Category Archives: United Nations

Military Superiority Leads to Decline

As the twentieth century ended and the specter of the Cold War appeared to be fading into history, political scientists pondered the question of how a new world order would take shape under the direction of a victorious superpower. As John Ikenberry stated, victors try “to find ways to set limits on their powers and make it acceptable to other states.”[1] The United States, having spent a century building its image as military power determined to protect the world from evil and in doing so spread democracy, found itself in a dilemma. While talking heads and braggarts proclaimed U.S. superpower greatness, diplomats faced the harsh reality that yesterday’s protector can quickly become today’s bully and tomorrow’s enemy. Additionally, the economic strain military spending places on a society can become politically detrimental once victory occurs. In the past it was said that to the victor goes the spoils, but in modern times with plundering being frowned upon, the victor tends to win a headache both at home and abroad without seeing any real benefit. Without change in policy, particularly policy pertaining to its military superiority and status, a victorious nation discovers that military superiority can lead to economic and political decline.

Of the many headaches the United States developed as a single superpower in the years following the end of the Cold War, probably the most contentious one was the headache of being asked to intervene in conflicts great and small. Seldom was there a clear right side and wrong side to support. In many cases the crises that prompted the debate over intervention occurred in regions that had been previously under the political, economic, and military supervision of the Soviet Union. Even when using the umbrella of the United Nations, U.S. intervention could stir conflicting emotions in the crisis region. The United States had been both the enemy and possessor of enviable commodities for fifty years. Envy and distrust were not feelings easily eradicated simply because war was over. In a world that seemed to be rupturing in the absence of Cold War superpower dominance, the United States struggled with its expanded role of policeman, banker, and social worker.

Military dominance, which had spurred the U.S. economy in the years following World War II, became a burden following the end of the Cold War. In the wake of international cooperation and the perception of peace, nations could shift away from military technology as a basis of economic growth. Nations which remained entrenched in military development became economically dependent on wars that seldom required Cold War technology. Furthermore, Cold War technology had been all about fighting a war from a distance, and the conflicts of the twenty-first century required boots on the ground. When President Truman and President Eisenhower put their support behind the development of nuclear technology and behind the technology to deliver nuclear weapons from a distance, part of their justification was that it would save U.S. casualty and hypothetically shorten, if not prevent war. Their reasoning was based predominantly on the notion that nations would fight nations, and that the days of tribal warfare were becoming part of the past. When the theories and perception of modern war shifted after the attacks on the United States in 2001, the world powers seemed taken by surprise. When the Second Gulf War did not produce the results predicted, when peace did not flourish, and when terrorism spread rather than diminished, the United States seemed not only surprised but confused. The U.S. war strategy and military development, so honed during the twentieth century, did not work in the twenty-first. A nation which had grown powerful through military superiority, found itself the targeted enemy rather than the celebrated hero. Furthermore, it found itself struggling to justify increasing national debt, made larger due to wars that seemed to have no end. Like many great powers which had come before, the United States faced decline despite continued military superiority. In fact, it could be argued, the United States faced decline because of its military superiority.




[1] John G. Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), xi.


Further Reading

Hixson, Walter L. The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Power and Chaos

Prior to the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, three great powers balanced the Western World: Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Far East and the Americas were still peripheral, with only the United States disrupting the colonial empire system in any fundamental way during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the three great empires faced ever-growing challenges as nationalistic zeal spread worldwide. In response to the chaos created by the both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the great powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia chose to form an alliance that they hoped would prevent a repeat of the decades of war. They also redoubled their efforts to contain and control their own territories. The great threat to political stability came from two entities: empire seekers and nationalistic zealots. Control and contain both, and it was believed that chaos could be avoided. Yet as well conceived as the Concert of Europe was for the age, there was an inherent flaw in the concert system. The very nature of forming alliances to prevent imperial expansion or nationalistic revolution also entangled the great nations, and would, in the early twentieth century, lead them into another great international conflict. Fear became the demon; fear of what would happen if a nation chose not to honor the treaties and pacts.

The twentieth century saw the rupture of empires and the colonial system that had made the empires great. While the rupture was often bloody and chaotic, there remained a level of control because as the great empires of the past declined, two even greater empires replaced them. Historians and political scientists argue over whether these two great nations ever became empires in the true sense, or if they were only empires of influence during the second half of the twentieth century. They do, however, agree that the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War suppressed a great deal of the chaos that might have erupted as colonial shackles were lifted and fledgling states emerged as independent nations. As fifty years of Cold War ended, and ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly, the world faced a daunting task of answering the ultimate question. What would come next?

One political scientist suggested an answer to the question. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[1] Unlike the independence movements that plagued international stability in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century, the twenty-first century has seen a greater surge of culturally driven conflicts, some contained to rhetorical mudslinging, and some violent, bloody, and devastating to the peoples who get in the way of power seeking individuals who achieve dominance through the spread of chaos. The rise in cultural conflict has grown during the last decade and it threatens both stable and week nations alike. It is not limited to the traditionally war-torn regions of the world, and it will take cooperation to counter it. Like the great nations that faced the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of today must find a way to combat this growing crisis; a way that recognizes that the chaos is the goal of the enemy and not simply a byproduct.



Further Reading

Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).


End Notes

[1] Gideon Rose,  ed. The Clash at 20, E-book (Foreign Affairs, 2013),


Sword Rattling and Stability

Current world events have again highlighted historic tendencies, in particular the tendency of great nations to deflect attention from their own unpopular policies by bringing attention to the unpopular policies of others. Often times this action can lead to a great deal of sword rattling and a call for intervention or peacekeeping efforts. During the Cold War the United Nations was hobbled by competing spheres of interest and was prevented from taking action in areas dominated by the superpowers, particularly in the ‘backyards’ of the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Cold War has ended, the international community still finds itself constrained when conflict erupts in a powerful nation’s backyard. As current events focus attention on Russia and Ukraine, it is interesting to look back at a time when the United States placed regional stability over a nation’s sovereignty.

On June 20, 1954, the United Nations held an emergency Security Council meeting to consider an appeal made by the Guatemalan government claiming that Guatemala had received hostile treatment from exterior sources and was under threat of invasion. The Soviet Union supported an investigation, France and Great Britain believed the United Nation had authority to investigate and were supportive of an investigation, but the United States was set against any UN involvement. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., stated, “Stay out of this hemisphere and do not try to start your plans and conspiracies over here.”[1] While his words were directed to the Soviet Union, his message was received by all.

In her article “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” Jenny Pearce wrote the following statement.

“The United States’ historic lack of interest in what it dismissively referred to as its ‘backyard’, and its concern with stability first and foremost, meant that the exclusionary dynamic of the years of post-Second World War growth in Central America, at both the political and the economic level, was deemed of little importance.”[2]

Pearce was correct in her assessment that “stability” was “first and foremost” in U.S. consideration. Nationalist reform, economic growth, and political ethics were of little concern to the United States during the Cold War, at least in its ‘backyard’. Stability meant keeping the status quo, and the United States was willing to work with dictators if said dictators kept any and all vestiges of communism out of the region, or in other words, remained friendly to the United States.

The Guatemalan request made to the UN Security Council was handed off to the Organization of American States (OAS) where it received little to no actual investigation but rather generated a counter accusation that Guatemala was a regional security risk because it had permitted a communist party to formally establish. Within just a few days of the UN emergency meeting, President Arbenz of Guatemala resigned due, in large part, to the invasionary force that had crossed the border in to Guatemala; a force supplied, trained, and supported by the CIA.

In the sixty-one years since the crisis in Guatemala much has changed in the world. However when it comes to the backyard of a powerful nation, the international community is still resistant to challenge regional hegemony. Stability in a region, albeit a stability by force, often speaks louder than any sword rattling or resultant calls for intervention.





[1] Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 171.

[2] Jenny Pearce, “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” International Affairs 74, no. 3 (July 1998): 593. (accessed September 15, 2013).