Mikhail Gorbachev effectively renounced the Soviet Union’s role as a global rival of the United States. The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of the Cold War. The break up of the U.S.S.R. into a loose Confederation of Independent States lent it finality.

These developments have enlivened long-standing controversies about the nature of the Cold War, and generated intense debate about the implications of its end for the future of international relations and world order. This essay is concerned with such implications. A few observations on the Cold War itself may, nevertheless, be useful in situating the discussion.

Bipolar Rivalry or Imperial Domination?

There are two contrasting perspectives on the Cold War. The first sees it in bipolar terms: as a product of great power rivalry with ideological and strategic aspects. According to this view, the arms race, military alliances, competition for influence over Third World countries, super-power engagement in foreign wars (e.g. Korea and Vietnam), and interventions abroad were all aspects of bipolar competition.

This perspective is apt to yield a relatively optimistic outlook on the prospects for world politics after the Cold War. The arms race will end; peace dividends will accrue to socially beneficial enterprises; economic aid and arms supplies to Third World countries can be rationally determined; in a non-competitive environment great powers can cooperate in resolving regional and local conflicts, and reinforce peacekeeping institutions like the United Nations. Reflecting an allegiance to this optimistic outlook, George Bush, many media pundits, and some scholars saw the Gulf War as heralding a world order of collective peacemaking, signaling how aggression would be treated without the overlay of bipolar rivalry.

The dissenting view holds that superpower rivalry was only a part of the larger framework of international relations which is shaped by imperialism, a centuries old phenomenon with deep economic, institutional, and cultural roots. The Cold War served as the latest mechanism for organizing and legitimizing a world system of domination.

From this perspective the end of the Cold War may relieve some tensions, but it does not represent a fundamental change in international relations. To the contrary, the removal of a countervailing power and the development of a unipolar international system may allow for a freer play of imperial interests in world politics, and a monopolistic shift of power over world security to the West. The international environment today resembles the imperial century which followed the end of Napoleonic war in 1815, the period of British preeminence in world politics. Europeans saw it as a period of “long peace.” Asians and Africans experienced it as a time of torment. Like Britain earlier, the United States now holds world power. And, as a rule, those who control the status quo do not like to change it.

Analogies are, of course, rarely exact. Unlike Britain after Waterloo, the United States is a declining economic power. The Cold War has taken its toll here, too. The homeless sprawl our cities. Educational standards have fallen. Productivity has decreased. Citizens wish to turn now to the long neglected tasks of national reconstruction and economic recovery. Bill Clinton’s election was but one expression of this hope. Also, the world is more disorderly than before. It will not yield to unipolar management.

Still, this second outlook provides reasons for deep pessimism. Recent instances— in the Middle East, the Balkans, and South Asia — suggest that as during the century preceding the First World War, perceived Western interests rather than larger considerations of peace and international security will be the chief determinants of which aggressions will be punished and who will be deemed to have violated international law.

These competing perspectives on the Cold War suggest two questions about the current period: What trends can we identify in the post-Cold War security environment? And if, as the more pessimistic outlook indicates, the trends suggest increasing violence and insecurity, what steps might be taken to create a safer international environment? To answer the first question, I examine three recent security issues: the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict, and nuclear proliferation. I will conclude with some reflections on the second question.

The Gulf War

Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The oil rich sultanate fell easily to superior Iraqi forces. The Sheik and most of his family fled the country. Amnesty International reported on 2 December that the Iraqi invaders had brutalized Kuwaiti civilians, killed hundreds, jailed and tortured thousands. They also ransacked banks, and vandalized private homes and public places such as museums.

It was aggression. Reaction from Washington was immediate, authoritative, and uncompromising. There could be no reward for aggression; no violation of the UN Charter; no appeasement; no Munich. The UN Security Council met on the same day, condemned Iraq, and ordered its immediate withdrawal from Kuwait.

The U.S. government prepared to punish Iraq. It shaped the UN resolutions, defined the means of their enforcement, and pursued member countries’ support of them. On 6 August, the Security Council met for a second time and imposed comprehensive international sanctions against Iraq, traditionally a friend of the U.S.S.R.. The Council, it seemed, was no longer hostage to a rival veto.

From then on, the Council met repeatedly, tightening the noose and widening the scope of intervention against Iraq in no less than eleven resolutions. The 12th, Resolution 678 of 29 November 1990, authorized “Member States cooperating with the Government of Kuwait” to “to use all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions . . .” if Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1991.

Barring the occasion when the Security Council — acting in the absence of the Soviet delegate — approved U.S. intervention in Korea, the UN had never issued so open-ended a license to wage what Rudyard Kipling might well have described as a “savage war of peace.” Washington’s confident and activist leadership stood in striking contrast to its diffident posture on Bosnia where it ceded to Britain and France virtual control over the Western response to the crisis.

The countdown to 15 January was a long morality play. The script was written by Bush, Baker, and Cheney, but a host of legislators, scholars, and pundits — including Henry Kissinger, Stephen Solarz, Michael Walzer, A.M. Rosenthal, and Charles Krauthammer — played supporting roles as President Bush prepared to “kick Saddam Hussein’s ass.” Prominent Americans who argued for giving sanctions and diplomacy a chance — Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the World Council of Churches, Admiral William Crowe, not to mention dissenting intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said — were all but ignored. And Bush spurned or undermined all openings for a negotiated withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.

Proposals by Jordan, Algeria, France, Iran, and the U.S.S.R. towards a negotiated end to the crisis died untested. The President did not mellow even after Saddam Hussein unconditionally released several hundred Americans whom he had held hostage as shields against a U.S. aerial assault on Iraq’s urban and industrial infrastructure. President Bush’s “no concession, no compromise” posture had, nevertheless, one positive aspect: it insisted that the UN Charter was not negotiable.

There was extended debate in Congress. It was extolled in the media as a model of democratic process. The legislators did not pursue the historical, economic, or ideological roots of Iraqi-Kuwaiti conflict; they did not explore issues related to the interaction of nationalism, imperialism, and Islam in the region; they did not discuss the nature of Iraq’s grievances and possible objectives in invading Kuwait, nor did they consider the recent history of U.S.-Iraq dealings. The congressional debate was narrowly focused on the effectiveness of economic sanctions, and costs of war to the United States. On 12 January the debate culminated in a joint House-Senate resolution authorizing the president to use U.S. armed forces. Public opinion polls showed a steady rise in popular support for President Bush.

I emphasize that throughout the period leading up to the war, Congress, the public, and foreign allies did not lead the American executive into intervening against Iraq; they were led by it.

On 16 January 1991 war started. Its defining symbols were “smart” weapons. Their accuracy and effectiveness in disabling Iraqi air force, tanks, and artillery were pointedly televised. Within days they accomplished not just the liberation of Kuwait, but also the destruction of Iraq’s economic infrastructure. Allied losses were notably low. Some half a million Americans were deployed in the Gulf; 183 are reported to have been killed, 35 of them by “friendly fire.” (Iraqi fatalities are estimated at 70-100,000.)

A final point: revulsion against Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait is claimed to have a central role in shaping American resolve against Iraq, turning public opinion toward a forceful solution. President Bush himself was said to have been decisively influenced by Iraqi atrocities. In a letter to students he had written that: “There is much in the modern world that is washed in shades of gray. But not the brutal aggression of Saddam Hussein. . . . It’s black and white.” Elizabeth Drew, writing in The New Yorker, quoted a White House aide as saying that Iraq’s behavior had touched in George Bush a “deep inner core.”


Bosnia apparently did not get to George Bush’s core. In fact, the responses to Bosnia and Iraq are different at every step.

Questions which were rarely asked during the Gulf crisis — about roots of the conflict, its complex history, and enduring psychological dimensions — are now in fashion concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are good questions. But in the present context, they serve not as vehicles of analysis but as instruments for evading responsibility. And they ignore the recurrent lesson that movements based on hate serve to twist, warp, and invent history.

The stark reality is that the people of Bosnia face genocide. Yet, the United States, the European Community, and the United Nations have dithered for one year in a posture of complicity and appeasement.

Genocide is a battered word. Misuse has vitiated its grim significance. Genocide— the willed extermination of a people—remains nevertheless the most horrific crime against humanity. It is rarely meaningful to raid the past for images. Yet in this instance, as the organizers of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. understood, the past imposes itself on our consciousness. Bosnia’s tragedy bears many of the searing signs of the insane brutality visited on Jews and Gypsies earlier in the century — emptied villages, hurriedly abandoned homes, millions fleeing, tortured children and, yes, death camps. In the “Year of the Woman,” Serb fascism also gave us its distinctive signature — mass rape.

The perpetrators of this crime are driven not by a sense of lived history, but, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, by a “banal evil,” an ideology of difference which drives them to the neo-Nazi quest for “ethnic cleansing.” In a year’s campaign they have “cleansed” more than 70% of Bosnian land of its Muslim inhabitants. Uncounted thousands are dead; the survivors are gathered mostly in the shrunken remains of Bosnia—homeless and exposed to death by hunger, disease, cold, and more ethnic cleansing.

The horror is widely reported and officially acknowledged. The UN has condemned aggression against Bosnia, a member state. But for a year, its resolutions have remained mild and indulgent by comparison with the Iraq sanctions. And as I write (mid-May), the UN has not taken any measures to enforce these resolutions.

In April of this year, President Clinton gave “firm” indications that he finally was moving to tighten and enforce them. But at the Vancouver summit meeting he granted Boris Yeltsin an extension on genocide to 25 April. No substantive measure was to be taken against slavic Serbia until after the presidential election in slavic Russia. Encouraged by the indulgence, the Serbs launched a final assault on Serebrenica. The town’s 60,000 inhabitants are now under precarious UN custody.

The Security Council has authorized the creation of a tribunal to conduct trials for crimes against humanity. But high UN officials and world leaders such as Douglas Hurd of Britain and UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali have been shown — smiling, hand shaking, even banqueting — with the worst of the known criminals. So who will prosecute whom?

Verbal denunciations of Serbia and of the Bosnian Serbs are now commonplace. But the words are not backed by deeds. What is worse, Western policies do amount to intervention — on the side of the aggressor. They provide a dismal picture of complicity in crimes against humanity. Consider three examples:

1. The UN has a large presence in Bosnia, including a military contingent of 8,000. But the rules of engagement make appeasement a necessity. UN humanitarian aid is hostage to Serb military units who expropriate 25-40% of the relief supplies. To evacuate sick and wounded civilians, the UN seeks Serb permission, which is often granted only to be violated. Bosnia’s foreign minister was murdered under UN escort. Women and children have been massacred in its custody.

In October 1992, the UN declared a no-fly zone in Bosnia but, unlike the practice in Iraq, it did not enforce the ban. By 15 December UN observers had reported 225 aerial infringements by the Serbian air force which included bombing of Muslim villages and towns. Serbs have repeatedly broken cease-fires and safe-passage agreements. The United Nations has never appeared more ineffectual or pitiful.

2. The great powers have denied to Bosnians the means of their own defense. By May 1992 “ethnic cleansing” had emerged as a systematic Serb goal. As Bosnians lost ground, Serbia’s rival Croatia also began to grab Bosnian territories. But the Western powers insisted on maintaining an embargo on arms to Bosnia.

Technically, the embargo applies equally to Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. But it is damaging only to Bosnia. Serbia inherited the bulk of the former Yugoslav army and its impressive arsenal. Croatia got much of the remainder. Both have coastlines, neutral or friendly frontiers, and plenty of suppliers. In fact, arms are so plentiful in Serbia that it was exporting weapons to, among others, Somali warlords. Bosnians, by contrast, were lightly armed. The military gap between Bosnia and Serbia is one to ten in light weapons, one to 300 in heavy armaments including tanks and artillery. Landlocked and encircled, Bosnians cannot get arms unless the embargo is lifted. Their easy slaughter has been made possible by the arms embargo of the great powers, and in effect ratified by the UN.

From summer 1992, the Bosnian Government pleaded not for Western intervention but for lifting the embargo. A majority of the elected members of the Security Council supported this demand. The permanent members, however, led by Britain, France, and Russia have still rejected it. They say that lifting the arms embargo will intensify the conflict; that it may provoke the Serbs to attack UN forces which include British, French, and Canadian troops; and that the armaments will fall into Serb hands. Any secondary school student can see the implications of these arguments for the future of world order.

3. After months of unsuccessfully urging a forceful Euro-American posture, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, mediators of, respectively, the European Community and the UN, produced a peace plan which proposes dividing Bosnia into ten autonomous units. Two features of this plan are noteworthy: First, it rewards aggression and ethnic cleansing. For this reason, the Clinton administration opposed the plan during its first month in office. Its second aspect is equally disturbing: by dividing Bosnia along ethnic lines, the Vance-Owen plan legitimizes Serbia’s and Croatia’s sectarian program. Croatia welcomed it. Bosnia agreed to sign on U.S. urgings. Serbs rejected it.

The fate of Bosnia has not yet been completely sealed. Some cities remain; people also remain. America’s official conscience appears to be moving. Threat of military action by President Clinton has temporarily persuaded the Serbian government to accept the Vance-Owen plan. Given the past record, this acceptance may be tactical, not real. Still, one may hope that at least partial justice shall now be done.

What are we to make of these contrasts between Bosnia and Iraq? They reveal the cynicism with which great powers use peace conferences and the United Nations as instruments of national policy. Aggression was predictable in Bosnia; it could have been prevented. In March 1992, when Bosnia’s application for membership was before the UN, several countries warned that Serb aggression was imminent and requested that UN observers be sent to Bosnia. Even a small UN presence at the time might have deterred the Serbs. In June 1992 President Mitterand made a dramatic visit to Sarajevo in order to “seize the world’s conscience toward helping an endangered people.” Britain’s foreign minister Douglas Hurd then moved in to stall the resulting momentum with his London Peace Conference and its equally worthless sequel in Geneva. And so it went month after month.


The problem of nuclear proliferation is less dramatic than the previous two, and thus less in the public eye. It is precisely for this reason that it serves to highlight the patterns of post-Cold War policymaking that we have seen in the cases of Iraq and Bosnia.

In fall 1989, U.S. officials signaled an active interest in pursuing a policy of arresting and, in some cases, rolling back the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Washington’s non-proliferation policy justifiably focused on regions where nuclear proliferation had occurred, where its pace was believed to be picking up, and where there existed a conflictual environment which increased the risk of war-time use of nuclear weapons.

These areas of concern were the Korean peninsula, where North Korea was believed to be engaged in the development of nuclear weapons; South Asia, where India and Pakistan had achieved nuclear capability but were not known to have actually built weapons; and the Middle East, where Israel possessed both a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons and systems capable of delivering them, and Iraq was attempting but had not yet achieved material capability.

Few would question either the risks inherent in weapons proliferation, or the value of controlling, and possibly reversing, the race to nuclear arms. The question of interest here is: Has the United States pursued its anti-proliferation policy in a manner which advances the specific goal of a nuclear-free environment in the regions in question, or at least fulfills the general objective of promoting a stable nuclear environment? If the answer is negative, then where are these policies leading us?

The details of nuclear politics in each of the three regions are Byzantine. Cumulatively, they convey a deadly sense of seriousness and the conviction that the stakes are nothing less than survival itself. In this environment the United States has started vigorously to pursue a non-proliferation policy based on discrimination and double standards — not a promising strategy for preventing nuclear proliferation. Consider how this policy has been implemented in South Asia and the Middle East.

India carried out a successful nuclear test in 1974. Since then, its program has broadened to include the development of short- and long-range missile systems. It is virtually a nuclear country. The United States has mildly rebuked India; but apart from a belated embargo of the Indian Space Research Organization, it has not significantly pressured Delhi.

Pakistan’s nuclear quest began after India’s test. Under Ziaul Haq, the military dictator from 1977-88, the program made significant progress. Pakistan became capable of manufacturing up to five or six Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs. During this period, Pakistan was coordinating the U.S.-financed covert operation in Afghanistan; its targets were the U.S.S.R. and the Afghan government. The United States ignored the nuclear issue. In fact, the White House annually certified to Congress that Pakistan was not engaged in nuclear weapons development.

By the end of 1989, however, the Soviet Union had withdrawn from Afghanistan and U.S. pressure on Pakistan to roll back its nuclear program and open its installations to international inspection began to mount. Islamabad offered to do so but only as part of a regional agreement including India. The alternative was for the United States to enter a defense treaty with Pakistan. The Pakistani government also floated a five-point proposal for control of nuclear arms in South Asia.

These maneuvers failed to satisfy Washington, and in 1991 all U.S. aid to Pakistan was terminated. Today, the pressure on Pakistan continues to mount. The United States now threatens to declare its former ally a “terrorist state” presumably for its alleged support of Sikh dissidents in India and guerrillas in Kashmir — a state over which India and Pakistan have had a dispute since 1947.

In the case of the Middle East, destruction of Iraq’s nuclear program was declared by President Bush to be a primary aim of the Gulf War. This goal was achieved. Yet, UN inspectors remain sniffing out components, including dual-purpose technologies, which might be used by Iraq in a future nuclear program. This, of course, means that Iraq will be denied access to a range of industrial technology.

Israel’s nuclear program has not been subject to Congressional scrutiny or pressure from the U.S. government. U.S. anti-proliferation laws have not been invoked against it. Congress has passed country-specific legislation such as the Pressler and Solarz amendments, which do not apply to Israel. The full extent of Israel’s nuclear capability is not known. What we do know is that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is awesome and that its advanced delivery system is provided largely by U.S. arms and technology.

The double standard of U.S. non-proliferation policy suggests a frightening vision of imperial arrangements of domination. The policy evinces no sense of history, or of the anxieties, fears, and ambitions which compel governments to seek awesome weapons, and peoples to welcome them. As such, it is a policy doomed not only to fail but to be counter-productive. As long as Washington maintains its current approach to non-proliferation, it will practice double standards, cause fear, and promote an intolerably unstable nuclear environment. A viable alternative is to support non-partisan, multilateral, regional approaches implemented under the umbrella of an authoritative international organization.

What May We Hope For?

At Cold War’s end, people sense opportunities as well as dangers. In particular, there is growing interest in strengthening the peacemaking and peacekeeping capabilities of international institutions. That interest appears now to be crystallizing in a consensus among scholars and diplomats on five basic reforms of the international system:

* The UN Security Council needs to be democratized. The veto ought to be abolished, the Security Council enlarged, and non-governmental organizations rep-
resenting public interests included on the Council.

* The UN should have a permanent pool of armed forces at its command. This is essential if it is to act forcefully as an autonomous world organization.

* The International Court of Justice ought to be linked organically to the UN. The Court should, for example, have powers of judicial review over Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

* The International Atomic Energy Agency should be vested with additional powers to play a significant role in ending nuclear proliferation and the strategic arms race.

* The structure of development aid should be democratized, and bilateral aid discouraged.

These are admirable suggestions. If implemented, they would be of real benefit. But is it realistic to expect them to be adopted? The three situations I have explored here suggest that the answer is “no.” The problem is that the big powers are status quo powers. They have no apparent interest in changing the distribution of international power. At the same time, the former East Bloc countries are dominated by economic hardship, ideological confusion, political disintegration, and ethnic warfare; they are unlikely to work for constructive reform of international relations. And Third World governments are mostly corrupt, inefficient, undemocratic, and dependent post-colonial clones. Incapable of practicing democracy or promoting justice internally, they are ill-suited to seeking it internationally.

In the case of Iraq, the UN was forcefully mobilized because the United States viewed the Gulf region as central to its interests. In recent decades, while U.S. economic and strategic leverage over Europe and Japan declined, Washington has sought to increase its hold on the Middle East as a means to acquire new leverage over old allies. Saddam Hussein opened the door. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have now become virtual American protectorates. With a controlling hand over the world’s largest reserve of oil, the United States has achieved a goal defined more than 20 years ago by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

The West’s indifference to Bosnia reveals the same basic logic of power. Britain has led an appeasement policy, engineered diversions when the international outcry threatened to compel action against Serbia, and provided the arguments for keeping the arms embargo on Bosnia. France has gone along. America has nodded.

Policy in this case was fueled in part by distrust of Germany. Reunited and economically powerful, it promises to become increasingly politically assertive. Germany’s support of Croatian independence aroused suspicion. Other European nations saw a strong Serbia as a counterweight. There is a second, related consideration: Britain, France, and the United States share the objective of wooing Russia, whose sympathy for Serbia is well-known. Why, then, be tough on the beloved cousin of a future ally? Serbs understand this. Unless American force refutes their presumptions, they are likely to remain flexibly obdurate. Here we have a classic case of realpolitik.

U.S. nuclear indulgence of Israel, and efforts to prevent another country in the region from becoming Israel’s atomic equal, is also comprehensible. In the Middle East, the “Vietnam syndrome” compelled a search for “regional influentials” to serve as proxies for American power. Iran and Israel were picked to play this role. Despite $20 billion in American arms, the Shah fell. Israel remained an acclaimed “strategic ally.” When a peace settlement is reached with its remaining Arab adversaries, Israel’s role as regional power can become legitimate with Arab allies — unless another nuclear country emerges to upset the arrangement.

As ever, then, the basis for hope lies not in the policies of states but in the sensibilities of ordinary people — in their unwillingness to tolerate intolerable violence or to be silenced by the unspeakable cruelties that define the international system. But here, too, the signs are not good. Throughout the Bosnian tragedy, the peace movement has been nearly inert. For three decades activist coalitions in the United States and Europe have manifested a certain will and resourcefulness in organizing morally compelling protests on significant foreign policy issues — from the Vietnam War and apartheid, to Central America and the nuclear arms race. Their passivity in the face of genocide provides grounds for deep pessimism about the current period.