Power and Developments

The Evolving Nature of Power

The end of the Cold War and the new world order

The Cold War was seen by realists as a period when the super powers had created a balance of power based on the certainty of nuclear annihilation (MAD) which made war therefore unthinkable. However, the early 1980s could be seen as a period of dangerous instability. Ronald Reagan, who had been elected president in 1980, was vehemently anti-communist and in March 1983 referred to the Soviet Union as an ‘Evil Empire’. In August, 1983 the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner when it strayed into Soviet airspace. Flight 007 had been travelling from New York to Seoul and among the 269 fatalities was US congressman Larry McDonald. The reaction in the USA was one of shock and outrage, which dramatically increased tension between it and the Soviet Union.

Then in November, Soviet High Command mistook a NATO exercise, Operation Able Archer, for a genuine military strike against the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union readied itself for a nuclear strike on the West and only stepped back from the brink when one of its spies, Oleg Gordievsky, who had secretly gone over to the West, persuaded them that Able Archer was indeed just an exercise.

It might, therefore, seem surprising that a number of realist scholars of international relations, such as Kenneth Waltz, now look back on the Cold War as a period of bipolar stability, and contrast it with the dangers inherent in the more fluid and uncertain world of contemporary global politics. Now, however, everything is much less stable, with more powers jockeying for global influence, and there is the fear that conflict could break out as the USA seeks to maintain global dominance against emerging powers, such as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Are the uncertainties of today therefore more dangerous and destabilising than the certainties of the Cold War?