Small Wars Journal

International Security in the Post-Cold War Era: A Security Evaluation

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 12:26am

International Security in the Post-Cold War Era: A Security Evaluation

Kyle Amonson

If you want to understand the post-Cold War world you have to start by understanding that a new international system has succeeded it – globalization” (Jentleson, 2014, p. 332)

-- Thomas Friedman

In the 21st century, security, and especially international security, is a “contested concept” (Baylis et al., 2017, p. 239). Traditionally, international security is seen as the point at which military considerations are required to affect national security due to concerns among the international community, often most directly related to interstate conflict or international terrorism. However, in the post-Cold War era, many scholars have expanded the concept of international security, stating that it has “…been broadened beyond military considerations to include political, economic, societal, and environmental aspects” (Baylis et al., 2017, p. 241).

Based on this expansion, “security” can encompass a diverse variety of concerns, ranging from nuclear proliferation to literacy and climate change. This expanded definition of globalized challenges understandably requires globally collaborative solutions. While the foundational security challenges of interstate and intrastate conflict are not specifically unique to the post-Cold War era, at no other time in history has the interconnectedness of the international community trended towards interdependence as the present age. Modern technology has accelerated the rate at which information, trade, funds, and ideas travel; enabling the intricate intersection of social, cultural, and economic dynamics across the international community. Global public health, international markets, climate concerns and international terrorist organizations transverse and supersede established state boundaries and force modern states to develop collaborative solutions to international problems. The complexities of the post-Cold War era have to be defined, analyzed, and considered by modern policy makers in order to appropriately address international security concerns.

Defining Terms

“Much of the contention (in defining security) has been about deepening or widening security beyond the state to include different threats and referent ‘objects’. This move has coincided with an increasingly accepted truism in both policy and academic circles that the nation-state system lacks the tools with which to contend with today’s threats” (Öjendal et al., 2010, p. 5)

-- Maria Stern & Joakim Öjendal

To adequately address these issues, academics and policy makers alike must categorize these security concerns. To address this challenge, Roland Paris, in his article Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?, proposes the following “matrix of security studies” (Paris, 2001, p. 98). In this matrix, Paris categories “traditional” security concerns in Cells 1 and 3, addressing international and domestic security respectively.  Additionally, Cells 2 and 4 represent the non-traditional security concerns, encompassing the more recently expanded definition of security that includes “redefined security” and human security.


Perhaps most significant change in the 21st century has been the shift in focus from state security to ‘human security’, viewed as a sorely needed venue for highlighting the particular vulnerabilities of peoples who suffer violence from representatives of the stat, as well as other forms of violence and injustices (Öjendal et al., 2010, p. 56). Human security is “the security of people, including their physical safety, their economic and social well-being, respect for their dignity, and the protection of their human rights” (Baylis et al., 2017, p. 537). While addressing the challenges of human security is a worthy cause, the ambiguity presented by the concept of examining human security is undeniable. Roland Paris states that "although definitions of human security vary, most formulations emphasize the welfare of ordinary people," human security, based on the 1994 Human Development Report, he states "human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease, and repression. Second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life, whether in homes, in jobs or in communities" (Paris, 2001, p. 4).

Issues of Concern

Traditional – Interstate Conflict

Opinions regarding the challenges that affect international security vary drastically depending on individual perspective and their national influences. Based on Paris’ “Cell 1,” interstate conflict, established on the tenets of realism within the international security, would be the primary, and most traditional, concern of international security. In the post-Cold War era, the traditional concepts of international interstate conflict would emphasize ideas such as power-balancing, collective defense, and the principles of offensive and defensive realism. One of the largest discussions in the 21st century affecting international security through this lens is nuclear proliferation, mutually assured destruction (MAD), and how these concepts affect limited warfare.

Traditional – Intrastate Conflict

In an era in which interstate conflict has decreased, intrastate conflict is still prevalent. Where this coincides with international security as a whole would be described in “Cell 3.” Intrastate conflict can affect states in a variety of ways, but typically reduces their economic capability, dismantling existing organizational framework, and facilitates a geographic location that fosters insurgencies. Wars kill development as well as people. The poor therefore need security as much as they need clean water, schooling or affordable health (Öjendal et al., 2010, p. 26). The primary challenges that intra-state conflict poses to international security is the degradation of state development, the prospect for international refugees, mass immigration and transnational terrorism.

Non-traditional – Human Security

Lastly, aligned with the non-traditional concerns of international security, is the diverse variety of topics that make up human security. It is undeniable that economic and environmental concerns within the international community directly affect international security, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. Paris describes these as economic and environmental threats that affect individuals, groups and societies. The post-Cold War era, there is a seeming consensus that “security” in the traditional sense and human security are interconnected, and that their interrelationship is growing in significance given the evolving global political-economic landscape of a globalized community. In the post-Cold War world, it is rare to successfully address human security without having to address traditional security challenges in parallel.

Imminent Threats

The four most imminent threats to international security are: nuclear proliferation, transnational terrorism, human security, and in the long-term, the non-traditional threat of environmental degradation.

Traditional – Interstate Nuclear Conflict 

Enter the nuclear age. As Cold War strategists struggled to assess strategy in the atomic age, the modern theories of nuclear mutually assured destruction parallel many of the same challenges as the Cold War. However, as John Mearsheimer states, "A MAD world is highly stable at the nuclear level, because there is no incentive for any great power to start a nuclear war that it could not win; indeed such a war would probably lead to its destruction as a functioning society" (Mearsheimer, 2003, p. 180). While each nuclear state would wish to achieve the capability of a decisive first strike or the capability to survive a first strike, and thus transcending MAD and establishing nuclear superiority, it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. However, this will not stop states from further advancing their nuclear programs (Mearsheimer, 2003, p. 180).

This results in several things, although MAD is already assured, rocket and propulsion capabilities will increase in speed (to counter radar defense when able) and distance (to project power), in addition to warhead capabilities further decreasing in size and increasing in lethality. However, as MAD exists, the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to “deter one’s opponents from using them,” furthering nuclear stability (Mearsheimer, 2003, p. 181). Countries will stockpile when able and develop nuclear defenses to survive a first strike and assure a counter strike...further assuring MAD.

However, MAD does not ensure that states will not still engage in limited warfare and utilize proxy states to further their interests, similar to what was seen in the Cold War in countries like Vietnam and Korea. Mearsheimer states that “it is clear from the Cold War that great powers operating in a MAD world still engage in intense security competition, and that they care greatly about convention forces, especially the balance of land power” (Mearsheimer, 2003, p. 182). While interstate nuclear war is unlikely, the further proliferation of nuclear arms increases the probability that either a rogue state, irrational leader, or non-state actor will obtain nuclear capabilities (e.g. a wealthy terrorist network acquiring micro-nuclear warheads). If this were to occur, the stabilizing tenets of MAD currently existing among the nuclear capable nations would be disregarded, resulting in an immediate and drastic destabilization of the international community.

Traditional – Transnational Terrorism

Transnational terrorism bridges the gap between international security, intrastate conflict, and human security. Terrorism, like a virus, needs a particular environment to breed, whether that is organizationally or ideologically. Poor countries are prone to violence, and violence decreases economic prosperity, effectively capturing a country in a frozen state of the “conflict trap.” The conflict trap is a scenario in which violence prevents development and prosperity, in turn increasing violence, continuing the conflict cycle. In the post-Cold War era, intrastate conflicts have been more frequent than interstate conflicts, and are typically indicative of the internal struggles of developing nations with weak institutions, high income-inequality and ethnic friction, providing ample opportunity for terrorism to flourish (Murshed, 2002, p. 388).

Conditions in areas such as the Middle East are ripe for its inhabitants to embrace any ideology that promises a positive change (Suarez, 2015, p. 24). Comparable to HIV or AIDS virus in humans, the environmental factors, such as weak-governmental systems, a lack of national identity and the disenfranchised youth majority in the Middle East, weaken the host, less-developed countries (LDCs) in this case, indirectly strengthening and empowering violent extremists (McChrystal et al, 2015, p. 32). While the Middle East is just one example, terrorism still exists and breeds for various reasons on almost every continent. Without permanent and significant change to the foundation of Arab society in the Middle East, this is a vicious cycle that will continue.

Non-Traditional – Human Security and Environmental Concerns

With the introduction of human security into the nexus of international security, policy makers have experienced increasing pressure to address humanitarian concerns. While normally not directly tied to violence, if left unaddressed these concerns typically produce intrastate conflict and international terrorism. These concerns are expressed in the World Health Organization’s eight Millennial Development Goals, endorsed by the United Nations. These are; (1) to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; (2) to achieve universal primary education; (3) to promote gender equality and empower women; (4) to reduce child mortality; (5) to improve maternal health; (6) to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; (7) to ensure environmental sustainability; and (8) to develop a global partnership for development. (United Nations, 2015).

While human security concerns generally overshadow environmental concerns throughout the international community, environmental concerns are also integrated in many redefined definitions of international security. The environment is a finite resource that, if not addressed, will eventually also lead to other, more violent, international security concerns such as deadly intrastate conflict, mass immigration, and transnational terrorism. In addition to the Millennial Development Goals, the UN developed the Sustainable Development Goals to focus on environmental concerns, aiming to “harmonize three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. These elements are interconnected and all are crucial for the well-being of individuals and societies” (United Nations, 2015).

Balancing Tradition and Non-Traditional Challenges

Development and security are inextricably linked. A more secure world is only possible if poor countries are given a real chance to develop. Extreme poverty and infectious diseases threaten many people directly, but they also provide a fertile breeding ground for other threats, including civil conflicts. Even people in rich countries will be more secure if their Governments help poor countries to defeat poverty and disease.”

-- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

As stated by Thomas Friedman when discussing globalization, if no other word was used to describe security in the post-Cold War era, it would be interconnectedness. As demonstrated when discussing both traditional and non-traditional international security concerns, they affect each other in complexity as easily as they can affect the international community as a whole. The modern approach to problems must be synchronized, balanced, and must take into account non-traditional security concerns. A prominent example of this challenge in the 21st century is the state of Afghanistan. In 2010, Robert Watkins, deputy special representative for the UN secretary-general, openly criticized what he saw as the ‘militarization of aid’ in Afghanistan, stating that ‘we do not wish to be part of that process because we would not want to have the humanitarian activities we deliver to be linked with military activity’ (Kiensherf, 2011). However, as displayed in the Taliban targeting of the International Committee of the Red Crescent, and after enduring fatal attacks of their aid workers, humanitarian aid without military security incurs huge risk, and military operations that are integrated with humanitarian aid incur bias to the non-governmental organizations involved. In the case of the ICRC, they announced that they will “drastically reduce” operations in Afghanistan, close their main office in the state and transition remaining aid centers to responsible entities once they can be identified due to insufficient security for their humanitarian volunteers (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2017. p. 2). Human security, international security and state development are inexplicably linked, and will continue to be interconnected as long as globalization continues. The success of any international response will rely on the ability of the responding intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and respective states to demonstrate interoperability and cooperation. Interventions require bilateral collaboration, counterinsurgency operations require military and humanitarian aid agencies to establish mutually benefitting relationships, and combating environmental degradation requires communication with intergovernmental organizations and transnational corporations. With the myriad of traditional and non-traditional challenges facing the post-Cold War international community, the age in which challenges can be solved without international and interagency cooperation is over. 

Traditional and non-traditional challenges must be balanced and addressed appropriately, or the cycle of conflict throughout the international community will expand and continue. Globalized security challenges require globalized security solutions, and these need to be addressed, assessed and prioritized by both states and intergovernmental organizations worldwide. While faced with many of their own challenges, intergovernmental organizations “…can provide information, reduce transaction costs, make commitment more credible, establish focal points for coordination and, in general, facilitate the operation of reciprocity" (Keohane et al., 1995).

As an international community, we need to address the variety of international security concerns, prioritize traditional challenges that directly affect safety, and not overlook non-traditional challenges, such as food or health security, in lieu of addressing them once they develop into traditional violence-based security concerns.


The 21st century is marked by diverse challenges that demand international solutions. The "butterfly-effect" of global reactions internationalize challenges in all sectors of foreign policy. In a world where Middle Eastern extremists can coordinate large-scale attacks on the United States utilizing internet cafés in their home countries, weapons of mass destruction are becoming more available and less traceable, international trade accounts for a large percentage of states’ GDPs and environmental challenges affect entire regions, it is an absolute necessity for states to cooperate to maintain security. While the concept of a global government to solve these issues is unrealistic, a model of global governance, paired with regional institutions and mutual benefiting alliances, enables countries (like the United States) to establish a form of security and stability through aligned interests within the international “condition of anarchy.”

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About the Author(s)

Kyle Amonson is an active duty Army Major and graduate student at Royal Military College of Canada. Major Amonson received his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech and holds a master’s degree in International Relations - International Security from Norwich University. He has deployed in support of various operations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Opinions expressed in his articles are those of the author's and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.