolar? Hegemonic?

Part of the confusion results from the difficulty in characterizing the role of the United States. Some analysts point to the fact that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other superpower in the Cold War, the U.S. is now the sole surviving superpower in the world. Others note the degree to which the U.S. is less dominant today than it was earlier. Although these two perspectives are not necessarily incompatible, they do capture the prevailing sense of ambiguity. Even the term most often used to refer to this periodóthe Post-Cold War eraóis past-oriented and says nothing about the present or future.

In addition to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, two major historical processes whose eventual consequences are still unclear have affected virtually every region of the globe. They are:

1. The continued rapid growth of international economic interdependence, and

2. The global information and technology revolution, which has resulted in a worldwide reach by broadcast media and the ability to move information of all sorts around the world at lightning speeds.

Compounding the problem of describing the current international system is the fact that, in many areas of the world, the post-Cold War era has brought about a decreasing interest in things international at the very time when life in the waning days of the twentieth century is internationalizing faster than ever before. There is a widespread sense that it is now time to devote much more attention to other issues, often very domestic and local. For countries to become more inwardly focused at a time when they are more affected by the outside world than ever will certainly influence the direction taken by the international system.

I suggest that the post-Cold War world has three main characteristics:1

1. Great Uncertainty: The Cold War provided a structure and predictability in international affairs that is no longer present.

2. Even Greater Complexity: As the Cold War structure disintegrated, an interdependent world became more complicated. As the Cold War alliance system collapsed, questions arose of inclusion and exclusion, organizations and coalitions sought new missions, new international actors emerged, and new conflicts and issues (often long dormant) appeared on the international agenda.

3. Greater Diffuseness of Power and
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has re-examined its international commitments. Other international centers of power and influence have grown and become more significant, e.g., the European Union and the Asia-Pacific. Regional issues are becoming much more important for many nations, replacing the pervasive East-West global issues of the previous era. Nations large and small are now faced with taking more responsibility for dealing with and managing issues and potential conflicts in their neighborhood.


International Issues in the Post-Cold War Era

Given this post-Cold War context, what are some of the changes in international relations that need to be reflected in the K-12 curriculum?

1. Studying Cooperation in Addition to Conflict. A key change in the post-Cold War study of international relations is a greater emphasis on understanding cooperation between nations. Despite the unfortunate tendency of the media and individuals alike to focus on conflict and the use of force, the overwhelming proportion of international activity is non-violent.

ìCooperation under anarchy,î the title of an important book, is a concept that captures this change very well.2 As the Cold War waned, scholars became more interested in explaining cooperation and examining why there is not more violent conflict in international relations. The anarchic self-help nature of the international system has been accepted by scholars with very different orientationsórealists and liberal institutionalists alike.

With this in mind, it may be useful to reconsider standard history curricula and texts to determine whether ìcooperation under anarchyî is adequately represented there. Might not more emphasis be placed on the diplomacy, negotiation, and international institutions that make conflict less likely at the expense of some study of the details of prosecuting the major wars?

2. The Increased Importance of International Economic Issues. As noted above, the increasing role played by economic issues in international affairs preceded the post-Cold War era. In fact, it is common to hear non-U.S. scholars comment that it was only in the United States that international economics was not traditionally recognized as a core aspect of post-war foreign policy. One reason often cited for this is the economic dominance of the U.S. at the end of World War II. However, the pace of international economic interdependence has quickened, and the ending of the Cold War means that ideological and security-based international issues have decreased in salience, while international economic issues have gained in importance. (In the academic world, one indicator of this is that the subfield of International Political Economy has been the most popular and fastest growing subfield in international studies.)

The deepening (and widening) of economic integration in Europe; the evolving international political economy of the Asia-Pacific; the transformation in literally all regions of formerly centralized economies; the completion of the GATT Uruguay round; and the formation of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Area are just a few of the issues that have dominated the post-Cold War period.

Given the secondary position of economics in the K-12 social studies curriculum and in the training and background of most social studies educators, it would be fair to assume that many of these international economic issues are not well covered in the current curriculum. These issues deserve somewhat more prominence, which may require some educators to retool their knowledge of economics and international political economy.

3. International Organization as a Key Concern. The increased concern with how nations and other international actors organize themselves to cooperate in an anarchic, self-help system is a major concern of contemporary international relations scholarship. It is not coincidental that the most prominent academic journal of the post-Cold War period is International Organizationówith no ìs.î A large proportion of post-Cold War research focuses on the level, type, and degree of organization found in international relations. Earlier, there was more emphasis on various types of organizations (the UN, OAS), non-governmental organizations (such as Greenpeace or the International Red Cross), multinational corporations (e.g., IBM, Unilever), and alliances (NATO).

Now the focus is less on the institutions and entities and more on what are called international regimes,3 that is, the arrangements between and among the entities and their patterns of interaction. The use of this concept to describe current international relations has become increasingly important in the discussion of international organization in the post-Cold War period. The typical pattern of international behavior is neither unstructured anarchy nor UN behavior. The examination of the different patterns of international regimes is one approach to understanding the diversity of international activity ranging between these two polar opposites. Krasner notes: ìIt is the infusion of behavior with principles and norms that distinguishes regime-governed activity in the international system from more conventional activity, guided by narrow calculations of interest.î4

Another concept that focuses on the organization of international affairs is multilateralism. The focus here is on nations and other international entities acting collectively.5 The idea of multilateral action has come to the forefront of the study of international relations in the post-Cold War era because of two events. One was Mikhail Gorbachevís decision to shift the Soviet Unionís policy towards the UN in the mid-1980s. In a speech at Vladivostok, he emphasized the value of multilateral actions and the UN, especially in dealing with international problems. He highlighted and to some extent validated the idea that world problems could no longer be dealt with effectively by nations acting solely unilaterally. The other event was the Persian Gulf War, in which President Bush sought to conduct the operation as a multilateral undertaking with the attendant international legitimacy created by doing so.

The Clinton Administration began its first term by putting heavy emphasis on multilateralism as a key part of U.S. foreign policy (led by then UN Ambassador Albright). However, unfortunate developments in Somalia and then Haiti quickly revealed the limits of multilateralism, and a more balanced perspective emerged. But a key issue in the post-Cold War period is how and when to use multilateral and collective actions to manage international affairs. Peacekeeping operations, which have become so frequent and prominent in the post-Cold War period, raise all the delicate issues inherent in multilateralism, whether they are UN-sponsored, NATO-sponsored, or ad hoc arrangements by regional powers and organizations.

Individual Rights and Democratic Values

A key feature of post-Cold War international relations is its increased concern with issues that affect individual rights and democratic freedom.

Many of the substantive issues of the post-Cold War period focus on international well-being at the individual level. Issues of migration and refugees are of increasing concern, in part because of the movements of large masses of peoples as a consequence of the ethnic-based violence and civil strife that has occurred as the Cold War suppression of regional conflicts dissipated. Human rights issues appear more prominent today, partly as a result of the increased attention being paid to them as Cold War issues subside. And advances in international media coverage bring human rights abuses and the consequences of ethnic strife and natural disasters into our homes and schools instantaneously. The transforming of former centralized economies toward more free market systems also is driven by efforts to increase the economic autonomy of the individual.

All of these forces are operating to increase the ability of individuals to be involved in and influence international relations and foreign policy without the mediating influence of the nation-state. This is part of the reason James Rosenau, in a very influential book, refers to the ìturbulenceî in international relations today.6

The increased interest in human rights has resulted in a scholarly reaction against traditional realist perspectives that assert that individual values play little role in the analysis of international relations, since all actors are presumed to engage in the pursuit of power and national interests. As the Cold War waned, there were more and more instances of behavior that could not be explained from this perspective. Concerns for human rights and environmental policies cannot be explained using only realist assumptions. Researchers today are more frequently examining the sources of these concerns in terms of the ideas and values that drive them.7

Another focus is on the relationship between democracy and foreign policy. Activities on behalf of human rights are strongly centered in democratic countries. There is good evidence that democratic states do not tend to wage war with other democratic states.8 The promotion of human rights and democratic values is a trend whose future success is difficult to estimate, but which current reviews of international relations cannot ignore.


Changing Concepts of International Security

During the post-Cold War period, a number of successful international initiatives have reflected some new directions in international security:

n A major multilateral military operation was successfully undertaken to meet direct military aggression by Iraq against Kuwait in the Persian Gulf

n The Non Proliferation Treaty was renewed indefinitely, and the non-proliferation regime was strengthened by strong international actions against Iraq and North Korea

n The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the norm underlying it were accepted by virtually the entire international community

n Major efforts were successful in avoiding nuclear accidents or proliferation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union

Much, however, remains to be done, foremost being the finalization of several nuclear reduction and limitation treaties between the U.S. and Russia. The new shape of international security will be influenced by the outcome of initiatives to enlarge NATO and the success or failure of peace-keeping operations such as those in Bosnia.


Final Thoughts for Educators

What do these changes in the study of international relations mean for educators? Are there implications that can be noted for our school curriculum?

First, with the passing of the Cold War, the models and ideas that ìworkedî before may well need rethinking. There is certainly continuity with the pastóthe basic anarchic self-help international political system still exists. But its characteristics have changed. Traditional realist power political considerations have not disappeared, but they are unable to explain as much of international relations today. Now more than ever, one needs to utilize multiple perspectives in understanding post-Cold War international relations and foreign policy.

Second, the greater complexity of international issues today means that it is more important than ever to analyze various sides of an issue. Most post-Cold War issues cannot be cast in the good/bad terms of the Cold War. This in turn can lead to more controversy in the classroom. Discussing NAFTA or U.S. policy toward China will almost certainly touch on very sensitive political points of view. But a responsible discussion of these issues cannot avoid the inherent controversy.

Third, much of the study of post-Cold War international relations needs to focus on the changing role of the U.S. in the world, which means a future-oriented perspective. This provides many issues that can be effectively dealt with in the classroom: Is the U.S. a hegemonic or declining power? Should the U.S. be more or less involved in world affairs? What level of military security is needed over the next decade?

Finally, thanks to continuing globalization, it is easier than ever before to assure that teaching about international relations today need not be narrowly focused on the U.S., nor does it have to reflect such a strong U.S. perspective or bias. Thanks to todayís technology, it is possible to get considerable ìreal-timeî media coverage of many international events and activities (but by no means all!). TV news produced in other countries is readily available through many cable systems. (Viewing these programs can be an interesting experience even for those who cannot understand the language.) Radio news can also be heard on short-wave radios.

There are many more books and articles written in English by non-U.S. scholars that often give a very different perspective and interpretation to international relations than the conventional wisdom of Americans. Similarly, more U.S. scholars are more productive than ever in writing about other countriesí foreign policies. All of these contributions can enrich and broaden oneís understanding of post-Cold War international relations. v



1. This point relies heavily on M. East, ìForeign Policy-Making in the Post-Cold War Era,î a paper delivered at the 1996 International Studies Association convention, San Diego, California, April 16-20, 1996.

2. This was first a special issue of the journal, World Politics 38, 1 (October 1985) that was then republished as a book: K. Oye, ed. Cooperation under Anarchy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).

3. Although this concept was proposed in the early 1980s, its widespread acceptance and use belongs to the post-Cold War period. A seminal volume is S. Krasner, ed. International Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).


4. Krasner.

5. J. Ruggie, ed., Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1993).

6. J. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

7. For one good compilation reflecting this perspective, see J. Goldstein and R. Keohane, Ideas and Foreign Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

8. For a good discussion of this literature, see B. Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).


Maurice A. East is a professor and former dean (1985-1994) at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, DC.