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Post–Cold War era
Due to the Cold War’s nature of not being an active war but a period of geopolitical tensions, there is disagreement on the official ending of the Cold War and subsequent existence of the post-Cold War era. Some scholars claim the Cold War ended with the signing of the world’s first treaty on nuclear disarmament in 1987, or the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Despite this, the end of the Cold War symbolized a victory of democracy and capitalism, giving a boost to the rising world powers of the United States and China. Democracy became a manner of collective self-validation for countries hoping to gain international respect: when democracy was seen as an important value, political structures began adopting the value.
It has mostly been dominated by the rise of globalization (as well as nationalism and populism in reaction) enabled by the commercialization of the Internet and the growth of the mobile phone system. The ideology of postmodernism and cultural relativism has according to some scholars replaced modernism and notions of absolute progress and ideology. The Post-Cold War era has enabled renewed attention to be paid to matters that were ignored during the Cold War. The Cold War has paved the way for nationalist movements and internationalism. Following the nuclear crises of the Cold War, many nations found it necessary to discuss a new form of international order and internationalism, where countries cooperated with one another instead of using nuclear scare tactics.
The period has seen the United States become by far the most powerful country in the world and the rise of China from a relatively weak developing country to a fledgling potential superpower. Reacting on the rise of China, the United States has strategically sought to "rebalance" the Asia-Pacific region. It has also seen the merging of most of Europe into one economy and a shift of power from the G7 to the larger G20. Accompanying the NATO expansion, Ballistic Missile Defenses (BMD) were installed in East Europe. These marked important steps in the military globalization.
The end of the Cold War intensified hopes for increasing international cooperation and strengthened international organizations to focus on approaching global issues. This has paved way for the establishment of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Environmentalism has also become a mainstream concern in the post-Cold War era following the circulation of widely accepted evidence for human activity's effects on Earth's climate. The same heightened consciousness is true of terrorism, owing largely to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and their global fallout.
During most of the latter half of the 20th century, the two most powerful states in the world were the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US). These two federations were called the world's superpowers.
The alliance between the US and USSR was simply against a greater common enemy and the two countries never really trusted each other. After the Axis was defeated, these two powers became highly suspicious of each other because of their vastly different ideologies.
This struggle, known as the Cold War, lasted from about 1947 to 1991, beginning with the second Red Scare and ending with the Dissolution of the Soviet Union. Prominent Historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, wrote at the dawn of the post-Cold War era that the characteristics of the new era are not yet certain but it is certain that it will be very different from the Cold War era and it means that a turning point of world-historical significance took place:
The new world of the post-Cold War era is likely to have few, if any, of these [Cold War] characteristics: that is an indication of how much things have already changed since the Cold War ended. We are at one of those rare points of 'punctuation' in history at which old patterns of stability have broken up and new ones have not yet emerged to take their place. Historians will certainly regard the years 1989–1991 as a turning point comparable in importance to the years 1789–1794, or 1917–1918, or 1945–1947; precisely what has 'turned,' however, is much less certain. We know that a series of geopolitical earthquakes have taken place, but it is not yet clear how these upheavals have rearranged the landscape that lies before us.
The term "post-Cold War" was criticized for its ambiguity: "Even though it has been ten years since the Berlin Wall came down," wrote Paul Wolfowitz in 2000, "we still have no better name for the period in which we live than the post-Cold War era." The name means that this new era “does not yet have a name.” It was suggested that Pax Americana or "clash of civilizations" would more reflect the reality of the era but the former term would be "offending for many." The same dilemma expressed Condoleezza Rice: “That we do not know how to think about what follows the US-Soviet confrontation is clear from the continued references to the "post-Cold War period.'" "We knew better where we had been than where we were going.”
Consequences of the Fall of Communism
The collapse of the Soviet Union caused profound changes in nearly every society in the world. Much of the policy and infrastructure of the West and the Eastern Bloc had revolved around the capitalist and communist ideologies respectively and the possibility of a nuclear warfare.
Government, economic and military institutions
The fall of Communism formed an existential threat for many institutions. The US military was forced to cut much of its expenditure, though the level rose again to comparable heights after the September 11 attacks and the initiation of the War on Terror in 2001.
The end of the Cold War also coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa. Declining Cold War tensions in the later years of the 1980s meant that the apartheid regime was no longer supported by the West as a bulwark against Communism and they were condemned with an embargo. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and the regime made steps to end apartheid, which were on an official basis completed by 1994 with the new election.
Socialist and Communist parties around the world saw drops in membership after the Berlin Wall fell and the public felt that free market ideology had won. Libertarian, neoliberal, nationalist and Islamist parties on the other hand benefited from the fall of the Soviet Union. As capitalism had "won", as people saw it, socialism and communism in general declined in popularity. Social-Democratic Scandinavian countries privatized many of their commons in the 1990s and a political debate on modern institutions re-opened. Scandinavian nations are now more seen as social democrat (see Nordic model).
The United States, having become the only global superpower, was also able to use this ideological victory to reinforce its leadership position in the new world order. It was claimed that, “the United States and its allies are on the right side of history”. The US also became the most dominant influence over the newly connecting global economy. However, this unipolar international system was in tension with the emerging potential for a multipolar world as India, China, and Japan developed to a point where they might challenge US hegemony. This created new potential for worldwide conflict, ending the balance, from mutually assured destruction in the case of nuclear war, which had held the world in a state of “long peace” throughout the Cold War.
The People's Republic of China, already having moved towards capitalism starting in the late 1970s and facing public anger after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in Beijing, moved even more quickly towards free market economics in the 1990s. McDonald's and Pizza Hut both entered the country in the second half of 1990, the first American chains in China aside from Kentucky Fried Chicken which had entered 3 years earlier in 1987. Stock markets were established in Shenzhen and Shanghai late in 1990 as well. The restrictions on car ownership were loosened in the early 1990s, causing the bicycle to decline as a form of transport by 2000.
The move to capitalism has increased the economic prosperity of China, but many people still live in poor conditions, working for companies for very small pay and in dangerous and poor conditions.
After the end of the Cold War, Communism would also end in Mongolia, Congo, Albania, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Angola, today there are only five remaining Communist countries in the world, China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.
Many other third world countries who had seen involvement from the United States and/or the Soviet Union were also able to resolve political conflicts with the removal of the ideological interests of these superpowers. As a result of the apparent victory of democracy and capitalism in the Cold War, many more countries adapted these systems, which also allowed them access to the benefits of global trade, as economic power became more prominent than military power in the international arena. However, as the United States maintained global power, its role in many Regime Changes during the Cold War went mostly officially unacknowledged, even when some, such as El Salvador and Argentina, resulted in extensive human rights violations.
The end of the Cold War allowed many technologies that were formerly off limits to the public to be declassified. The most important of these was the Internet, which was created as ARPANET by the Pentagon as a system to keep in touch following an impending nuclear war. The last restrictions on commercial enterprise online were lifted in 1995.
In the approximately two decades since, the Internet's population and usefulness grew immensely. Only about 20 million people (less than 0.5 percent of the world's population at the time) were online in 1995, mostly in the US and several other Western countries. By the mid-2010s, more than one third of the world's population was online.
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