The Transformation of Post-Cold War World Order

Postgraduate students on the module POPP 5021 Post-Cold War World Order were asked to group-author a short blog post introducing some of the key issues they encountered in studying this period of recent international history and phase in international relations, as we neared the end of the module. The post below contains their reflections on some key issues in post-Cold War world order, and how these issues have enabled the complex and confrontational global geopolitics of 2017.


Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 the world has been riven by change. In particular, the dissolution of the ‘bipolar’ Cold War world order, the grand ideological, political, economic and military face-off between the liberal-capitalist US and its allies and the communist USSR and its allies, has resulted in major changes.

In this post we explore three aspects of the transformation of post-Cold War world order, in an effort to contribute to current efforts to understand the turbulent world of international relations in 2017.  

We argue that:

  • While the bipolar order of the Cold War came to an end after 1991, we nevertheless continue to live in a deeply divided world.
  • The technological innovations that have characterised the post-Cold War era have furthered some of these divisions, especially in their appropriation by the ‘War on Terror’.
  • One result of these changes in post-Cold War world order has been a recent resurgence of nationalism.
  1. A divided world: International tensions in post-Cold War world order

Arguably the tension between Western ‘liberal democracies’ and non-liberal states has been as much a defining feature of the post-Cold War world order as was the tension between communism and capitalism during the Cold War.

Today, we see remnants of older geopolitical disputes between western liberal-democratic states led by the USA and the authoritarian, non-democratic states including the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ nations such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea. Moreover, the profound contrast between these two ideologies has riven the socio-economic structure of the globe, evidently seen within intergovernmental agents such as the United Nations and World Trade Organisation. Contributing factors that continually highlight the stark differences include freedom of the press, immigration restriction, and economic exploitation. Recently, the coercive economic sanctions deployed upon Russia amid its annexation of Crimea in 2014 has proven that the tension between democratic and non-democratic norms remains crucial in post-Cold War world order.

For example, the results of the Arab Spring have underpinned the meaning of the freedom of the press by illustrating the restrictions towards dissidents such as Egyptian Al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein who has been imprisoned for over four months. There has also been increased hostility between governments and civilian opposition groups that has enabled the development and influence of terrorist networks. Technology has been a primary instrument of terrorist groups, enabling their agents to successfully recruit insurgents with social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Twitter. Through this virtual platform, non-state aggressors have become arguably successful in carrying out their agenda abroad to engender continuous conflict.

  1. Technologies of globalisation: From 9/11 to the Arab Spring

The post cold war era has been marked by great technological changes, such as wireless network technologies which was vastly improved after 9/11. New technologies for emergency situations called ad hoc wireless technology emerged which allowed computers, cell phones and other devices to communicate with one another if a main server is disturbed like it was in 9/11 then computers and other devices could form networks with one another to keep communication intact.

Further innovations have been made in airport security such as border control, visas and airline security. Other advancements include better scanners, facial recognition systems and other advanced imaging systems that have all made flying more restrictive than ever were introduced to improve security at airports. The US visit system now uses digital fingerprints and photographic images to identify people entering the country borders.

Technological developments post 9/11 have caused military forces to become more effective in their counter terrorism missions. Ground forces now utilize new systems to cope with improvised explosive devices, the detection of chemical biological and nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction. Air forces can now perform dangerous missions with next generation drone aircraft and land technology which are operated from secure locations a safe distance from targeted sites.

Technological advancements were also vital during the Arab spring, which caused a revolution in social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Young protesters were mobilizing via social media to organize protests which was crucial to the revolution and also was used as tool to create awareness to the rest of the world. The advancement of smartphones in the early 2000’s has allowed every person to have immediate access to the internet, and to social media communication at all times. This enabled the young people to engage with the revolution.

However, at the nexus between the two post-Cold War changes discussed so far – the ongoing and even increasing divisions between states and societies, and the rise of internet-based technologies – we have seen a troubling development: the resurgence of nationalism.

  1. The resurgence of nationalism

The 11th September 2001 attacks in the US were the beginning of a dramatic shift in post-Cold War international relations. Despite the fact that Al Qaeda declared war with America in 1996, it was not at the forefront of American foreign policy until the collapse of the twin towers; an event that became emblematic of a huge threat to American national security.  Following from this event, the resurgence of nationalism was propelled through a mixture of discourse, public diplomacy and fear.

Donald Rumsfeld, as he discusses the new threat that emerged post 9/11, describes it in the following way:

they will either succeed in changing our way of life, or we will succeed in changing theirs (cited in Buzan, 2006:1101).

Post-Cold war US dominance removed the previous checks on US action and allowed more preemptive intervention. Terrorism become the ‘new enemy’ and terrorists the new communists. US reaction had a destabilising effect throughout the Middle East, leading to an increase in the number of refugees, which in turn caused greater anxiety in neighbouring countries. This fuelled a rise in nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia.  After the 9/11 attacks, the United States saw a rise in Islamophobia. The FBI reported a 1,700% increase in 2001. Prior to 9/11, the FBI recorded just 28 hate crimes against Muslims. The following year it increased to 481. More recently, the threat of terrorism in America has been at the forefront of Trump’s presidential agenda, with the ban on Muslim arrivals from selected countries that include: Sudan, Libya, Syria and Iran.  Trump justified this executive order as one that ‘is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe’, placing this threat at the heart of American nationalism, catalysing xenophobia and marginalising Muslims as ‘others’.


As we have shown, while the election of Donald Trump in 2017 may have come as a surprise to many, it is in keeping with a number of key trends in post-Cold War world order. The collapse of the USSR and the bipolar world order did not eliminate major divisions between the states and societies of the world. New divisions have come to the fore. And as new global technologies have emerged – which have offered new modes of political action and engagement – they have also been central to entrenching, rather than undermining, some of these divisions. The rise of nationalism in the West and its relationship to the War on Terror demonstrates a longer-term trajectory of conflict and upheaval in post-Cold War world politics.

About Ben Whitham

Ben Whitham is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester.
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