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New post-Cold War paradigm emerging in wake of attacks


Earthshaking events appear in many forms. Some are as natural as earthquakes; some are as manmade as terrorist attacks and some are paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts? In 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced the idea of the paradigm as an accepted set of principles by which the world is viewed.

A paradigm shift occurs when one paradigm replaces another paradigm. For example, such a revolution occurred when Copernicus asserted that the earth existed in a heliocentric universe, not the geocentric one of Ptolemaic theory. This produced a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions. Humankind was no longer the center of the universe, at least spatially. The need for a profound reorientation of one’s ideas about the world one lives in becomes obvious and necessary in such a situation. As can be expected, revolutions bring real and serious problems for people, as Galileo, for one example, encountered in his appearance before the Inquisition. Old “absolutes” die hard; new “realities” are difficult to understand.

Many of us have lived long enough to have experienced two paradigm shifts of, to my way of thinking, “cosmic” proportions. One was the shift from the paradigm of World War II to the paradigm of the Cold War, from a balance of power system to a bipolar world dominated by two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a conflict to determine whether the principles of a Pax Americana or a Pax Sovietica would govern the world. It was a surreal world in which former mortal enemies became allies and former allies became mortal enemies. Weapons of mass destruction that had ended one war became the means of mutually assured destruction in a Cold War. This produced a nuclear stalemate between the superpowers, but did not prevent local wars. It was a world in which a global “balance of terror” supported “peaceful coexistence.”

The other paradigm shift many of us have experienced began with the end of the Cold War and its paradigm. The “accepted set of principles” by which nations, principally the United States and the U.S.S.R., viewed the world of that era fell apart with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The national security concerns that attended the ideologically based bipolar struggle of the two superpowers underwent a profound transformation.

Foreign policies going by the names of containment and wars of national liberation became obsolete, as did the Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower Doctrine, Nixon Doctrine, Reagan Doctrine and Brezhnev Doctrine that spawned them. Terminology such as First World, Second World and Third World lost coherence. Alliances such as the Warsaw Pact and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization ceased to exist. And so it went.

However, its successor paradigm did not have the benefit of a cosmic theory or a body of doctrines to provide an accepted set of principles to fashion a new “architecture” of the international system. The paradigm of world politics today is not the balance of power system of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which ended with World War II. It is not the bipolar system of the Cold War. The fact is, there is no clear-cut, generally accepted post-Cold War paradigm to provide insights into the twists and turns of today’s international politics, particularly in the wake of the terrorist actions of Sept. 11.

Same old geostrategies

However, it now appears certain that the United States will focus its foreign policy and national security concerns on the War Against Terrorism that has been declared by the Bush administration, a turn of events that could produce a post-Cold War paradigm of international relations. Given this situation, one can fall back upon some old and basic principles that have guided the United States in meeting previous national crises. During my teaching career over the last 35 years, geopolitics served that purpose. It is still a useful tool of analysis for providing insights into the present and the future of American foreign policy. The United States still maintains several major geostrategies that it pursued under the Cold War paradigm and its predecessors and which today still guide the use of its national security assets. They are the maritime, the continental and the hemispheric geostrategies.

The United States became a world power by establishing itself, first of all, as a sea power. Even before World War I, it adopted a maritime geostrategy. By means of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States announced its bid to become a major power. Now with the Cold War ended and the War Against Terrorism begun, its future as a great power still depends upon its maintaining the same geopolitical base. The use of the world ocean for conducting trade and protecting national security, while also denying its use to any who threaten U.S. interests, remain vital national interests.

The presence of the recently established Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf attests to that fact today. The geopolitics of oil led the United States to wage a war against Iraq in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and nothing has changed the U.S. intention to protect the oil supplies of that region. However, that naval presence has now become a part of the War Against Terrorism. The deployment of four carrier battle groups to the waters adjacent to South Asia placed some of our national security assets at the service of the U.S. effort to eliminate terrorism.

Of course, in this matter as in so many others, much depends upon the will of the American people. After World War I, the isolationist mood took hold, and the United States rejected membership in the League of Nations. After World War II the internationalist perspective prevailed, and the United States championed the cause of the United Nations and other international agencies. It also undertook the work of building security communities around the globe at great costs in human and material resources. Through it all the United States stood firm as the “leader of the free world.” Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the American public found new reasons to support the extent to which it will be engaged with the rest of the world in pursuing its maritime or any other geostrategy.

One test of this renewed purpose will also certainly focus upon the U.S. commitment to another of its geostrategic moorings, the continental geostrategy with which it flirted in World War I, firmly adopted during World War II and continued during and after the Cold War. Events on the Eurasian continent during the last half of the 20th century convinced the American people that the defense of U.S. national security interests began on the shores opposite its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, not on its own shorelines. Americans’ continued support for the Cold War continental geostrategy of membership in NATO and of security treaties with Japan and South Korea remains firm. The present commitment of U.S. military forces to peacekeeping in the Balkans and on the Korean peninsula offers further evidence that the U.S. continental geostrategy is still alive. But what about future tests of American resolve?

Strategic surprises have been a part of history -- from the Trojan horse to Pearl Harbor to the collapse of the Soviet Union to the terrorist actions of Sept. 11. “Powder kegs” exist today in various parts of the globe, with real possibilities of exploding in American faces. The face-offs between China and Taiwan, Israel and its Arab neighbors, India and Pakistan, Iran and Iraq and now the U.S. confrontation with the forces of terrorism present the American people with the necessity of redefining the maritime and continental geostrategies they inherited from the Cold War era.

The misadventure in Somalia, which cost American lives, certainly tempered our desire to respond militarily to regional flash points that do not affect vital U.S. national interests. In that sense, the “global cop” of the Cold War paradigm may have retired. That does seem to be the case in the region that is the focus of the third long-standing U.S. geostrategy -- the Western Hemisphere.

In our own hemisphere

From the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine to the military interventions of the Cold War, the United States acquired a long and somewhat inglorious history of relations with its hemispheric neighbors to the south. Its unilateralist approach to those relations was often more appropriate to the actions of an imperialist power than those of a “good neighbor.” Now, however, the Cold War fears of Soviet penetration of its “sphere of influence” are gone, and the United States is free to adopt a multilateralist rather than a unilateralist approach in its hemispheric geostrategy. This is an approach to international relations that the United States employed during the Cold War to promote its own national interests -- from the founding of NATO to its leadership of the Persian Gulf coalition against Saddam Hussein and to its building of an anti-terrorist coalition among states today.

It is now also the approach the United States is using in its relations with the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

The integration of national economies has become one of the hallmarks of the globalization process and one of the major aspects of multilateralism today. The establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, has engaged the United States with Canada and Mexico in a multilateral effort to create an economic bloc in the midst of other economic blocs, such as the European Union. The need for a regional solution to the economic problems of the Western Hemisphere has been made obvious by the disparity between the rich and the poor nations and the problems this situation creates for the region. The United States, for example, acts like a magnet attracting undocumented workers by the millions from the countries to its south.

Thus, it has embraced the multilateralist approach in its hemisphere not only through NAFTA, but also by participating in the Summit of the Americas, which has brought together the heads of state of the hemisphere’s nations in 1994, 1998 and 2001. This body’s most significant economic initiative has been its call for the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, FTAA, by 2005. Indeed, the future course of multilateral efforts by the United States seems well established by these recent actions in the Western Hemisphere and by its efforts to put together a coalition of nations committed to the War Against Terrorism.

One last caveat to mention is the possibility of the United States’ pursuing a unilateralist approach to some of its relations with other nations. The issues currently surrounding the building of a national missile defense shield, particularly the issue of unilaterally abandoning the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, raise the specter of the United States’ succumbing to a go-it-alone approach in regard to some major international issues. As the only superpower left after the Cold War, the United States must be wary about committing any acts of hubris. Its efforts to put together a multinational coalition against terrorism after the events of Sept. 11, have served to affirm its recognition of the need for a multilateral approach to important, common problems. It is certainly the approach that is needed to enlist other states in the war against terrorism.

By maintaining the national interests protected by its maritime, continental and hemispheric geostrategies, the United States has some major foundations upon which to conduct its relations with other states in the post-Cold War world. At the same time, the American people must preserve the mood of internationalism that has brought it to its present greatness. Americans must also be prepared for strategic surprises, particularly in the war against terrorism. Warnings about the role of chance events in the affairs of states issued by Thucydides and Machiavelli should be taken seriously, especially by a nation that is capable of being seduced by the arrogance of power.

The emerging paradigm of international relations, with its hope for a new and better world order inspiring it, would be devastated by a tragic American failure in good judgment. With enlightened American leadership, however, a non-imperialistic Pax Americana may emerge with the end of the Cold War. As the leader of an anti-terrorist coalition of states, the United States could mobilize the efforts of all states that seek to eliminate the horrors for which Sept. 11 has become the symbol. That is a worthy goal for the United States in confronting the menace of terrorism. It could also be the basis for a new paradigm of international relations.

Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Fr. Bernard F. Donahue is retired professor of politics at De Sales University, Center Valley, Pa., and a former National Endowment for the Humanities professor at Princeton University.

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001