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The End of the Cold War and the United Nations Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 19 March 2017

The End of the Cold War and the United Nations


The end of the Cold War ushered in many significant changes in the international system. Many of these changes are seen to provide an impetus for the reestablishment of multilateralism and the collective security approach to the maintenance of international peace and security, under the aegis of the United Nations. The multilateral movement gathered momentum over the first few years of the post-Cold War era and saw a number of peacekeeping missions mandated by the United Nations across the World.

However, a careful inspection of these missions, and other instances when any action failed to materialize, reveals that much of the impetus gained from the end of the Cold War conflict was lost due. Several factors contributed to this outcome, not least a lack of political will on the part of the United Nations and the Member States. The essay concludes by looking at the present situation and arguing that a similar opportunity as the one in 1991 has presented itself, leaving the United Nations in particular, and multilateralism in general, with a chance to redeem itself.

Introduction: The UN during the Cold War

            The end of the Second World War and the institution of the United Nations in 1945 were landmark events in the history of the world. While the conclusion of the War marked the demise of European imperialism (though the decolonisation process would continue till 1966), it also signalled a change in the norms of international society. Based on the principles of collective security, as elaborated in the Charter of the United Nations, these emergent norms sanctified (international) territorial boundaries, promising to usher in a new era of international history.

However, the optimism and confidence which surrounded the formation of the United Nations – as a forward-looking model of international cooperation – was soon disturbed by the Soviet Union’s entry into the nuclear club in 1949. This was the beginning of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, which mired international politics, as well as the UN, in an ideological conflict for the next four and a half decades.

            Though the specifics of how the Cold War was fought fall outside the ambit of this paper, it is important to note its effects on the functioning of the UN. The composition of the UN Security Council – the organ charged with the maintenance of international peace and security – becomes salient here: as permanent members, both the United States and Soviet Union exercised the power of the veto (a single veto from any permanent being enough to sink a Security Council resolution), according to their geopolitical interests (see UN General Assembly, 2004, p. 13-19). This crippled the development of the UN, while consequently stunting the evolution of multilateralism.

Changes at the End of the Cold War: Impetus to UN Multilateralism

            The end of the Cold War, in 1991, brought with it a renewed optimism and injected fresh vigour into the UN; finally rid of the ideological divide of the previous decades, the new situation led some scholars to say that:

The end of the Cold War lifts a central obstacle to the strengthening of multilateral peacekeeping and the extension of multilateral operations beyond traditional peacekeeping tasks. A revived United Nations Security Council and energetic Secretary-General are the global [centre] of this rapidly evolving effort… (Roper, Nishihara, Otunnu and Schoettle, 1993, p. 1).

Concomitant to this belief, the number of peacekeeping operation of the UN increased, along with the establishment of the UN Protective Force (UNPROFOR) – made famous by its engagements in Bosnia – in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, to truly understand the impact of the end of the Cold War on the UN, and its efforts to strengthen multilateralism, we must be appreciative of what actually changed at the “end of history” (Fukuyama, 1993).

            An era of post-internationalism, defined by a complex system of relations between nation-states and non-state actors, was thought to be the most probable outcome of the end of the Cold War (Rosenau, 1990). In reality, the most important changes occurring in the international system were:

  1. The emergence of a unipolar world – with the United States as the lone superpower – though there was a brief debate over the possibility of a return to (a somewhat Westphalian) multipolarity.
  2. The structural and ideological impediments to the UN’s operations disappeared, resulting in an environment (apparently) conducive to international cooperation.
  3. The emergence of “New Wars,” which were intra-state affairs, and fuelled by ethno-religious and cultural divides (Kaldor, 1999).
  4. The intensification of the process of globalization, rapidly intertwining the national economies of the world into the world economy and with each other, meaning that conflicts would produce more stakeholders interested in their resolution.

These changes made for an opportunity for the UN to capitalise on the changing dimensions of international politics and drive home the advantage for the renewed consensus for multilateralism.

            The American preponderance in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War meant that the future of multilateralism would depend, to a great extent, on the willingness of the United States to support and participate in the operations of the UN. This dependence was only natural: the US was the most economically and militarily dominant power at the time, and for any successful venture on the part of the UN, US assistance (or at the very least, support) was essential.

Because of the US’ political importance, Security Council resolutions backed by the country were more persuasive and influential than earlier, thus accelerating the strengthening of the UN’s multilateral foundations. Initially, the United States readily participated in UN-backed interventions and peacekeeping missions – in Iraq/Kuwait (1990) and Somalia (1992) – which coincided with its policy of “aggressive involvement” in response to international peace and security at the time (Art, 2003, p. 2-3). Thus, American primacy at the end of the Cold War provided a great impetus to UN-led multilateralism.

            The fall of the East/West divide provided an opportunity to expand the realm of the UN’s multilateral operations beyond that of traditional peacekeeping, to include such areas of peace-building as providing humanitarian assistance, transitions to democratic governments and helping with national reconstruction in post-conflict scenarios.

This expanding perspective was explained by the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to have occurred as a direct consequence of the demise of Cold War animosities amongst the permanent members of the Security Council (1992). The proliferation of UN missions in the early 1990s – to Somalia, Cambodia, Namibia, Western Sahara, Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, El Salvador and Mozambique – goes to show how much of an impetus the removal of structural impediments gave to the UN at the end of the Cold War.

            The emergence of New Wars called for a change in the understanding of intra-state violence, along with a wider interpretation of the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (UN, 1945). During the Cold War, the principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention were paramount; according to Article 2(7) of the Charter,

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter… (1945.)

However, in the post-Cold War era, there has been a considerable shift towards embracing the principles of internal justice (i.e. within states) and individual rights, which require the maintenance of certain universally accepted standards (Taylor and Curtis, 2003, p. 415). This movement towards a semblance of global governance also resulted from the impetus gained from the end of the Cold War.

For example, the intervention in Kosovo (late-1990s) was purely on humanitarian grounds, and explicitly breached the (now contested) sovereignty of the Republic of Serbia. On the other hand, the intervention in Somalia was carried out at the state’s request, while that in Iraq (in 1990) depended on Memorandums of Understanding between the UN and Saddam Hussein. In all of these cases, however, the increasing tendency of multilateral involvement in the domestic affairs of states cannot be overlooked.

            Due to the political and economic structural adjustment policies (enforced by the IMF against the supply of loans) experienced in many parts of the world during the 1980s, the end of the Cold War came at a time when the process of globalization had already taken shape to a certain degree. This process meant the expansion of markets, along with goods and services, across the world, making countries increasingly interdependent. Thus conflict, in any part of the world, now has the potential to disrupt more than a handful of national economies.

Hence, there are more takers for multilateral action to resolve conflicts, especially after the (formal) removal of ideological differences within the UN after 1991. For example, in the case of the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, countries as diverse as Nepal, Fiji, Argentina, Senegal and Iceland, among many others, contributed personnel and supplies to the UN. This was another impetus received by the UN at the end of the Cold War, strengthening its role in multilateral ventures.

            Indeed, the renewed energy exhibited by the Member States of the UN to multilaterally solve international conflicts is evidenced by the fact that peacekeeping operations undertaken after the Cold War easily outnumber those mandated during 1945 to 1990 (UN Peacekeeping, 2008). There has also been an improved dynamism in the Security Council and the General Assembly since 1990, shown by the rise in the number of resolutions proposed and adopted, as against the oftentimes deadlocked scenario of the Cold War (UN Documentation Centre, 2008). These facts show the momentum gained by multilateralism, under the aegis of the UN, in the post-Cold War era.

An Evaluation of Post-Cold War Multilateralism

            It is important, however, to make a crucial qualification at this point: greater involvement through the multilateral framework does not tantamount to success in resolving or preventing international conflicts. If we are to make an analytical examination of how far the end of the Cold war proved to be an impetus for the reestablishment of the UN as the focal point for multilateral projects, we must judge the same in terms of what they achieved. The possibilities that the termination of the East/West conflict held for the UN have already been discussed; now, we shall attempt to provide a critical analysis of how multilateralism has fared to obtain the true nature of the impetus in question.

            Throughout the UN’s existence, the question of intervention to stop genocide (or for genocide prevention) has been a thorn in its side. The history of the UN is replete with cases of genocide – Uganda (1970s), Paraguay (1974), Democratic Kampuchea (1975-78), Bangladesh (1970-71) and Burundi (1972-73) – where it did not take any concrete steps to stop the conflict (Kuper 1982). Regardless of the changes found in the post-Cold War era, the “right to intervene” (jus ad bellum, or humanitarian intervention), has only been enforced in Kosovo (Taylor and Curtis, 2003, p. 415). The UN, however, failed to act on time in the cases of Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992-93), resulting in close to a million deaths.

In Rwanda alone, the death toll reached more than 800,000, and led Secretary-General Kofi Annan to remark: “The world failed Rwanda at that time of evil. The international community and the United Nations could not muster the political will to confront it” (quoted in Glazer, 2004, p. 167). Similarly, the Security Council has been sitting on the fence with regard to Darfur, western Sudan, where Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, with help from the central authority in Khartoum, have been systematically killing (and raping and displacing) black Africans since 2003. Due to the reluctance of the UN to label the conflict in Darfur as genocide, hundreds of thousands continue to die, while more are forced to migrate across the western border into Chad (HRW, 2006).

            Part of the blame lies with the Genocide Convention (concluded in 1948), which obliges Member Parties to “prevent and punish” any act of genocide. But, what this clause means in terms of policy directives remains unclear; many Parties are content to push for institutional solutions in these cases, while refraining to term a given situation as genocide, so that they are not dragged into a commitment of conflict resolution.

However, at the end of the Cold War, with the consensus for international cooperation and multilateral action on a high, the UN had a golden opportunity to include or append policy recommendations to the Genocide Convention. It was essential to recognise that the history of the UN’s failure to prevent genocide was a function of reluctant nation-states wary of being drawn into a long-term commitment, rather than plainly understanding it as another aspect of the East/West conflict. By oversimplifying the causes of previous failures, the UN also lost that bit of impetus which the end of the Cold War had generated.

            In addition, the multilateral movement suffered another jolt when, given the losses it incurred in Somalia (1992), the American policy slowly started shifting from aggressive involvement to selective engagement: the US, by many accounts, was only interested in taking part in such conflicts which served its national interests (Power 2002).

It was the intransigence on the part of the US which, in large measure, contributed to the debacle in Rwanda. Indeed, the fact that the US was actively involved in the Bosnian peace process was not lost on many, leading to speculation that the country was atoning for it inaction in Rwanda, while spawning more radical critiques claiming that the US was more sympathetic to conflicts in Europe and North America (Cooper, 2003). In any event, the reliance on the US for multilateral action proved shaky – a reality further reinforced by its unilateral decision to engage in a preventive war in Iraq (in 2003) – and only retarded the impetus gained in 1991.

            The UN, Kaldor argues, also suffers from weak conceptual and theoretical comprehension of “new wars” (1999). She maintains that it was not the unwillingness to provide resources, a lack of cohesion among peacekeepers or the general tendency of making policies offering short-term solutions which protracted the conflict in Bosnia. Instead, the international community failed to grasp the nature of the “new nationalism” that had steered the country into the abyss of an ethno-religious war (Kaldor, 1999, p. 53). This failure also led to the underestimation of how the war would progress; the UN peacekeeping force that reached Bosnia had neither the resources, nor the specific mandate, for conflict prevention. Hence, there was no peace to ‘keep’.

            This brings us to the issues of deployment and mandates. The UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, which was put in place to see through the transition to democracy – as part of the Arusha Accords of 1993 – employed 2,500 peacekeepers. At the outbreak of genocide in 1994, the Security Council decided to withdraw all but a tenth of the force, leaving those still remaining in Rwanda to stand by and watch the week-long massacres.

In Bosnia, the situation was hardly any better; though the total UNPROFOR contingent totalled 23,000, the requisition to the Security Council asked for 30,000 troops for the safe havens – in Srebrenica, Zepa, Tuzla, Sarajevo, Gorazde, and Bihac – alone. In the end, 7,500 troops were provided for these areas, and resources for only 3,500 could be managed (Kaldor, p. 65). Again, in Darfur, the Security Council sanctioned a peacekeeping force of 25,000 to work alongside the African Union’s 7,000-strong peacekeeping mission; however, the mission is yet to be completely deployed, owing to organisational problems.

            Most importantly, though, it is crucial to understand that whatever be the deployment, if the same is not supplied with an aggressive mandate, history shows that it is deemed to fail. An aggressive mandate would entail peace enforcement, in turn requiring a wider reading of the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Sending lightly armed peacekeepers into zones of conflict only risks their lives and achieves very little in terms of conflict prevention.

In recent years, the UN has found it preferable to mandate individual countries to enforce peace in smaller-scale incidents of violent conflict, like Australia (East Timor 1999), France (Congo, 2003) and the USA (Liberia, 2003). Whether such decisions indicate the complications of an aggressive multilateral approach is difficult to say, but these cases do suggest that unilateral solutions are sometimes simpler. The problems of troop deployment and mandates, therefore, seem to have eroded much of the impetus gained by the UN’s multilateral framework at the beginning of the post-Cold War era.

Conclusion: Opportunity Lost, Perspective Gained

            There are two important conclusions that readily derive from the above discussion. Firstly, the changes in the international system at the end of the Cold War produced a scenario where the UN remained the only organisation capable of maintaining peace. This provided a thrust to the multilateral framework which had suffered till then under the shadow of the East/West bipolarity. Without doubt, the end of the Cold War had supplied the UN with a vital impetus to re-establish multilateralism as the definitive path to peace.

Secondly, however, an evaluation of post-Cold War multilateralism reveals that this chance was squandered, leading many to call this phase of the UN’s history as “opportunity lost” (Johnson, 1999). Indeed, the breakdown of the consensus over the war in Iraq (2003) led Annan to declare that “[t]he past year has shaken the foundations of collective security and undermined confidence in the possibility of collective responses to our common problems and challenges” (quoted in UN Press Release, 2003).

            Looking forward, however, we have to contend that it is precisely the US debacle in Iraq has cast grave doubts over unilateral actions, and has prepared the ground once more for the endorsement of multilateralism. Following its initial failures in peacekeeping, the UN maintained that its role in international peace and security remained “essential” (Crossette, 1994); the reverses early on in the post-Cold War era now serve as key points of reference from which to learn and devise more viable policies.

The lessons of the past, thus, must provide the paths to the present (and the future). The opportunity given to the UN and multilateralism by the fall of the Soviet Union was spurned over the subsequent decade. The international system has again generated a similar impetus which should, this time, be treated with the utmost care and responsibility.


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Cooper, M. H. (February 23, 2003). Future of NATO. CQ Researcher, 13, 8, pp. 177-200.

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