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  • The Post-Cold War WorldGlobalization and the International System
  • Jean-Marie Guéhenno (bio)

The “international system” is a comforting expression which assumes that international relations can be described according to a single unifying logic which inspires the actions of well-identified actors. This assumption may have been valid when the Cold War provided a defining issue; the world was divided into two camps, and nonalignment was itself a by-product of alignment. After the end of the Cold War, however, this assumption has become much more problematic. Is there still a defining issue that brings the world together and explains how human communities interact with one another? Do we need enemies?

The idea of “us” versus “them” may well be the defining force of any human community, which begins to exist when it can draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. What specifically belongs to the Western political tradition is the idea that we need enemies to overcome our own political divisions. The ancient Chinese thought of non-Chinese not as enemies, but as inferior people who were expected to pay tribute to the emperor; the Middle Kingdom existed by itself, and had no need for any external challenge. (Actually, it died of that excess of self-confidence.) But ever since the Greeks invented the “barbarians,” the reality of political divisions between rival states has [End Page 22] echoed the divisions of the rival cities of ancient Greece. We dream of a unity that would be achieved against a common enemy, and the Roman Empire provides us with a nostalgic model of a political unity that would match our universalistic tradition.

This may explain why we in the “West” are so desperate to find new enemies after the end of the Cold War. The communists were convenient “barbarians”; for a short while, we could speak of the “West” in a way that would have been familiar to the citizens of Athens. We would like to find a similar threat, global enough in its scope to unify our uncertain communities. But where can we find it? Where is the convenient fault line that will give us new certainties?

Today, there is no such obvious fault line, and nothing has the potential to give shape to the post-Cold War world in a way comparable to the East-West divide. But we still want to think in normative terms. We want to have an enemy that defines us. With the end of the Cold War, we have often been tempted to build up the new opposition between globalization and fragmentation as if it were a substitute for the old East-West divide. According to this logic, history is a battle of good against evil. Globalization and the triumph of the market are the economic consequences of the victory of democracy. The global market will give economic freedom to billions of consumers and producers in the same way that political freedom has given millions of individuals new rights. And it is tempting to see nationalism, ethnicity, and fragmentation as obstacles to that bright global future. They are all relics of the past, and as such, easy to dismiss.

But we must go beyond that analysis. The proliferation of intrastate wars today suggests that fragmentation may be a product of globalization rather than a remnant of the past, and that instead of viewing these two phenomena as opposed to each other, we should consider them linked. Moreover, we should recognize their ambiguity, acknowledging both the limits and risks of globalization and the virtues, if not of fragmentation, then of smaller entities.

What is globalization, and is it really global? Is fragmentation always negative? How is stability best achieved, and war avoided? The experience of the Cold War has led us to believe that the world is a safer place when left to the supervision of a couple of superpowers acting as enforcers and stabilizers. Is that model still valid when there is no unifying issue and no enemy, and are we right to consider the evolution toward ever bigger political entities not only as inevitable but also as desirable?

Globalization and Fragmentation

Although one of its versions...