The End of the Post-Cold War Order: Shaping a Way Ahead


By Robbin Laird

Presidents Trump and Putin as well as the leader of China have one thing in common – bringing about the end of the post-Cold War order.

And joined with them are the voters of the United Kingdom who voted for Brexit and the political implosions in Europe in the wake of dealing with the challenges of migration and slow growth economies and the many European leaders which seem to be either in denial or living in the past.

In my dissertation, I focused on the modest subject “On Historical Change.”

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Dr. Herbert Deane allowed me to think through the broader dynamics of continuity and change. One was a noted strategist and the other a noted historian of political philosophy.

I would not for a moment claim that I solved the problem of how best to analyze historical change, but at least I recognized the centrality of the problem, rather than popping down some analytical rabbit hole.

And both professors joined me in my journey and were good guides to something like engaging in a journey to the center of the earth.

I came to a rather clear conclusion: that continuity was harder to explain than change and that a key mistake analysts made when living through a period of history was assuming that the dominant reality was indeed the only reality.

It is clear that in all key periods of history, multiple strands of reality are in conflict with one another and as the legitimacy of one interpretation wanes, others contest for a new dominance and enforcing order upon chaos.

The post-Cold War order is clearly over and with it the globalization concepts that justified it.

As Paul Dibbs, the noted Australian strategist, recently commented:

The former director-general of the Office of National Assessments, Allan Gyngell, has recently stated that the international order we have known for the past 70 years has now ended.

It’s not being challenged, it’s not changing, it’s over.

And that statement effectively undermines the relevance of much of the 2016 Defence White Paper with its utterances – on more than fifty occasions – of the importance of the rules-based international order to Australia’s security.

Gyngell observes that the two previous international systems ended in war. This one, he says, seems to be draining away, as its core components led by the US lose confidence in its purpose, and emerging powers see opportunities to assert their interests.

But if we look back at the 1990s, the period in which the post-Cold War order was built, the Clinton Administration along with key European regimes planted the seeds of its destruction while indeed constructing the edifice of the new order.

The core focus was taking organizations that had worked reasonably well for the liberal democracies, the European Union, NATO and the World Trade Organization, and simply expanded them to include states that had no real experience with liberal democracy or in the case of China had a clear and determined focus on creating a very different global order.

It cannot really be a shock to discover that NATO has expanded beyond its capacity to defend itself, or that new European states are not following “European values” as some would have it, or that the Chinese have used the WTO to expand their power, and work to displace America as the global leader.

None of this is a shock, except to those who have believed in the progressive dynamics of “globalization.”

The election of Trump is not a cause of the end of the post-Cold War order but a consequence of it.

He has clearly challenged a number of the key verities of the past two decades, but unfortunately is not putting in play, any global principles for what a transitional or next phase of global order might be.

He may be an icebreaker as my colleague Harald Malmgren has suggested; but on a path to where exactly?

The global critics of Trump have little to offer as well other than going back to the global status quo ante bellum.

The folks who sowed the seeds of the destruction of the very order they created through “globalization” are simply waiting around for new elections to repair the damage and continue the way ahead set in motion in the 1990s.

They may come back to power, but the world has changed.

Recently, the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs within the Australian National University held a seminar at which three prominent Australian strategists discussed the way ahead for Australian defense policy.

Although the topic is certainly interesting, what is even more interesting is that the presentations and discussions really were about the end of the post-Cold War order and the challenge of shaping a new strategic context in which to protect the Australian way of life.

In this sense, it was a refreshing look at a challenging and difficult period of history, one which we are present at the creation, whether we like it or not.

My friend and colleague Brendan Sargeant, the noted Australian strategist, provided a very clear statement of the nature of the period of history in which we live and the challenge of moving forward.

A characteristic of periods of transition is that the strategic environment will be ambiguous.

We see experiments and hedging.

We will see countries, large and small, across the Indo-Pacific behaving in unexpected ways as they seek to position themselves in a potentially different strategic order.

Because we don’t know what the future will bring, the past can become very seductive because it is what we know.

Policy therefore becomes very important because the task of policy must be to help us see the reality of our strategic environment and to guide decisions to respond.

He concluded that “we need defence capability they can support our participation in a world where the “rules” are likely to be negotiated continually and where the capacity to exercise force will be an essential foundation of our ability to live in this world as we want.”

Over the next few months, we will be identifying and discussing key elements of the global reshaping which is underway.  It is important to get on with this task for our leaders seem intent in either dismantling or in denial.