April 2, 2013
An era ended when the Soviet Union collapsed on Dec. 31, 1991. The confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the Cold War period. The collapse of Europe framed that confrontation. After World War II, the Soviet and American armies occupied Europe. Both towered over the remnants of Europe's forces. The collapse of the European imperial system, the emergence of new states and a struggle between the Soviets and Americans for domination and influence also defined the confrontation. There were, of course, many other aspects and phases of the confrontation, but in the end, the Cold War was a struggle built on Europe's decline.
Many shifts in the international system accompanied the end of the Cold War. In fact, 1991 was an extraordinary and defining year. The Japanese economic miracle ended. China after Tiananmen Square inherited Japan's place as a rapidly growing, export-based economy, one defined by the continued pre-eminence of the Chinese Communist Party. The Maastricht Treaty was formulated, creating the structure of the subsequent European Union. A vast coalition dominated by the United States reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Three things defined the post-Cold War world. The first was U.S. power. The second was the rise of China as the center of global industrial growth based on low wages. The third was the re-emergence of Europe as a massive, integrated economic power. Meanwhile, Russia, the main remnant of the Soviet Union, reeled while Japan shifted to a dramatically different economic mode.
The post-Cold War world had two phases. The first lasted from Dec. 31, 1991, until Sept. 11, 2001. The second lasted from 9/11 until now.
The initial phase of the post-Cold War world was built on two assumptions. The first assumption was that the United States was the dominant political and military power but that such power was less significant than before, since economics was the new focus. The second phase still revolved around the three Great Powers -- the United States, China and Europe -- but involved a major shift in the worldview of the United States, which then assumed that pre-eminence included the power to reshape the Islamic world through military action while China and Europe single-mindedly focused on economic matters.
The Three Pillars of the International System
In this new era, Europe is reeling economically and is divided politically. The idea of Europe codified in Maastricht no longer defines Europe. Like the Japanese economic miracle before it, the Chinese economic miracle is drawing to a close and Beijing is beginning to examine its military options. The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan and reconsidering the relationship between global pre-eminence and global omnipotence. Nothing is as it was in 1991.
Europe primarily defined itself as an economic power, with sovereignty largely retained by its members but shaped by the rule of the European Union. Europe tried to have it all: economic integration and individual states. But now this untenable idea has reached its end and Europe is fragmenting. One region, including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, has low unemployment. The other region on the periphery has high or extraordinarily high unemployment.