Peace in the Post-Cold War World

The world is a much safer place than it was 20 years ago -- here's why, how it happened, and what it means for our future

The world is a much safer place than it was 20 years ago -- here's why, how it happened, and what it means for our future

cohen soviet p.jpg

This 1999 photo shows a Ukrainian officer walking next to the country's last SS-19 nuclear missile booster to be destroyed. Ukraine became a nuclear-free state in 1996 when the last warheads of its SS-19 and SS-24 rockets were shipped back to Russia / Reuters

This post is part of a 12-part series exploring how the U.S.-Russia relationship has shaped the world since the December 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Read the full series here.

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world is a freer and more open place. From the former Soviet republics and the buffer countries of Central and Eastern Europe to Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Far East, the fall of the Soviet Union has led to a cascade of political and economic advances rarely before seen in human history.

According to Freedom House, there were 69 electoral democracies in 1990; today there are 115 -- an increase of more than 60 percent. In dozens of countries, centrally planned economies stifled innovation and entrepreneurship. Today, economic liberalization has, albeit imperfectly, created new opportunities and rising incomes that would have seemed unimaginable more than two decades ago. Yet beyond these advances, perhaps the most important development that came with the fall of the Soviet Union is frequently forgotten -- the world is today a demonstrably safer place.

To many observers, that might sound like heresy. The post-Soviet world, after all, has been marred by seemingly constant civil and global conflict -- the Gulf War in 1991, the ethnic cleansing and bloody civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the unending fighting in the Congo, Sudan, and Somalia, the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the ongoing American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American politicians repeatedly warn of the dangerous and unsafe world that we inhabit.

Moreover, didn't the Cold War prevent large-scale wars between great powers and keep ethnic and national tension suppressed? The threat of nuclear conflict certainly helped to prevent World War III, but it hardly stopped dozens of countries from waging horribly violent wars. On the Korean peninsula, in South-East Asia, across the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent, and across sub-Saharan Africa, conflict was a relatively common state of affairs during the Cold War. Many of these conflicts were exacerbated by the machinations of the competing super powers. Would millions have died in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan if these three countries had not been considered the frontlines in the conflict between Cold War rivals?

1982 to 1984 was "the least safe time to live on earth"

In fact, the Soviet Union's demise sped up rather than slowed down the global movement toward a safer and more secure world. The reality is that today, wars are rarer than ever before. According to the 2009/2010 Human Security Report, state-based armed conflict declined by 40 percent from 1992 to 2003. And when wars occur, they are less deadly for both combatants and civilians. The average war so far in the 21st century kills 90 percent fewer people than the average conflict in the 1950s. The last ten years have seen fewer war deaths than any decade of the past century.

The world has not seen a major power conflict in more than six decades -- the longest period of sustained peace between great powers in centuries. Finally, insurgent groups, rather than governments, are the greatest cause of civilian deaths today -- a worrisome trend for sure, but one that stands in sharp contrast to much of the 20th century, in which nations devised new and ingenious methods for slaughtering millions of their own citizens.

But there is a larger reality of the post-Cold War world -- the threat of nuclear conflict has declined dramatically. From the late 1940s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the potential for a devastating nuclear exchange that would destroy the globe and wipe out mankind was a distinct and real possibility.

As Micah Zenko, a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, the period from roughly 1982 to 1984 was "the least safe time to live on earth. The number of deployed nuclear weapons was obscene overkill, and potential flashpoints for a U.S.-Soviet conflict were many." Nuclear weapons were far more widely-dispersed across the Soviet Union than they are today, and launch authority remained at shockingly low levels even into the 1980s. While the threat of nuclear war may have always been a low possibility, it was still real; distorting and disrupting international affairs for much of the 20th century. While there remains the extremely slim risk of accidental launches or nuclear terrorism, ridding ourselves of this existential burden has been a boon rather than a detriment to the conduct of international affairs.

For all the challenges to global security we face today, they pale in comparison to the threat of superpower war and the proxy battles that defined the four decades of ideological and geopolitical conflict between East and West. The fall of Soviet Russia, for all of its many positive ramifications, helped to end the constant danger of a war that would truly and catastrophically "end all wars." A more complex but decidedly more secure and safer world has replaced it.

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Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election. 

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