The Russian Revolution of 1917 is seen as the most important event of the 20th Century, the unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked not only the equally unexpected termination of the Cold War but the end of century itself.
Events of the 1990s illustrated dilemmas, issues, and problems that also dominate the first years of the 21s‘ Century.
These stemmed both from the end of a bipolar balance of power international system that had lent some predictability to world politics since the end of the Second World War, and from the collapse of a great multi-ethnic superpower with a command economy.
The 1990s also saw the breakdown of civility and governmental authority in several states, such as Yugoslavia and more than one in Africa, that were not caused by changes in the international system as such and evoked muddled responses from it, but which stimulated debates inside and outside the UN about ethnic identity, displacement of peoples, and so on.
It is difficult to generalize about international rivalries at the 20lh Century’s end than at its beginning and we confine ourselves to a brief overview. Gorbachev simultaneously launched three campaigns and conducted them personally.
One was externally directed to establish good relations with world leaders, especially in the West beginning with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and to restructure relations with other Socialist states on the basis of independence rather than the Brezhnev Doctrine of intervention.
Another campaign was to promote the idea of perestroika-meaning reform and an all-embracing modernization so as to improve economic performance and living conditions of the people- among Soviet officials and the public during his many tours around the country.
And a third campaign was also internal, to introduce glasnost-meaning openness – in sharing information with the frequently alienated intelligentsia, and reaching economic and political decisions on the basis of facts rather than secretly fabricated statistics.
Perestroika and glasnost amounted to a reversal of Soviet policy and practice of over 60 years and needed active support from Party and State apparatchiks (functionaries) at every level in order to succeed.
Not surprisingly, well entrenched, highly placed apparatchiks collectively known as the Nomenclature offered the greatest resistance to perestroika and glasnost. Gorbachev’s vocal attacks on the system and Party he had inherited, especially at the 27th Party Congress of February 1986, merely strengthened their opposition to modernization or democratization, while the habits of dependence and obedience to authority in the general population were not easily overcome.
Glasnost too made the task of reform from above more, not less, difficult, partly because it delegitimized the use of coercion, and partly because it provided no adequate response to the catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station on 26 April 1956, the worst nuclear accident in the world.
Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs (1995) that he laid the basis for perestroika in the years 1958-1988 and expected democratization to take place peacefully in the next phase. In fact, his reforms sparked a kind of uncontrolled revolution leading to economic chaos, political fragmentation, and self-assertion by larger and smaller ‘national groups – including Russia itself-that unraveled the Soviet Union in 1991.
More than one account has been published detailing interchanges between Moscow and Washington between 1985 and 1991 that brought about an end to the Cold War and produced significant agreements on arms control after tough negotiations.
All these accounts show the importance of individual personalities and their interactions with each other in making initiatives possible, the cleavages that existed within each side between hardliners who scorned any diminution of hostility and new thinkers hoping to bridge the chasms of mistrust through compromise.
The constant negative influence of domestic politics and media coverage in each country on the progress of bilateral negotiations without discussing these general propositions affecting all international relations, we outline the main events in US-USSR relations between 1985 and 1991.
The New Cold War of the 1980s intensified danger not only because of heightened conflict in Asia, Africa, and Central America, but because of the introduction of new and more lethal nuclear weapons into superpower arsenals and the deployment of some in Europe, as well as Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that threatened stability of the 1972 ABM Treaty by taking the arms race into space the principal Soviet and US interest was to reduce the threat posed by these weapons to their respective countries but the chasm of mistrust between them was immense.
After intricate negotiations between foreign ministers, Gorbachev awaited the outcome of the first meeting between American and Soviet heads of state since 1979. Despite their ability to communicate with each other as human beings, the two men could reach no agreement beyond the desirability of meeting again.
They did so next at Reykjavik, Iceland, on 11.-12 October 1986 and bargained seriously about eliminating offensive ballistic missiles from their arsenals within ten years, and all other nuclear weapons too. Their respective advisers were appalled by this unplanned leap their leaders had made, and relieved- when negotiations failed because Reagan refused to relinquish SDI.
(He also ignored the six-continent initiative launched by Argentina. India, Greece, Mexico, Sweden and Tanzania on behalf of NAM, calling for a worldwide moratorium on the testing, production and development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems).
Nevertheless, Reykjavik was a turning point in new thinking; it made possible the INF Treaty of December 1987 eliminating some species of missiles from Europe and opening the way for reductions in all classes of nuclear weapons subsequently agreed to in START I and II in July 1991 and January 1993.
Gorbachev’s state visit to Washington D.C. in December 1987 was a public relations triumph for him and the beginning of a personal rapport with then Vice-President George Bush that was carried forward into the next few years. For example, the US and the IMF tried to assist marketisation
Yugoslavia, a conglomerate state created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, had survived the death of its unifying leader Josip Broz Tito in May 1980 but faced intensifying tensions between the more and the less economically developed republics and shrinking resources fueled animosity among different ethnic and religious groups.
Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and Slobodan Milosevic became leader of a nationalistic Serbia determined to build a ‘Greater Serbia’ out of remaining units of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia at the cost of minority groups, including the Muslims of Bosnia and the Albanians of Kosovo.
Atrocities that came to be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ led to military conflict, expressions of international alarm, and an inadequate United Nations intervention in Bosnia in 1991-92 that, was replaced by a NATO force in late 1995 neither force could restore peace nor prevent massacres and population transfers that resulted in an ethnically-partitioned Bosnia reflected in the final; Dayton peace agreement.
Further conflict flared in Kosovo and US led-NATO forces conducted 11 weeks of air strikes on Serbia and its capital on Serbia and its capital Belgrade in 1999 before stationing peace keeping troops in Kosovo.
Milosevic was displaced and taken to face trial for ‘crimes against humanity’ at the International Tribunal in The Hague. The OSCE subsequently attempted to outline a regional strategy for dealing with crisis prevention and post-conflict rehabilitation in Europe.
The main trends of world polity in the end of 20′h century were:
(1) Increasing economic integration, or globalization, while welcomed in many prospering quarters, also quickly transmitted economic problems across national frontiers and caused societal stress. Yugoslavia suffered from Western Europe’s economic slowdown and unemployment in the 1980s.
In 1997 a financial crisis caused by rapid transfers of capital spread from south Korea through all of Southeast Asia, undercutting the dynamism hitherto displayed by the ‘Asian Tigers’ and affecting world trade negatively.
(2) The breakdown of central governmental authority in multiethnic states was accompanied often by inter-ethnic conflict and the commitment of atrocities that sometimes amounted to genocide.
The Bosnian horrors viewed on international television were equaled or exceeded by ‘humanitarian crisis’ in various parts of Africa, particularly in Rwanda in 1994 when the Hutu massacred the Tutsi people in their thousands, but also in Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire.
(3) Crisis often hit international headlines too late to be prevented or managed by multilateral diplomacy. As an association of sovereign member states, the UN did not possess the institutions, the finance, or the mechanisms to meet the challenges posed by human disasters and failing states. The inability of concerned persons to put potential crises high on the international agenda sometimes was an unavoidable tragedy, as in Rwanda.
(4) The issue of protecting human rights received increasing international attention in the aftermath of the Cold War and the Tiananmen Square event in China, with non-government organizations playing important roles in the effort both domestically and internationally.
No world-wide consensus was reached, however, on what constituted violation of human rights or how such violations were best remedied. There was even less agreement on the legitimacy or modality of ‘humanitarian intervention’ encroaching on traditional notions of state sovereignty.
(5) In the absence of effective UN or EU action the US took the lead in Bosnia and Kosovo. An image of the US a ‘hyper power’, the ‘indispensable power’, gained currency in the 1990s when it was the only remaining super-power, but also triggered expressions of preference by main world leaders for a multi-polar international system.
Thus, evident strains developed between the US and its closest allies in Europe, Japan, as well with its more recent and problematic partners, Russia and China.
The last decade of the 20th Century seemed to justify it begin called the ‘American Century’. American military spending was more than the next 15 military budgets added together, US military power was overwhelmingly superior to that of every other country and truly global in its reach.
Within the US there were many references to the illusionary or transient nature of a un polar world and speculation on how a rising power, such as China, could be accommodated or changes in the international system be brought about peacefully.
At the same time, Samuel Huntington, an eminent political scientist, seemed to predict protracted conflict between the Judeo-Christian West and other major civilizations such as the Islamic or Since, in his widely read Clash of Civilizations.