Summary of "International Conflicts After the Cold War"

Summary of

International Conflicts After the Cold War

By Joseph Nye Jr.

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Joseph Nye, Jr., "International Conflicts After the Cold War," in Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War World: The Role of Intervention. Report of the Aspen Institute Conference, August 2-6, 1995, (Aspen, Colorado: Aspen Institute, 1996) pp. 63-76.

The Concert of Europe maintained equilibrium among European nations after Napoleon's defeat. It included former adversaries, as well as former allies. In time, the Concert broke up as newly democratic nations refused to cooperate with older monarchies. The break up of the Concert led, in part, to World War I.

Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations followed the first world war. The harsh treaty terms stirred up unrest in Germany. Weak enforcement of the Treaty then allowed the unrest to turn into aggression. The League requirement for consensus in order to act made it unable to respond to member nation's aggression. The failure of these institutions led in part to the Second World War.

United Nations, NATO and the Warsaw Pact defined the international system during the Cold War. During this time, the international system took on a bipolar character which inadvertently suppressed more regional or nationalistic conflicts. The system has been effective in preventing violent global conflicts.

Sources of Great Power Conflict

There are two general approaches to understanding the causes of international conflict. Realists argue that "wars arise from the efforts of states to acquire power and security in an anarchic world."[p. 66] Realism implies a pessimistic view of the usefulness of international institutions in preventing conflicts. Strong international institutions can only exist when there is sufficient agreement among the great powers to allow them to exist. Disharmony among great powers makes strong international institutions impossible.

Liberals argue that conflicts "are determined not only by the balance of power, but by the domestic structure of states, their values, identities and cultures and international institutions for conflict resolution."[p. 66] Liberalism supports trade, since trade makes nations more interdependent, and so less likely to go to war. Liberals also note the democratic nations almost never war against one another.

Nye argues that neither view is adequate on its own. By drawing upon elements of both perspectives, Nye describes two sources of great power conflict. First, power transitions often lead to conflict. Declining nations may attempt to put down rising competitors. Sensing weakness, growing nations may attack declining ones to secure a more favorable place in the international system. The present era is one of dramatic power transitions. However, Nye argues that "the United States is the only true superpower, with global assets in all the dimensions of power."[p. 67] Were the U.S. in decline, great powers conflict would be more likely. As it stands the U.S.'s enduring and clearly superior position tends to stabilize the international system.

Second, the nature of power and the ways in which power is exercised, play important roles in causing or preventing conflicts. Nye argues against the liberal views that economic power has not eclipsed military power in international importance. However, the use of military force has become both more expensive and less effective. Nye points out that, "Rising powers have fewer incentives for territorial aggression than they have had throughout most of history because the route to prestige, power and economic success in the modern era lies in high technology production and human capital."[p. 68]

At present, the nature of power and of power transitions makes military conflict between the great powers highly unlikely. Adding to this stability is the fact that Europe and Japan, two leading powers, are both democratic and closely allied to the U.S. Nye says that "shared values, stable expectations, and interlocking institutions have become so powerful among these three power centers that wars among them...are unthinkable."[p. 69]

Other great powers are less stable. In the post-Cold War era both Russia and China are changing unpredictably. Nye argues that "efforts by the democratic great powers to engage China and Russia in the international community and to urge them to make their intentions and military forces transparent are the best means of limiting the potential for conflicts."[p. 69] This policy has seen some success with China. China has signed on to the Nonproliferation Treaty. China also participates in several regional multinational groups. Engagement with Russia seems even more promising.

Nye compares this engagement approach with the early Concert of Europe. And just as the Concert was undermined by domestic changes of its member nations, Nye warns that domestic changes within Russia or China could threaten great power stability. Even so, the author concludes that "a strong counter- balancing coalition of democratic great powers, nuclear deterrence, and the limited benefits of territorial conquest would continue to make direct great power conflict unlikely."[p. 70]

Regional Conflicts

Regional conflicts seem more likely than great power conflicts. Regional conflicts occur when one nation attempts to establish regional hegemony. Such conflict will tend to draw the participation of the great powers. However, Nye argues that the great powers will likely be united in their view of regional aggressors as threats to international stability. Confronting united great power opposition, aggressors will find few allies.

A certain number of states will be willing to go it alone, however. When regional military conflict occurs, great powers must act to contain the threat and put down the aggression. Currently Iran, Iraq, and North Korea pose the greatest likelihood of regional conflict. Allied great power forces have proven successful at putting down Iraqi aggression, and deterring further aggression. The U.S. in particular must maintain its military capacity to respond to such regional conflicts.

Communal Conflicts

Communal conflicts occur at three levels. They may involve transnational identities, for example Islam. They may turn on national identities. Or they may exploit subnational identities, such as particular religious or linguistic groups.

The globalized economy has undermined states' sovereignty and independence, and so undermined the power and legitimacy of many governments. Economic changes have also threatened many group identities and communities. Such groups "have become susceptible to the parochial political appeals of political, national, and ethnic demagogues who hope to seize power in states whose governments have been weakened by the collapse of communism or the ebb and flow of the global economy."[p. 72] States which lack a strong central government are also at risk for communal conflict. Modern communications makes such appeals more effective. In many cases comparatively minor differences have been exaggerated into the grounds for bloody conflict.

Nye argues that two dynamics give rise to communal conflicts in such weakened nations. First, "established mechanisms for mediating conflicts lose force in delegitimized states."[p. 73] Second, ethnic identities are seen as offering alternative grounds of legitimacy.

The democratic great powers are not directly at risk from communal conflicts. However, via modern communications and media, communal conflicts do have a domestic effect on the democratic great powers. News of human suffering encourages support for intervention. News of soldiers wounded, killed or taken hostage encourages public support for withdrawal. Participants on both sides of such conflicts often seek to exploit this effect. Moreover, such sympathy-based motivation produces uneven and changeable policies among the outside nations. Together these result in "difficulty for the leading democracies of engaging in consistent, coordinated, and long-term approaches to communal conflicts."[p. 74]

Communal conflicts are the most common type of conflict in the post-Cold War era. Although communal conflicts are generally less devastating than global or regional conflicts, they are still very problematic. First, most existing international institutions have been designed to manage interstate conflicts. Communal conflicts may be internal or cut across state lines and so are difficult for such institutions to manage. Second, communal conflicts have the potential to escalate horizontally throughout the region, by "the involvement of affiliated ethnic groups that spread across borders, the sudden flood of refugees into neighboring states, or the use of neighboring territories to ship weapons to combatants."[p. 74] Communal conflicts also have the potential to escalate in intensity and violence.


Realists describe conflicts in terms of power balance, military capabilities and territorial interests. Currently these factors favor a stable system of regional and global conflict deterrence. The liberal approach to conflicts seems to be more helpful in understanding the remaining communal conflicts. Such conflicts are driven by domestic issues, and by identity, culture and value conflicts.

The liberal analysis of conflicts sees a significant role for international institutions in conflict management. Current international institutions need to be strengthened and new approaches developed. Institutions which allow for both multilateral and unilateral interventions are needed.