Toward the Post-Cold War World

For the first time in over half a century, no single great power, or coalition of powers, poses a "clear and present danger" to the national security of the United States. The end of the Cold War has left Americans in the fortunate position of being without an obvious major adversary. Given the costs of confronting adversaries who have been all too obvious since the beginning of World War II, that is a condition worthy of greater appreciation than it has so far received.

It would be foolish to claim, though, that the United States after 1991 can return to the role it played in world affairs before 1941. For as the history of the 1930s suggests, the absence of imminent threat is no guarantee that threats do not exist. Nor will the isolationism of that era be possible in the 1990s. Advances in military technology and the progress of economic integration have long since removed the insulation from the rest of the world that geographical distance used to provide. The passing of the Cold War world by no means implies an end to American involvement in whatever world is to follow; it only means that the nature and the extent of that involvement are not yet clear.

Finding one's way through unfamiliar terrain generally requires a map of some sort. Cartography, like cognition itself, is a necessary simplification that allows us to see where we are, and where we may be going. The assertion that the world was divided between the forces of democracy and those of totalitarianism-to use the precise distinction made in President Harry S. Truman's announcement of the Truman Doctrine-was of course a vast simplification of what was actually happening in 1947. But it was probably a necessary one: it was an exercise in geopolitical cartography that depicted the international landscape in terms everyone could understand, and so doing prepared the way for the more sophisticated strategy of containment that was soon to follow.

The end of the Cold War was too sweeping a defeat for totalitarianism-and too sweeping a victory for democracy-for this old geopolitical map to be of use any longer. But another form of competition has been emerging that could be just as stark and just as pervasive as was the rivalry between democracy and totalitarianism at the height of the Cold War: it is the contest between forces of integration and fragmentation in the contemporary international environment. The search for a new geopolitical cartography might well begin here.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis