Post-Cold War Era 1990-2022

The end of the Cold War brought about a new era of optimism. Conflict was wound down in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Mozambique and the United Nations brokered an accord that saw Vietnam withdraw from Cambodia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and posed a threat to Saudi Arabia the response was a brutally overwhelming demonstration of force from a United States led coalition that included Western and Arab states. A brave new world beckoned in which the United States would act as global policeman under the auspices of the UN. This short period of triumphalism was known as the ‘New World Order’.

The next decade saw these hopes dashed. In Algeria the democratic project was cut short when the Army realised that the Islamist FIS would win and a bloody, decade long civil war erupted. In Central Africa the decades long animosity between Hutu and Tutsi escalated from massacres to genocide as up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. In Europe, Yugoslavia splintered violently and from the horror in Bosnia Herzegovina a new term entered the lexicon of international relations: ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the Caucasus during 1991 the Chechen secessionists broke free of the Russian Federation and Russia prevaricated for three years before launching an ill fated invasion that led to a bloody 21 month war. The post-Cold War would be a period in which inter-state violence was significantly reduced, but intra-state violence characterised by entrenched hatred and ethnic violence would be the norm. Irregular warfare, which includes insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism, became the dominant forms of armed violence and distinctions between soldier and civilian, friend and enemy, war and peace became blurred. In the years since the end of the Cold War four overlapping trends in armed conflict have emerged

The event that would come to define the violence of the early 21st century was the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Armed violence was, and is, prevalent across the world, with central Africa and northern Nigeria being only two examples, but 9/11 struck at a global superpower and produced a major, flawed, response.  The subsequent Global War on Terror (GWOT) led to the demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The war against al-Qaeda has a had a major impact on the fortunes of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and the demonstrable ability of the United States and its allies to invade Afghanistan and Iraq is matched by their failure in their occupation and goals of state building. This, the first trend, more accurately understood as the ‘terror wars’, has seen al-Qaeda crippled, but with numerous offshoots, or ‘franchises’ emerging, one of which was in Iraq and would develop into the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). ISIS became the primary focus of the terror wars, effectively becoming an insurgency and at the same time influencing terrorist attacks in the US and Europe. Its defeat in Syria and Iraq came at the hands of every other actor in the theatre, but the organisation remains active in a weakened state. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have a presence in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, where local rivalries merge with Islamic fundamentalism.

A consequence of the focus of the terror wars on Afghanistan and Iraq is that other protracted political conflicts drawing on ethnicity, identity, or religion, but with specifically local concerns were overlooked. These are the second major trend and include the Caucasus, Darfur, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, Kashmir, Nagaland, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are also examples of this trend. Intra-state conflicts, which are prevalent in countries where borders were defined by outsiders or were colonised, are the most common type of conflict by far. The underlying causes are predominantly political and involve competition over resources and territory, but once ethnicity, identity, and religion are mobilised the violence becomes increasingly complex and sectarian, and more difficult to resolve. The resolution of one conflict can lead to another, such as the conflict in South Sudan, after independence from Sudan. The consequences of conflict cross borders easily. The Rohingya of Myanmar, ethnically cleansed from their homes, reside in camps in Bangladesh, part of a global refugee diaspora. The beginning of the Congo wars, centred on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), began with an incursion by Rwanda linked to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. The actors involved in violence also change, with those in the Central African Republic (CAR) different to those from its civil war. This second major trend could also be understood in terms of complexity, with the central Sahel region, centred on the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger being one example, and the conflict in northern Ethiopia another. In recent years armed conflict has occurred in Cameroon, Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, and Myanmar.

A third major trend is the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’, a convulsion that has reached across the entire Arab world and in its worst outcomes has seen Libya, Yemen and Syria descend into civil war, transitions of power in Egypt, and the rise of the Islamic State insurgency in Syria and Iraq. These have local causes and in the cases of Iraq and Syria there are also impacts from the occupation of Iraq. The various uprisings and protests that began in 2010 came about through the demands of the peoples of each country for more representative governance, a better quality of life and human rights. The response by governments has varied from concessions in Jordan to outright repression in Syria, with only Tunisia moving towards democratic governance. In some cases, the ‘Arab Spring’ has been followed by the ‘Arab Winter’.  While there is a tension between autocratic rule and representation and the role of Islam in politics, each situation is unique, and once autocratic rule was challenged and fighting began, ethnicity, identity, and religion, became major sources of division. The three most devasting and protracted conflicts have been internationalised. The West intervened directly in Libya, but this was followed by a civil war in which the sides were backed by regional actors, such as Turkey and the UAE. In Yemen, rebel Houthis were backed by Iran, and the government by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but this hid other divisions and the Houthi uprising in 2011 was part of a longer trend. The conflict in Syria is the most complex by far, as while it began as an uprising following a crackdown by the Assad regime, with the opposition backed by the West, Gulf states, and Turkey, this core conflict became one part of a wider catastrophe. Military support for the opposition was piecemeal and conditional, but Iranian and Russian support for the struggling Assad regime was decisive. The rise of ISIS and their attacks on Kurdish towns resulted in direct Western intervention, but the resulting dominance in the north by Kurdish forces brought about a major incursion by Turkey and the occupation of northern Syria. Israel has repeatedly attacked targets linked to Hezbollah and Iran. In all three cases, intervention made the conflict more destructive, and while the West and Russia did become involved, regional actors demonstrated a greater propensity and capability to intervene in support of their allies and interests.

The fourth major trend is the re-emergence of Cold War rivalries. In truth, these never went away as despite the withdrawal of US and Soviet forces from Europe and reductions in nuclear weapons submarines still patrolled with nuclear warheads and the question of Russia’s place in the world remained unresolved. Tied into this was the rise of China as a major economic, political, and military power, one increasingly able to assert its influence. In Europe, the European Union (EU) has expanded to include former communist states, including Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, and the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. NATO has also expanded as countries seek the security of membership of the alliance, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania being ones that the Russian leadership has found hard to accept. The consequences are that the Russian leadership is under increasing pressure from the political and socio-economic power of the EU and faces a closer and larger NATO alliance. In the Asia-Pacific region, China’s military modernisation and increasing assertiveness led the United States to move its focus away from Europe and to allies in the region. An increasingly assertive China, which has modernised its military and expanded its infrastructure in the region, is competing with neighbouring countries over access to resources in the South China Sea. Some of these countries are allies of the US, and there is a longstanding dispute over the status of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a part of China, but is backed by the US. There are other rivalries in international politics, with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and India and Pakistan being examples, but those between NATO and the EU with Russia, and the US with China, have the potential to escalate at the global level.

Armed conflict returned to Europe in 2014 in the wake of a revolution in Ukraine after the President delayed an association agreement with the EU. Protests then broke out in eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea, against closer links to the EU. This escalated into the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of armed conflict between the government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. While there were significant political problems in Ukraine prior to the 2014 revolution, notably a division over orientation to the EU or Russia, it was only after a decisive lean to the EU at the expense of Russian trade agreements that organised violence began. The major fighting was brought to a halt by peace agreements but there were daily ceasefire violations. Relations between the West and Russia plummeted, sanctions were put in place, but Crimea remained under Russian occupation and the conflict in the Donbass remained unresolved. Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 relations between the West and Russia and between Russia and neighbouring states have dropped to their lowest since the Cold War. The Russian leadership had repeatedly cited encirclement by the EU and NATO as a major security concern, but neighbouring states had joined NATO out of concern for their own security. This situation has been made worse by the attack on Ukraine, to which everything short of a direct confrontation between the West and Russia has been the response.

Editor’s note: This content was substantially revised on the 15.08.22 and replaces the text of an earlier version. This updated the text to 2022 and included more examples from the global south.