As our first post-Cold War president, Bill Clinton was faced with an entirely new content for international politics when he came into office in 1993. Now, sixteen years later, Barack Obama comes to office as our first post post-Cold War President. And while the end of the Cold War was a major international news story, the end of the post-Cold War period is much less clear or decisive. If the Cold War ended with a bang, the post-Cold War ended with a whimper (or perhaps a tweet). And now that the post-Cold War paradigm is no longer our frame for international relations, President Obama is operating in a vastly different foreign policy environment than either of his two predecessors were.
The post-Cold War period lasted from about 1992-2008 and overlapped almost precisely with the Clinton and Bush administrations. It was the era of American hegemony, bolstered not only by American economic and military might, but also by the power and popularity of American economic and political ideas. Other aspects of the post-Cold War era include the expansion of American and European influence to the former Communist world; the rise of non-state actors, such as international terrorist networks, as major threats to western security; and increasing economic interconnectedness and growth.
Though September 11th bifurcated the post-Cold War era and changed the focus of U.S. foreign policy, all this occurred within the framework of the post-Cold War. The U.S. was still the dominant power; economies continued to be strong; and the threats were distinctively non-state.
So what ended the post-Cold War period? Both gradual and sudden factors. American hegemony fell apart, accelerated by misguided foreign policy decisions such as Iraq. Russia’s resurgence, and more importantly, China’s emergence in addition to that of other powerful regional actors, also weakened American dominance. The economic downturn in 2008 also shattered the post-Cold War era, bringing an end not only to a period of economic growth, but also calling the wisdom of America’s economic models into question. The war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 was another contributing factor to-and evidence of-the end of the post-Cold War. It demonstrated Russia’s willingness to use its military to assert influence in its “near abroad.” Then there was China’s growing economic influence in Southeast Asia, the stalling of democratic promotion, and the effects of Afghanistan and Iraq on U.S. power.
At the core of Obama’s foreign policy decisions will be determining the rules and strategies for the post post-Cold War. Some of this is clear already. Though the U.S. can still be a leader on a range of issues, American cooperation with traditional allies has become much more important than it was a decade ago because of the rise of rival powers. Just as we’ve gotten used to a world of non-state actors, traditional bilateral relations with China and Russia (and some others) has taken on new relevance.
Perhaps the most important change of the post post-Cold War era will be the limits on American power. Not only has the U.S. been thwarted in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our ability to help allies in peril, like Georgia in 2008, or to intervene to prevent genocide, as in Darfur, is also far more marginal than it was a decade ago.
The post post-Cold War era does not mean the end of U.S. power. To borrow a line from Monty Python, the U.S. is “not yet dead.” Granted, U.S. dominance is not what it was during the post-Cold War, but the country is still very powerful. The challenge will now be determining how to adapt to this new context and use U.S. power accordingly. An inability to recognize these changes will only lead to more frustration and continued foreign policy failures.