Chapter 30 - After the Fall: The Western World in a Global Age, Since 1985

New World Order or Age of Terrorism?

FOCUS QUESTION: How and why did the Cold War end? What are the main issues in the struggle with terrorism?

Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there had been tantalizing signs of a thaw in the Cold War. China and the United States had decided in 1979 to establish mutual diplomatic relations, a consequence of Beijing’s decision to focus on domestic reform and stop supporting wars of national liberation in Asia. Six years later, the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to leadership, culminating in the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, brought a final end to almost half a century of bitter rivalry between the world’s two superpowers.

The End of the Cold War

The accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 eventually brought a dramatic end to the Cold War. Gorbachev was willing to rethink many of the fundamental assumptions underlying Soviet foreign policy, and his “New Thinking,” as it was called, opened the door to a series of stunning changes. For one, Gorbachev initiated a plan for arms limitation that led in 1987 to an agreement with the United States to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons (the INF Treaty). Both sides had incentives to dampen the expensive arms race. Gorbachev hoped to make extensive economic and internal reforms, and the United States had serious deficit problems. During the Reagan years, the United States had moved from being a creditor nation to being the world’s biggest debtor nation. By 1990, both countries were becoming aware that their large military budgets made it difficult for them to solve their serious social problems.

The years 1989 and 1990 were a crucial period in the ending of the Cold War. As described earlier, the postwar settlements came unstuck as a mostly peaceful revolutionary upheaval swept through Eastern Europe. Gorbachev’s policy of allowing greater autonomy for the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe meant that the Soviet Union would no longer militarily support Communist governments that faced internal revolt. The unwillingness of the Soviet regime to use force to maintain the status quo, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, opened the door to the overthrow of the Communist regimes. The reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, marked the end of one of the most prominent legacies of the Cold War.

The Persian Gulf War provided the first major opportunity for testing the new relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era. In early August 1990, Iraqi military forces suddenly occupied the small neighboring country of Kuwait, in the northeastern comer of the Arabian peninsula at the head of the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait sparked an international outcry, and an international force led by the United States liberated Kuwait and destroyed a substantial part of Iraq’s armed forces in the early months of 1991. The Gulf War was the first important military conflict in the post-Cold War period. Although Gorbachev tried to persuade Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait before the war began, overall the Soviets played a minor role in the crisis and supported the American action. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, making any renewal of global rivalry between the superpowers impossible and leaving the United States as the world’s leading military power. With the end of superpower rivalry and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, attention focused on the new post-Cold War era. Many observers were optimistic. U.S. president George H. W. Bush looked forward to a new era of peace and international cooperation that he called the “new world order.” Others predicted the beginning of a new “American century,” characterized by the victory of liberal democratic values and free market capitalism.

But the voices of optimism began to fade as it became clear that forces were now being released that had long been held in check by the ideological rigidities of the Cold War. The age of conflict that had long characterized the twentieth century had not ended but was simply taking a different form.

This was soon apparent around the world. In Southeast Asia, even before the end of the Cold War, former allies in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia turned on each other in a conflict that joined territorial ambitions with deep-seated historical suspicions based on the memory of past conflicts. The pattern was repeated elsewhere: in Africa, where several nations erupted into civil war during the late 1980s and 1990s; in the Balkans, where Yugoslavia broke apart in a bitter conflict not yet completely resolved; and in the Middle East, where disputes in Palestine and the Persian Gulf have grown in strength and erupted into open war.

An Age of Terrorism?

Acts of terror by individuals and groups opposed to governments have become a frightening aspect of modem Western society and indeed of all the world. In 1996, President Clinton called terrorism “the enemy of our generation,” and since the end of Cold War, it has of ten seemed as though terrorism has replaced communism as the West’s number one enemy. Already during the late 1970s and 1980s, concern about terrorism was of ten at the top of foreign policy agendas in the United States and many European countries. Small bands of terrorists used assassination, the taking of hostages, the hijacking of airplanes, and indiscriminate killing of civilians, especially by bombing, to draw attention to their demands or to destabilize governments in the hope of achieving their political goals. Terrorist acts garnered considerable media attention. When Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, hundreds of millions of people watched the drama unfold on television.

Motivations for terrorist acts varied considerably. Left-and right-wing terrorist groups flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Left-wing groups, such as the Baader-Meinhof (BAH-durr-MYN-huff) gang (also known as the Red Army Faction) in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, consisted chiefly of affluent middle-class young people who denounced the injustices of capitalism and supported acts of revolutionary terrorism in an attempt to bring down the system. Rightwing terrorist groups, such as the New Order in Italy and the Charles Martel Club in France, used bombings to foment disorder and bring about authoritarian regimes. These groups received little or no public support, and authorities succeeded in crushing them fairly quickly.

But terrorist acts also stemmed from militant nationalists who wished to create separatist states. Because they received considerable support from local populations sympathetic to their cause, these terrorist groups could maintain their activities over a long period of time. Most prominent was the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which resorted to vicious attacks against the ruling government and innocent civilians in Northern Ireland. Over a period of twenty years, IRA terrorists were responsible for the deaths of two thousand people in Northern Ireland; three-fourths of the victims were civilians.

Although left-and right-wing terrorist activities declined in Europe in the 1980s, international terrorism remained commonplace. Angered by the loss of their territory to Israel in 1967, some militant Palestinians responded with terrorist attacks against Israel’s supporters. Palestinian terrorists operated throughout European countries, attacking both Europeans and American tourists; Palestinian terrorists massacred vacationers at airports in Rome and Vienna in 1985. State-sponsored terrorism was of ten an integral part of international terrorism. Militant governments, especially in Iran, Libya, and Syria, assisted terrorist organizations that made attacks on Europeans and Americans. On December 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103 from Frankfurt to New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 258 passengers and crew members. A massive investigation finally revealed that two Libyan terrorists who were connected to terrorist groups based in Iran and Syria planted the bomb responsible for the explosion.

Terrorist Attack on the United States

One of the most destructive acts of terrorism occurred on September 11, 2001, in the United States. Four groups of terrorists hijacked four commercial jet airplanes after takeoff from Boston, Newark, and Washington, D.C. The hijackers flew two of the airplanes directly into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing these buildings, as well as a number of surrounding buildings, to collapse. A third hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. The fourth plane, believed to be headed for Washington, crashed instead in an isolated area of Pennsylvania, apparently as the result of an attempt by a group of heroic passengers to overcome the hijackers. In total, nearly three thousand people were killed, including everyone aboard the four airliners.

These coordinated acts of terror were carried out by hijackers connected to an international terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda (“the Base”), run by Osama bin Laden (1957-2011). A native of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden used an inherited fortune to set up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, under the protection of the nation’s militant fundamentalist Islamic rulers known as the Taliban. On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy SEALS killed Bin Laden in the compound where he was living in Abbotabad, Pakistan.

WAR IN AFGHANISTAN U.S. president George W. Bush vowed to wage a lengthy war on terrorism and worked to create a coalition of nations to assist in ridding the world of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In October 2001, United States and NATO air forces began bombing Taliban-controlled command centers, airfields, and al-Qaeda hiding places in Afghanistan. On the ground, Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban, assisted by U.S. special forces, pushed the Taliban out of the capital city of Kabul and seized control of nearly all of the country by the end of November. A multi ethnic government was installed but faced problems as a result of renewed Taliban activity after the United States began to focus much of its military attention on the war in Iraq. In 2009, President Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops to deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. After the death of bin Laden, Obama announced that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2011. By the autumn of 2012, the additional 30,000 troops sent earlier had returned home.

WAR IN IRAQ In 2002, President George W. Bush, charging that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) had not only provided support to bin Laden’s terrorist organization but also sought to develop weapons of mass destruction, threatened to invade Iraq and remove him from power. Both claims were widely doubted by other member states at the United Nations. As a result, the United States was forced to attack Iraq with little world support. Moreover, the plan to attack upset many Arab leaders and fanned anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world.

In March 2003, a largely American-led army invaded Iraq. The Iraqi army was quickly defeated, and in the months that followed, occupation forces sought to restore stability to the country while setting forth plans to lay the foundations of a future democratic society. But although Saddam Hussein was later captured by U.S. troops, Saddam’s supporters, foreign terrorists, and Islamic militants continued to battle the American-led forces.

American efforts focused on training an Iraqi military force capable of defeating the insurgents and establishing an Iraqi government that could hold free elections and create a democracy. Establishing a new government was difficult, however, because of the differences among the three major groups in Iraqi society: Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and ethnic Kurds. Although a new Iraqi government came into being, it has had great difficulty establishing a unified state. By 2006, violence had increased dramatically, and Iraq seemed to be descending into a widespread civil war, especially between the Shi’ites, who control southern Iraq, and the Sunnis, who control central Iraq. An increase in American troops in 2007 helped stabilize conditions within a year. The U.S. and Iraqi governments then agreed to a complete withdrawal of American troops by 2011, a goal that was achieved by the Obama administration in December 2011.

The West and Islam

One of the major sources of terrorist activity against the West, especially the United States, has come from some parts of the Muslim world. No doubt, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the United States has steadfastly supported Israel, helped give rise to anti-Western and especially anti-U.S. feeling among many Muslims. In 1979, a revolution in Iran that led to the overthrow of the shah and the creation of a new Islamic government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, also fed anti-Western sentiment. In the eyes of the ayatollah and his followers, the United States was the “great Satan,” the powerful protector of Israel, and the enemy of Muslim peoples everywhere. Furthermore, the United States was blamed for the corruption of Iranian society under the shah.

The involvement of the United States in the liberation of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 also had unexpected consequences in the relationship of Islam and the West. During that war, U.S. forces were stationed in Saudi Arabia, the location of many sacred Islamic sites. The presence of American forces was considered an affront to Islam by anti-Western Islamic groups, especially that of Osama bin Laden and his followers. These anti-Western attitudes came to be shared by a number of radical Islamic groups, as is evident in the 2003 bombing in Madrid and the 2005 bombing on subway trains in London.

The U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 further inflamed some Islamic groups against the West. Although there was no evidence of a relationship between al-Qaeda terrorists and the regime of Saddam Hussein, the United States used this claim as one of the excuses to launch a preemptive war against Iraq. Although many Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, the deaths of innocent civilians and the torturing of prisoners by American soldiers in prisons in Iraq served to deepen anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.


Next Reading: 30-5 New Directions and New Problems in Western Society