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  • The Post-Cold War WorldIntegration and Disintegration
  • Robert Cooper (bio)

History is full of surprises. In 1989, we were reminded of something that we forgot during the Cold War: The international system is in a constant state of flux. The revolutions of 1989 brought us not just a different set of players—one Germany instead of two, 15 new states instead of one Soviet Union—but also a different game. In Europe at least, the game is now security through cooperation instead of through conflict. Whether this will last is not yet certain; the rules are not yet clear, and this is a game that we are still not used to. It is nonetheless clear that the world will never be the same again.

Behind these changes lies an evolution in the nature of the state itself. As states change, the state system changes with them—and states have been changing more than we may have noticed. The monopoly on the legitimate use of force noted by Max Weber as the essential characteristic of the state has been modified, and perhaps undermined, by the growth of international treaty commitments and of multilateral cooperation. The doctrine of raison d’état has been modified by the democratic influence on foreign policy. And indeed—as the European Union (EU) shows especially clearly—the distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy has become increasingly difficult to make. [End Page 8]

In 1989, changes that had been taking place over a long time were suddenly brought to the surface. While many of these changes, which have been under way at least since the end of the Second World War, have involved increasing interdependence and integration among states, others have gone in the opposite direction, producing growing signs of fragmentation and disintegration.

The postwar world provides striking examples of integration, above all in Europe—military integration in NATO; economic, legal, and monetary integration, and much more, through the EU. 1 Aspirations to move in the same direction may be seen elsewhere in ASEAN, MERCOSUR, NAFTA, and other regional organizations. In the private sector, we have global firms, global production, and increasingly integrated global markets. In the social and cultural sphere, we have global media, global fashions, and even global grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The wave of disintegration has been no less dramatic. In the first part of the postwar period, we saw the breakup of traditional colonial empires. More recently, the end of the Cold War—an event that in principle heralded an ideologically integrated world—brought with it the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. At the same time, the Warsaw Pact and COMECON also disappeared. Meanwhile, longstanding separatist movements or parties remain active in Canada, Turkey, Spain, France, the UK, and Italy (again, to name only a few).

Although these phenomena may at first seem contradictory, I believe that in many respects they are essentially linked. Exploring the sources of integration and disintegration in the contemporary world can help to shed light on some of the challenges facing democracy today.

Sources of Disintegration

Disintegration begins with a loss of legitimacy by the central authority, which may come about in many different ways. For the British Empire, the contradiction between the principles of liberal democracy, for which Britain itself stood, and ruling an empire of unwilling subjects proved to be too much. Loss of prestige and resources in World War II made the empire unsustainable; the liberal tradition limited the amount of force that could be used to hold it together.

The breakup of the British Empire represented only limited disintegration, since it had never been governed as a single unit, though it did contain such integrative elements as the sterling area, free trade and, in wartime, military cooperation. A second wave of disintegration, however, followed the breakup of the empire, as a number of former [End Page 9] colonies themselves broke up. The most striking example was the partition of the Indian subcontinent, later followed by the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Movements toward disintegration in other former colonies, though often unsuccessful, have been fairly wide-spread, such as Turkish separatism in Cyprus, the movement for...