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International Relations after the Cold War

ADAM ROBERTS *
I believe in the validity of a plural international system of many different kinds and sizes
of nations and civilizations as the one most conducive both to justice and to order, difficult
though it may be to manage.
Alastair Buchan, inaugural lecture, Oxford, 1972

The end of the Cold War is arguably the most significant development in international relations since 1945, and the most difficult to explain. This valedictory is a
reconsideration of the causes and consequences of the chain of events whereby the
Cold War ended, and their implications for the study and practice of international
relations in the post-Cold War period.
Pluralism
If there is a single theme that unites what follows, it is recognition, even celebration,
of a pluralist approach both to the actual conduct of international relations and to
the academic subject.1 This is not pluralism in the sense of holding more than one
post at the same timea crime among the clergy in the past, not to mention todays
professoriate. Nor is it confined narrowly to the notion of pluralism that is so often,
in discussions on international relations, counterposed to the idea of solidarism.2
Rather, it is a pluralism that accepts the relevance of many different approaches to
international relations: not just the proper emphasis on power and interest that is
found in realist theories, but also approaches that stress the significance of ideas and
norms, the impact of domestic political and economic structures on international
politics, the roles of transnational movements and international organizations, and

This article is extracted and adapted from the authors valedictory lecture, delivered at St Antonys College,
Oxford, on 23 Oct. 2007. As from 1 Jan. 2008 he has been succeeded as Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University by Andrew Hurrell. A shorter extract, based on other parts of the
lecture and entitled Professing International Relations at Oxford, appeared in Oxford Magazine, no. 271
(Oxford University Press, Jan. 2008), pp. 1012.
1
I have followed here the odd custom of using lower case throughout when referring to actual international
relations, and capital initials when referring to the academic subject of International Relations. No priority of
the academy over the actuality is implied.
2
Solidarism is a term widely used to suggest that there is a thick network of common ideas, values, goals and
actions among states.
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Adam Roberts
the existence of new challenges.3 It is a pluralism of theories, a pluralism of political systems, a pluralism of different cultures and mindsets, a pluralism of methods
of analysis and a pluralism of academic disciplines. While eschewing simple linear
visions of progress, such a version of pluralism does not reject evidence of, and ideas
about, progress. Pluralism in these senses is a strength of International Relations
studies in British universities generally.4
As will be seen, two of my predecessors in the Montague Burton chair cited in
their inaugural lectures a phrase from John Stuart Mills autobiography, a certain
order of possible progress, as a way of indicating that we should be cautious about
prediction and about linear ideas of progress. It so happens that the paragraph from
which this phrase was taken included a measured tribute to pluralism in the study
of politics and history. Mill indicated that his core opinions, as they had developed
by 1830, encompassed the following:
That the human mind has a certain order of possible progress, in which some things must
precede others, an order which governments and public instructors can modify to some,
but not to an unlimited extent: That all questions of political institutions are relative, not
absolute, and that different stages of human progress not only will have, but ought to have,
different institutions.

The paragraph concludes: Goethes device, many-sidedness, was one which I


would most willingly, at this period, have taken for mine.5 The tension that can be
detected here inside Mills head, between a pluralist understanding of the variety
and complexity of the world, and a reformists belief in progress, is one which
properly resides at the heart of much thinking about international relations. It may
provide some clues to how the Cold War ended and what came after.
Litvinovs recognition of diversity
I feel a special obligation to give a valedictory. In 2006 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shockingly, sought to bring an end to that celebrated institution of
British diplomacy, the valedictory dispatch customarily written by UK ambassadors on leaving their posts. Indeed, I may have had something to do with it.
It is well known that I am not an unreserved enthusiast for all aspects of targetsetting and other bureaucratic devices, whether in the university or in the conduct
of foreign policy. I was encouraged in my doubts about five-year plans when I
3

As the relevant definition of pluralism in the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: The theory that the world is
made up of more than one kind of substance or thing; (more generally) any theory or system of thought which
recognizes more than one irreducible basic principle. Also: the theory that the knowable world consists of a
plurality of interacting entities.
4
The diversity of Politics and International Relations studies in the UK was noted with approval in the executive summary of a report of a panel of ten international scholars chaired by Prof. Bob Goodin of the Australian
National University, commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council in partnership with the
British International Studies Association and the Political Studies Association: International benchmarking review
of UK Politics and International Studies (Swindon: ESRC, Aug. 2007), available on the ESRC website, http://
www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/index.aspx, accessed 8 Feb. 2008.
5
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, 2nd edn (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1873), ch. V, pp.
1623.

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came across a truly robust response to the pressure to set targets, courageously
and successfully expressed in the immortal words of the USSR Deputy Peoples
Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, in 1929:
Unlike other Commissariats, the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs cannot, unfortunately,
put forward a five-year plan of work, a plan for the development of foreign policy. It is
not difficult to see why. In putting forward control figures and drawing up the plan of
economic development we start from our own aspirations and wishes, from a calculation of our own potentialities, and from the firm principles of our entire policy, but in
examining the development of foreign policy we have to deal with a number of factors
that are scarcely subject to calculation, with a number of elements outside our control and
the scope of our action. International affairs are composed not only of our own aspirations
and actions, but of those of a large number of countries, built on different lines from our
Union, pursuing other aims than ours, and using other means to achieve those aims than
we allow.6

There has yet to be an equally well-argued and robust statement from the UK
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or the Ministry of Defence, in response to
the stream of demands for departmental targets and plans that has swept through
Whitehall in the Thatcher, Major and Blair years. I could take Litvinovs statement,
with its explicit recognition that different countries have different structures and
values, as my refrain for this valedictory. I have a special reason for referring to it.
For better or worse, I happened to mention it to Sir Ivor Roberts, now President
of Trinity College, Oxford, when he was the British ambassador to Italy, and he in
turn cited Litvinovs statement in his valedictory dispatch from Rome in September
2006.7 Immediately upon receiving it, Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent undersecretary of the FCO, abolished the whole institution of the valedictory dispatch.
This was one of several matters on which Sir Ivor had some crisp comments to
make in evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in July
2007.8 The committee agreed with him, and called for the reinstatement of these
dispatches.9 This is important as one means of assisting understanding of, even
showing respect for, foreign countries and cultures. Meanwhile, if the valedictory is abolished (let us hope temporarily) in Whitehall, it should be resurrected
in universities, including here. My sin of having contributed in a small way, and
6

The opening passage of a long document (running to 25 printed pages), Report by Litvinov, vice-commissar
for foreign affairs, to the Central Executive Committee, 4 Dec. 1929, published at the time in Protokoly zasedanii
tsentralnogo ispolnitelnogo komiteta sovetov, Moscow, Bulletin 14, p. 1. The translation here is from Jane Degras,
ed., Soviet documents on foreign policy (London: Oxford University Press/Royal Institute of International Affairs,
1952), vol. 2, p. 408.
7
Ivor Roberts, valedictory dispatch on his departure from the ambassadorship in Rome and from the diplomatic
service, 13 Sept. 2006, para. 10.
8
Ivor Roberts, evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 17 July 2007, HC 795-iii.
This evidence was subsequently incorporated in the committees first report of session 200708, Foreign and
Commonwealth Office Annual Report 200607, HC 50 (London: Stationery Office, 19 Nov. 2007). The report and
evidence are available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmfaff.htm#reports, accessed 8 Feb.
2008.
9
We recommend that the decision to ban valedictory telegrams should be reversed, other than in respect of
comments about the governments to which the outgoing Ambassadors or High Commissioners are accredited
or comments likely to cause diplomatic embarrassment: House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee,
report on FCO Annual Report 200607, p. 8.

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involuntarily, to a foolish government decision requires an act of atonement. This
is it.
How the Cold War ended
What were the processes of change that led to the end of the Cold War?10 What, in
particular, can we learn from memoirs of participants and documents of the period
now available? Do these sources change the pictures that each of us may have built
up about the nature and causes of these events? I should first confess to my own
experience, which may well have distorted my understanding. It is a strange fact of
my academic career that I spent the first days of my first teaching post, as a lecturer
at the LSE in September 1968, in post-invasion Czechoslovakia. Then in April 1986
I spent the first days of my Montague Burton professorship in the Soviet Union.
In between, in May 1972, I spent some time doing research in Yugoslavia. I have
always been tempted by lost causes, but to lose three countries smacks of carelessness. On the other hand, there is much to celebrate in these events and in the
ending of the Cold War with which they were associated. The events of 198991
in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are the most remarkable case of large-scale
peaceful change in world history. True, they were followed by tragedy in some
of the successor states, and they led to hubris in America. Yet these events shaped
much of what came after for the better, especially in the unification of Germany
and the subsequent consolidation of democratic systems of government in many
East European countries. The transition was and remains a cause for celebration
and also for careful consideration of how and why it occurred so peacefully. Excessively simple views of this process have had a baneful effect in the years since 1991.
The factors that led to the ending of communist rule throughout Europe, and to
the collapse of the great communist federations, are numerous and complex.
Prediction v. an order of possible progress
It is sometimes said that scholars of International Relations failed to predict the
end of the Cold War. There were indeed some notable cases, not just of a failure to
predict, but even of a failure to see what was going on in front of our eyes. In 1992
the historian John Gaddis memorably criticized International Relations specialists
for failing to see the end of the Cold War coming.11 Actually, though he did not
explicitly note this fact, the academics he was targeting were overwhelmingly
Americanfor it is certain US specialists in International Relations who have
made the boldest claims to being capable of foreseeing and influencing the future,
and whose supposedly scientific methodologies have tended to be parsimonious,
10

This short survey of the end of the Cold War is based on my chapter, An incredibly swift transition: reflections on the end of the Cold War, to be published in Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds, The Cambridge
history of the Cold War, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2009).
11
John Lewis Gaddis, International Relations theory and the end of the Cold War, International Security 17:
3, Winter 19923, p. 5. See also his criticisms of International Relations theorists, and more generally of the
claims of social scientists to be able to predict international events, in Gaddis, The landscape of history: how historians map the past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. pp. 5860.

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seeking to explain outcomes in terms of a limited range of considerations. With
their emphasis on states and international systems, they have often played down the
domestic and human dimension of decision-making. They have tended to place
more reliance on abstract reasoning and hard facts than on understanding foreign
languages and cultures. They have often missed the uniqueness of particular
individuals, situations and moments. Not surprisingly, the end of the Cold War
caused particularly deep soul-searching among some colleagues in International
Relations, especially in the United States. Among other things, it contributed to
the emergence of the constructivist school whichwhile unfortunately creating
a new ism for an approach the essentials of which would not seem strange to
many historiansat last took proper account of human consciousness, and how
perceptions of the world are shaped by each persons, and each countrys, lived
experience.12
The very idea that International Relations is a science, and stands or falls by its
capacity to predict the future, would have been rejected strongly by many, if not
all, of my predecessors in the Montague Burton chair.13 When Alastair Buchan
took up the post in 1972, he was clear about what could and could not be claimed
for the subject:
If through an orderly study of the recent past we can achieve some comprehension of the
contemporary international system, can we claim any predictive value for our judgements?
Clearly not in any detailed fashion, or for the whole complexity of international or transnational interaction. If we attempt this we risk either vagueness or misleading dogmatism.
But we can, as Mill said, indicate an order of possible progress.14

As a former student of the historian A. J. P. Taylor, who famously emphasized


the influence of chance in history, I can only agree that we should be extremely
diffident about making any predictive claims. Such caution has been widespread
in British universities, and had a notable exponent in Alastair Buchans successor
in the chair, Hedley Bull, who was to be equally emphatic in asserting that what
the academic subject of International Relations aspires to achieve is understanding,
not prediction.
Unlike his three predecessors in the chair, Buchan was limited neither by a
narrowly prescriptive approach (as in the case of Alfred Zimmern), nor by an
12

Peter Katzenstein begins the preface of his major edited work of constructivist analysis, published in 1996:
The revolutionary changes that have marked world politics in recent years offer scholars an extraordinary
opportunity for reflection and critical self-appraisal. This is true, in particular, for scholars of international
relations. . . . Although our analytical coordinates for gauging global politics have proven to be inadequate for
an analysis of a world in rapid change, there has been remarkably little rethinking of our categories of analysis.
Instead, in the first half of the 1990s North American scholarship on the theory of international relations was
preoccupied with the issue of whether variants of realism or liberalism offered a superior way for explaining
the world. . . . For it is hard to deny that existing theories of international relations have woefully fallen short
in explaining an important revolution in world politics. See Peter J. Katzenstein, ed., The culture of national
security: norms and identity in world politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. xi.
13
The first five Montague Burton professors of International Relations at Oxford were Alfred Zimmern
(193044), Llewellyn Woodward (19447), Agnes Headlam-Morley (194870), Alastair Buchan (19726) and
Hedley Bull (197785).
14
Alastair Buchan, Can international relations be professed? An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford
on 7 November 1972 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 201. Mills phrase had also been used in Llewellyn
Woodwards inaugural in 1945, p. 7.

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exclusively European focus (as in the cases of Llewellyn Woodward and Agnes
Headlam-Morley). Both Buchan and Bull, with their pluralistic approach, recognized that even by the 1970s the Cold War had already lost much of its ideological
sting. Both saw that some of the major causes of conflict in the era we now think
of as the Cold War had little to do with SovietUS rivalry, and involved instead
the inherent difficulties of establishing new political orders in and between postcolonial statesa subject that is still today at the heart of most conflicts, and was
explored in depth in Hedley Bulls great collection The expansion of international
society.15 Both Buchan and Bull recognized that change could be peaceful as well as
violentindeed, Buchans 1973 Reith Lectures were on Change without war.16
In fact, some scholars and writers did see, not exactly how the Cold War would
end, but some of the pressures and forces that could lead to that outcomewhat
Buchan, echoing Mill, had called an order of possible progress. After Alfred
Zimmern retired from the chair in 1944 he continued to support international
organizations, as he had done with an excess of devotion in the League of Nations
era, but he did so with some interesting twists. In a little-known and curiously
staccato book, The American road to world peace (which, not surprisingly given
its title, was published in the US and not the UK), he wrote: If the rest of the
world could see the people of the United States as they truly are, the future of
the United Nations under American leadership would be assured and the peace of
the world safeguarded for as far ahead as statesmen can see. This seems a classic
case of wishful thinking; but then came something extraordinary. He suggested
that the persistent Soviet use of the veto on UN Security Council action was a
mere temporary phenomenon, because the Soviet Union itself could not last. Some
things seem clear, he wrote: One is that in fifty years timeand this is a very
generous reckoningthe Soviet Union will be a historic memory.17 He argued
this on the general historical grounds that large and brutal empires do not last. Not
bad: actually it was just under 40 years before the Soviet Union disappeared.
There were others with at least an outline of a vision of how events might unfold.
For example, Philip Windsor, who was my supervisor, colleague and co-author at
the LSE from 1965 onwards, was one of a number of International Relations teachers
who had a perceptionalbeit very generalof how things might develop based on
their experience of the communist part of Europe. As early as 1963 he had written:
The essential preliminary to an eventual Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe is
an initial acknowledgement of the division of Germany. He had noted that action
along these lines would be a risky operation: it could invite revolution.18 This might
be dismissed as just one of many routine forecasts that the German Democratic
15

16

Hedley Bull and Adam Watson, eds, The expansion of international society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).
Alastair Buchan, Change without war: the shifting structures of world power. The BBC Reith Lectures 1973 (London:
Chatto & Windus, 1974).
17
Alfred Zimmern, The American road to world peace (New York: Dutton, 1953), p. 267.
18
Philip Windsor, City on leave: a history of Berlin 19451962 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1963), pp. 256, 257. Six
years later he made a similar argument for recognition of the DDR as a means of promoting change in Eastern
Europe: Windsor, The boundaries of dtente, The World Today 25: 6, June 1969, pp. 2634, repr. in Mats
Berdal, ed., Studies in International Relations: essays by Philip Windsor (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2002),
pp. 1089.

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Republic could not last; but in subsequent writings, including on the 1968 invasion
of Czechoslovakia, Windsor grasped some of the complex and paradoxical interconnections between change in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union.19 He managed
to combine a healthy respect for the facts of power with a reasoned support for
detente and an understanding that the Soviet system was deeply flawed.
Those of us who followed the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 always had in
the back of our minds the idea that other ruling communist parties might embark
on major reform projects. It would not have been clever for westerners to express
this idea too openly. In Prague in April 1969 I heard several Czechoslovak academics
express the thoughtat the time it seemed a wan hopethat one day there might
be a serious reform in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As we now know,
there were many similarities and connections between the Prague Spring and events
in Moscow two decades later.20 In this regard, Archie Brown of St Antonys College
has a particularly distinguished record, having had more than an inkling of a possible
Moscow Spring. In a paper for a high-level meeting at Chequers in September
1983 which helped to shape UK policy towards the Soviet Union, Archie Brown
wrote (emphasis by Mrs Thatcher):
That the party intelligentsia can play a decisive part in introducing not only piecemeal reform
but also more fundamental change was demonstrated by the case of Czechoslovakia in the
years 196368. The Soviet Union is a very different country with different historical traditions and it would be rash indeed to predict an early Moscow Spring. But in principle it is
clear that a movement for democratising change can come from within a ruling Communist
Party as well as through societal pressure. It would be carrying an historical and cultural
determinism too far to say that this could never happen in the Soviet Union.21

As early as 1980 one distinguished journalist, Richard Davy of The Times, had
foreseen a drastic change in Soviet policy in response to the Soviet empires costly
over-extension.22 At around the same time Christopher Davis, now of Oxford
University, saw the Soviet project as in deep systemic trouble, reaching this conclusion through meticulous analysis of health statistics.23
Many generalists also correctly recognized the troubles of the Soviet system.
Raymond Aron said to Hedley Bull in 1982, at their last meeting: It is my view
that the most important and indeed most neglected question in contemporary
international relations scholarship is: what will the West do when and if the Soviets
19

See esp. his contribution to Philip Windsor and Adam Roberts, Czechoslovakia 1968: reform, repression and resistance (London: Chatto & Windus/Institute for Strategic Studies, 1969), esp. pp. 6294.
20
On some of the connections between the events in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and those in the Soviet Union
in the 1980s, see Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenk Mlyn, Conversations with Gorbachev: on perestroika, the Prague
Spring, and the crossroads of socialism, trans. George Shriver (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
21
Archie Brown, The political system, policy-making and leadership, paper presented to a Chequers seminar
on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, presided over by the Prime Minister, 8 Sept. 1983. A total of eight
leading UK academic specialists in the Soviet Union took part in this seminar. The underlinings in the text
were made by the Prime Minister when she read the academics papers some days in advance of the seminar.
For a brief and positive assessment of the significance of this seminar for UK policy towards the Soviet Union,
see Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street years (London: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 4513. A full account and
analysis of Mrs Thatchers Soviet seminars is to be published by Professor Brown in Journal of Cold War Studies.
22
Richard Davy, The strain on Moscow of keeping a grip on its European empire, The Times, 18 Dec. 1980.
23
Christopher Davis and Murray Feshbach, Rising infant mortality in the USSR in the 1970s, series P-95, no. 74
(Washington DC: Bureau of the Census, US Department of Commerce, 1980).

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decline? How we answer that question will perhaps determine whether there will
be war or peace in our time.24 This statement draws attention to the common
failure to foresee that the process of Soviet collapse could possibly be as peaceful
as it eventually turned out to be. At the same time, it highlights the fact that there
were many who got a great deal rightwithout ever presuming, still less claiming,
that they were engaged in a scientific and predictive academic discipline. Indeed,
there seems to be an inverse relationship between claims to scientific prediction
and capacities to sense the direction of events.
Factors leading to the end of the Cold War
What exactly were the factors that led to the end of the Cold War, not least by
bringing about changes in the mindset of communist leaders in the USSR and
Eastern Europe? The historical evidence suggests a multifaceted explanation.
Here, in a nutshell, are the intellectually disturbing conclusions that flow from
a re-examination of the evidence. The factors that led to this great change include
what might easily be seen as ideological opposites and logical incompatibles: both
force and diplomacy; both pressure and detente; both belief and disbelief in the
reformability of communism; both non-violent resistance in some countries and
guerrilla resistance in others; both elite action and street politics; both nuclear
deterrence and the ideas of some of its critics; both threat and reassurance; both
nationalism in the disparate parts of the Soviet empire and supranationalism in the
European Community. A worrying possibility is that the Cold War would not
have ended but for two myths: that Soviet-style communism could be reformed,
and that Star Wars could work. The very complexityindeed, indigestibilityof
this mix of factors helps to explain why they have not attracted the same attention
as have the ideas of the great simplifiers.
Of the many simplifying views of the end of the Cold War, two merit special
comment because they cast a shadow into the future. The first is the idea that
the USSR was forced into change by Reagans arms build up in the 1980s. As
one would expect, the principal Soviet figures involved are critical of this interpretation, and suggest that events could have unfolded faster without some of
Reagans early policies and rhetoric. More importantly, some of the key US
figures involvedincluding George Shultz, Secretary of State, and Jack Matlock,
ambassador to the Soviet Unionwhile supporting a mixture of strength and
diplomacy, resist simple conclusions about the role of external pressures.25 The
documentary evidence now available indicates that the pressures for change felt
by the Soviet leadership were of many different kinds: most came from within
the Soviet Union; some came from Europe rather than the United States; and
24

Arons remarks, London, Nov. 1982, cited in Kurt M. Campbell, Prospects and consequences of Soviet
decline, in Joseph S. Nye, Graham T. Allison and Albert Carnesale, eds, Fateful visions: avoiding nuclear catastrophe (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1988), p. 153.
25
George P. Shultz, Turmoil and triumph: my years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribners, 1993), pp. 15971,
52738; Jack F. Matlock, Autopsy on an empire: an American ambassadors account of the collapse of the Soviet Union
(New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 670, 671. See also Jack F. Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev: how the Cold
War ended (New York: Random House, 2004), esp. pp. 3213.

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some dated back to long before Reagans presidency. Many came from generational change.
A closely related simplifying view saw the end of the Cold War as the end of
history. This reinforced the deep American sense that if only tyrannies around the
world can be deposed, peoples will live in freedom and peace. One could blame it
all on Rousseau, with his beguiling statement that Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.26 Many visions and policiesfrom the new world order
invoked by President Bush in 1990 to the neo-conservative dreams of imposing
democracy in 2003reflected a belief in universalism: that all peoples basically
want the same political system, and that the military force of democracies can assist
the historical process. In the excitement and confusion of the Cold Wars end, the
spirit of imposed universalism fled from Moscow, but flourished as never before
in its other favourite haunt, Washington DC.
Characterizing the post-Cold War period
The post-Cold War era has had many profound interpreters. Universities, including
many in the UK, can be proud of the many thoughtful academic contributions
to understanding the new circumstances in which we live.27 At the same time,
however, in the public political realm there has been a Babel-like confusion about
how to characterize the contemporary system of international relations, and no
shortage of facile generalization and intellectual confusion.
In any era, addressing the nature of international order is a hard task: there
have always been grounds for reservations about the inherent superficiality of
characterizing international order in any one catchphrase. The task has proved
particularly tricky in the confusing and paradoxical decades since the end of the
Cold War. Indeed, the very proposition that the Cold War has ended is open to
contestation, at least in East Asia, where the survival of communist party rule
is only one of many factors that make the present resemble the past much more
than in Europe. Meanwhile, in Western Europe and the United States there has
been a tendency to use language about the new international order that conceals
awkward enduring realities. One small example is the way in which, in 1999, there
was a widespread attempt to persuade us that what the NATO alliance was doing
in respect of Kosovo was not a war. Three former students of Oxford UniversityPresident Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Supreme Allied
Commander Wes Clarkwere among those who in varying degrees took part in
this pretence. I hope it was not their university education that led them to deny the
26

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social, ou principes du droit politique (Amsterdam: Marc-Michel Rey, 1762), p. 2.
English translation, para. I. i. 1, in Victor Gourevitch, ed. and trans., Rousseau: The Social Contract and other later
political writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 41.
27
One thoughtful survey by Ian Clark argues that some features of our era, widely thought to be new, are in fact
traditional: In the great historical examples of the past, the end of a period of protracted conflict issued in
attempts to impose new distributions of international power, as well as to inculcate wider principles and norms
for the conduct of international relationships. This is very much in line with what has occurred also since the
end of the Cold War: Clark, The post-Cold War order: the spoils of peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001),
p. 242.

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obvious. Whatever one thought of the NATO military action over Kosovo (and I
personally thought the case for it was persuasive), it does no good to use language
that conceals and confuses.
The notion of world order
The term world order, often applied in contemporary rhetoric, does not have
a wonderful intellectual history. It has religious as well as secular origins and
meanings. In the past its use often reflected the inclination of adherents of the great
religions to overcome the division of humankind into separate sovereign states. In
several religions, including Islam and Christianity, there are strong traditions of
thought about, and advocacy of, world order. The Byzantine notion of Christ as
Pantocrator (Ruler of All) was one reflection of such ideas, which have continued
in many different forms.
American and British visions of world order were not, and are not, by any
means identical. In these two countries there are strong and different traditions
of thought about how world order should be conceived and implemented. The
United States is heir to a revolutionary tradition that sees the rest of the world
as composed of monarchical, reactionary and dictatorial systems of government,
the departure of which would enable peoples, freed from their shackles, to pursue
their common goals. Hence the unique (and to foreign eyes peculiar or even threatening) action of the US legislature in passing an act calling for the liberation of a
particular foreign state, the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.28
In the academic field of International Relations in the United States, an
abstract cast of mind has tended to produce an abstract set of thoughts about
world order. This is best illustrated by the World Order Models Project, established at Princeton University in the early 1970s. WOMPs history is instructive
for thinking about world order today. This project was expressly devoted to
the creation of relevant utopiasa glorious aim that proved hard to achieve.
By soliciting contributions from many different cultures and countries, the
project came up with results that served to render the original research scheme
unfeasible.29 In other words, it discovered the elementary and terrible truth that
different societies and different countries do not share a common vision of how
human life, or world politics, should be organized; nor do they have a common
understanding of what are the main obstacles to international order. There is a
lesson here that remains applicable today.
It is not surprising that the very term world order, with its implicit prescriptive message, has gone in and out of fashion in the United States. This is illustrated
by the history of the World Policy Institute. It was founded in 1948 in Washington
DC as the Association for Education in World Government. In 1952 it changed its
name to the Institute for International Government. In 1954 it was renamed the
28

Resolution of the two houses of the US Congress (HR 4655), passed by the House of Representatives on 5 Oct.
1998 and the Senate on 7 Oct. 1998.
David Wilkinson, World Order Models Project: first fruits, Political Science Quarterly 91: 2, Summer 1976, p.
332.

29

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Institute for International Order. It was reconstituted in 1973 as the Institute for
World Order. In 1982 it acquired its present title of the World Policy Institute.30
Five titles in four decades!
Yet the notion of world order does have substance, and is not tied exclusively
to a particular set of Anglo-Saxon ideas for reforming the world in our image.
Hedley Bulls magisterial study of the roots of international order, far removed
temperamentally and analytically from the World Order Models Project and
similar schemes, was entitled The anarchical society: a study of order in world politics.
Bull accepted that the term world order was not vacuous:
since the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century there has arisen for the first
time a single political system that is genuinely global. Order on a global scale has ceased to
be simply the sum of the various political systems that produce order on a local scale; it is
also the product of what may be called a world political system.31

Bull also pointed to the special value of the term world order:
World order is wider than international order because to give an account of it we have
to deal not only with order among states but also with order on a domestic or municipal
scale, provided within particular states, and with order within the wider world political
system of which the states system is only part.32

Pitfalls of polar terminology


Throughout the period since 1945, and often in parallel with the language of world
order, there has been a tendencyamong academics in International Relations and
also, if to a lesser extent, among policy-makersto characterize world politics as
uni-, bi- or multipolar. Such characterizations imply, not just that there is a single
world order, but that the overarching structure of that order has particular importance in shaping, and helping us to explain, events. There are many grounds for
scepticism, not about the idea of world order as such, but about the adequacy of
defining it in polar terms.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been much talk of a unipolar world
or at least a unipolar moment, and a tendency to conflate the distinct ideas of the
US role and of international order. It is questionable whether it ever made sense to
speak of a unipolar world. The pervasive belief that this is a single united world
has been buttressed by the rhetoric of globalization; by the belief in the West that
democracy is a panacea; and by a reluctance to understand the extent and depth of
different world views.
Yet if unipolarity and its relative, globalization, are flawed both as description
and as prescription, can any other polar characterizations do better? One distinguished scholar of International Relations, Samuel Huntington, has defined the
30

The World Policy Institute is now under the wing of the New School in New York, whose website proclaims
the Schools objective as to bring actual, positive change to the world. Information from the New School
website, http://www.newschool.edu/about.html, accessed 8 Feb. 2008.
31
Hedley Bull, The anarchical society: a study of order in world politics (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 20. See also the
third edition, with forewords by Stanley Hoffmann and Andrew Hurrell (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).
32
Bull, Anarchical society, p. 22.

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post-Cold War world as uni-multi-polar.33 This term, which sounds like a way
to hedge ones bets, is more convoluted than illuminating. Huntington himself has
all but abandoned it. His conclusion (speaking in 2005) is that the United States
should be much less aggressive in its management of international order, and
should especially avoid attempts to impose democracy on others. He noted the
existence of efforts to change the structure of global politics from what I have
awkwardly called a uni-multi-polar world into a truly multi-polar world. That
is the way in which inevitably the world is moving, and both the world and the
United States will probably be much better off once we get there.34
Multipolarity does indeed have possible value both as description and as
prescription. It is free of the implicit arrogance and hubris of unipolar claims. It
recognizes the changing facts of economic and military power. However, as with
other polar ideas, its weakness may lie in its implicit assumption that the world
consists of something akin to magnetic poles and iron filings. Does this really fit
the pattern of relations in the post-Cold War era? Perhaps the polar tradition of
thought about world order has served its purpose, and other language needs to be
found.
A word for the twenty-first century
In early October 2007 Oxford University Press announced a poll to find the word
which represents the events or moods of the twenty-first century.35 This is for
the OUPs Language report, which also includes the new word prevengegetting
ones retaliation in first. Let us hope we end up with a better phrase than the age
of prevenge.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Cold War subsided, it sometimes seemed
as if the waters of a reservoir were going down and old landmarks reappearing.
Some of the features that emerged into viewsuch as failed states, and conflicts
with an ethnic dimensionwere only too familiar to historians. However, there
were also some developments which were new, or which continued processes that
had already become significant in the Cold War years. These included the worldwide move towards democracy; an emphasis on acting collectively that went far
beyond previous practices such as the geographically and institutionally limited
role of the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century; the rapid growth of global
communications; and a number of strong challenges to the previous dominance of
European or western ideas about how the world should be ordered.
The changes at around the time of the end of the Cold War seemed to some
observers to offer hope for a new world orderone in which international law,
Great Power cooperation, international organizations and democratic political
33

Samuel Huntington, The great American myth: there is no US empire, but there is a uni-multi-polar world,
talk in Toronto, 10 Feb. 2005, http://www.aims.ca/library/huntington.pdf, accessed 8 Feb. 2008.
34
Huntington, The great American myth, p. 4.
35
Susie Dent, The language report: English on the move 20002007 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Details
of the competition were posted on 5 Oct. 2007 at http://www.askoxford.com/worldofwords/wordfrom/
languagereport/?view=uk, accessed 8 Feb. 2008. The winning word of the century, announced in December
2007, was 9/11.

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systems would all play a larger part than they had been able to do for most of
the twentieth century. There were several distinct visions of such an order. They
had the strengths that derive from identifying significant new developments and
possibilitiesa certain order of possible progress. However, they also had the
weakness that they assumed too easily that the suspicions held by Great Powers and
small ones would be quickly overcome, and that long-held differences of interest
and of intellectual perspective would decline in significance. All great causes need
to be protected from their most zealous advocates, and ideas of a reformed international order are no exception.
Although the particular visions of the new world order that flourished in the
first half of the 1990s ran into trouble, the idea that we are in a defining period of
international relations still survives, and has influenced policy-making in many
countries. Even in a United States disillusioned by much of the experience of the
1990s, the idea of completely reshaping the world found new forms of expression.
One of these was neo-conservatisma cluster of ideas that, at least to a benighted
non-American, seems to be oddly misnamed, and to have more in common with
French revolutionary Bonapartism than with philosophical conservatism. Iraq
2003 was in part a product of that cluster of ideas; and subsequent events in Iraq
have cast doubt on the extent to which this body of thought relates effectively to
the enduringly complex realities that it seeks to change.
There is a common view that there was a sharp disjunction between the world
of Bush the Elder and that of Bush the Younger; and more generally between the
1990s and the present decade. The events of 9/11 are seen as marking the end of
one age and the beginning of the other. Robert Litwak has referred to the 1990s
as a misleadingly tranquil decade which then ended with 9/11.36 This view is
open to contestation. When President Clinton left office at the beginning of 2001,
the liberal and transformational project which he had set out in 1993 had been
itself transformed. Although it was still possible to see a general trend towards
democratic governance, there were many warning signs long before 9/11. A few
examples:
The United States continued to take a semi-detached view of much contemporary international law. In particular, congressional opinion had made it clear that
the US would not become a party to any of a range of international normative
agreements, including the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mines
Convention, the 1998 Convention on the International Criminal Court and the
1998 Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
In the PalestinianIsraeli conflict, the Oslo peace process, initiated in 1993, had
run into trouble. The United States appeared unwilling, or unable, to get the
process back on track.
USUN relations, already difficult, had been exacerbated by the experiences of
Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo.
36

Robert Litwak, Regime change: US strategy through the prism of 9/11 (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center
Press, 2007), p. 320.

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There was a growing willingness on the part of the United States to use force
even without explicit UN Security Council authorization. In 1999 it did so over
Kosovo, jointly with its NATO allies.
Nation-building in East Timor, Haiti, Kosovo and Bosnia was proving slow
and difficult.
There was a growing awareness that the process of democratic development in
hitherto non-democratic states was a hazard-strewn path. It was increasingly
recognized that the mere holding of elections, in the absence of the evolution
of the rule of law and all the other preconditions of legitimate representative
government, could exacerbate rather than resolve conflicts.
Because the 1990s were hardly a blissful dawn, and because there are numerous
continuities between that period and the present, the case for claiming that the
post-Cold War era ended on 11 September 2001 seems weak. Post-Cold War era
is still as good a catchphrase as any to characterize the age in which we live.
Elements in the concept of world order
In todays world, what are the necessary foundations for any serious idea of international order, whether regional or global? It is deceptively easy to spell out a few
minimal conditions:
recognition that there are many distinct visions of world order, emerging from
different national, cultural, regional and ideological perspectives;
a substantial degree of agreement on facts, frontiers and basic diplomatic rules;
a measure at least of agreement on norms and values, including in the areas
of human rights, self-determination and democracyalongside agreement to
disagree about some aspects of these norms and their implementation;
acceptance of common institutionsregional and globalto address and
resolve conflicts and disputes;
willingness on the part of the members of the system, especially major states,
to act in defence of international order when its basic norms are violated. To be
effective, this requires such action to be viewed as legitimate by other states.
These minimum elements, which fall well short of the WOMP idea of a
relevant utopia, build on much that already exists. However, they do not address
the central difficulties of the post-Cold War era, and only the last point touches
on the ever-sensitive subject of leadership, which continues to be needed in many
conflicts and crises. If there were more capable leadershipnot least in the United
States and in European countriesmore could be made of the conditions on which
there is some agreement. World order in this modest form is not an unattainable
ideal, even if we seem far from it today.

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Conclusions
The confusion about the nature of the present world orderand how, in a phrase,
it can be describedarises because of genuine complexities in the structure of
power, the pattern of events and the ways of thinking about them. While this
confusion is not likely to be resolved quickly, the single phrase that best encapsulates the contemporary world order is still the post-Cold War era. It has the merit
of anchoring our understanding of international politics in the great change that
occurred in 198991, of avoiding language that suggests a complete divorce from
the past, and of recognizing that 9/11 did not usher in a totally new era.
Despite the seriousness of new challenges, international collaboration today
is at a remarkably high level by almost any measure: the range of topics covered,
the adoption of international standards in a wide range of technical matters, the
movements of goods and people, and the extent to which cooperation involves
societies as a whole and not just their foreign ministries. In the whole period since
1945, international wars have been fewer and, taken overall, less costly in human
lives than in previous eras. The challengers to the present world order do not offer
an ideology that is likely to be widely shared. International order appears to be
sufficiently robust to be able to survive the partial incapacitation of the United
States as a result of Iraq and Guantnamo. Could it survive further major blows
to US power and prestige, whether self-inflicted or resulting from the defiance of
adversaries? This is doubtful. An essentially plural or even anarchic order, however
well functioning today, is not inherently a strong framework for addressing such
challenges as nuclear proliferation, population movements, resource crises and the
effects of global warming: there has to be space within it for effective leadership,
whether by major powers or by international organizations.
What is the role of international organizations? Since the end of the Cold War
both regional and global organizations have been the subject of exceptionally
high hopes and occasional disappointments. In the light of the difficulties experienced by the United States in its largely unilateral management of Iraq since 2003,
there is a tendency (especially but not only in Europe) to argue that multilateral
approaches are inherently better than unilateral ones. This argument, which sets
up a false dichotomy, fails to take account of the fact that there were some real
problems of UN involvement in crises that contributed to the US disenchantment
with multilateralism. The Security Council had proved less capable of deciding
on military means than on principles and goals; and it had achieved a mixed set of
results in the conflicts in which it was most deeply engaged. In public international
discourse there is a need for a realistic appraisal of both the strengths and the
weaknesses of multilateral approaches to security. The depictions of the UN as
offering a system of collective security are themselves part of the problem, leading
as they do to ill-tempered recrimination as to why the desired system has not been
achieved.
The post-Cold War world has been the subject of an extraordinary series
of prescriptions and characterizations, from new world order to clash of
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c ivilizations, from the end of history to global chaos. The post-Cold War world
is more intellectually demanding than that of the Cold War. However, it is not,
or at least not yet, as dangerousat least as far as the possibility of major war is
concerned. What I have tried to suggest is that to understand this age and all its
challenges we need to avoid the extremes of intellectual and political fashion, and
to draw strength from that plural and deep education that universities can provide
not only for their students, but also for their teachers. On the nature of the postCold War order, as on other matters, we could usefully keep in mind the words of
Colin Lucas, at the time Oxfords vice-chancellor, when speaking in March 1998 in
the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the centenary of Peking University: The
task of a university is to enable its members to distinguish that which is true from
that which merely appears to be true. That is a particularly appropriate approach
to explaining the end of the Cold War, and also to understanding the world that
has emerged since. The beginning of wisdom lies in recognition of the plurality of
the causes of events, especially the end of the Cold War; and recognition also of
the plurality of perspectives that endure in the post-Cold War world.

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