A Brief History of International Relations: The World Made Easy
Every week there are puzzling reports of events involving China, Russia, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. They may not seem so baffling if media reports explained that the events are all part of an ongoing competition for global supremacy. This book’s objective is to make the world seem less perplexing by delivering essential context that facilitates connecting and grasping global events. Contextualization focuses on three areas: (1) the competition for global supremacy (1453–1945), (2) the 20th-century transition from giant empires to 193 nation-states, and (3) a shortage of qualified national leaders.
It strikes many as a shocking revelation that in the early 20th century the Chinese, Russians, Turks, and Europeans were still ruling most of the world and battling for global supremacy. Empires conquering, and subjugating populations sounds like the ancient history of gladiators fighting starving tigers, not something so recent that it provides simple explanations to many of today’s headlines, like Islamic unrest, obstinate China, Russian intransigence, European xenophobia, and American meddling.
What’s behind Islamic militants spewing venom toward “western imperialists?” The competition for global supremacy, the transition to nations states, and a shortage of adept leaders that are global citizens. It wasn’t long ago that Islamic empires were riding roughshod over Christian empires – the western imperialists. But in 1923 Muslim empires were gone, and Christian empires were “overseeing” their lands, which included allocating land for a new Zionist nation. For Muslims, these outcomes were mortifying, but it’s been worsened by political and religious leaders opportunistically interpreting history to cast Muslims as innocent victims of western Christian hegemons. Hence the venom.
In the 21st century, China’s rise has been inexorable; at some point it was inevitable. For centuries the Chinese Empire cut a daunting figure on the world stage. Then it suffered a Century of Humiliation (1839–1949) at the hands of Russian, Japanese, and European empires. Since 1949, China’s leaders have taken no prisoners. They have been executing strategies, some successful and some clearly not, to minimally re-dominate the world’s largest continent, home to 60 percent of the global population.
The Russian Empire shared the global limelight until its’ dissolution in the early 20th century. In the interwar years Russia, as the lead nation in the Soviet Union, was re-ascending. When World War II (WWII) ended it sat higher than it ever had on the global pecking order. It was positioned to redevelop an empire-like commanding presence on the world stage, but to do this, its leaders had to disregard the new zeitgeist of a world of sovereign nation-states providing fundamental freedoms for all. Soviet success lay in showcasing communism’s superiority to the democratic and capitalist systems used by western powers. Forty-six years later the showcase was a joke, and the Soviet Union lost its superpower perch and its empire. Their primary adversary had been the United States, a puny colony when Russia was a vast empire. Ouch. After the Cold War, Russia re-emerged again. It had all the appearances of round two with the western powers. The USA bore a bullseye.
In the early 21st century, membership was soaring for some anti-immigrant parties in European nations. Conjuring up memories of WWII’s very dark period of racism, many Europeans were surprised and horrified. But for centuries racism pervaded Europe’s global colonial empires and relations with non-European empires. Histories involving discrimination have a very long half-life.
The conversion from empires to nations occurred just in the nick of time. Early on competitors fought for religious converts. During the uber contests of WWI and WWII, there was no hint of moral purpose. Concentration camps, the vivisection of prisoners, and the murder and rape of millions of civilians reflected a competition for global supremacy that had gone too far. The global zeitgeist of massive imperial powers annexing tracts of land as large as continents and subjugating hundreds of millions of indigenous people had to end before it was too late.
Altering the course of history was a decision taken by WWII’s primary Allied Powers: China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (France was later added to this group of decision makers.) A principal vehicle for transitioning the world from empires to nation-states was the newly created United Nations, an organization where new and old nations alike committed to respect sovereignty and protect equal freedoms for all people. The most powerful roles at the UN were allocated to the primary Allied Powers and France. Political giants dominating the world during the Era of Empire (1453–1945) were positioned to do it again in an Era of Nation-States (1945–?), with two material changes. The United States was in, and an Islamic power was out.
In the Era of Nation-States, colonial populations had the opportunity to self-determine independence. Ready or not they flocked to be free from the subjugation of foreign empires. Annually for the next fifty years three sovereign nations,[i]on average, were added to the global atlas. In 1945, there were fifty-seven nations.[ii]In 2018, there were 193.
Declarations of independence were joyous events as the yoke of subjugated rule was finally over. But the euphoria was short-lived. People had been so focused on dispensing with the imperialists they failed to adequately contemplate their state of preparedness. And they were not prepared. There was no shortage of men stepping up to the plate to be national governors. There were so many wannabes; coups were as common as elections. Many new national leaders arrived in office and refused to leave outside a coup or a coffin. Instead of building infrastructure and institutions, many used national treasuries like personal piggy banks.
The Cold War was another problem. Divisions among the former WWII Allied Powers shattered the UN’s effectiveness and reignited the competition for global supremacy. Between 1947 and 1991 pro-democracy western powers including France and the United Kingdom but led by the US global-power neophyte engaged in proxy wars with the advocates for global communism led by the Soviet Union and China.
The Cold War tread comparatively lightly on Muslim-majority nations, but this hardly left them conflict free. The controversial creation of Israel, as a homeland for Jewish people amid Muslim nations, instigated successive Arab-Israeli and Iran-Israeli wars.[iii]In 1979 there was a new source of conflict. Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia commenced a proxy war for the leadership of Islam, the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and the entire community of Muslims. It was reminiscent of a return to the 16th to 18th-century battles between the Safavid and Ottoman empires.
An estimated 20 million people died from Cold War-related conflicts. Most were from new nations that were vulnerable to the influence of global powers. In the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Israeli conflicts, there were over 100,000 fatalities and millions became refugees. Casualties from the Iran-Saudi proxy wars are unknown. What is known, is where there was conflict there were setbacks to nation-building.
When the Cold War ended, pundits imagined that finally, global peace was at hand, there would be global ideological unity behind democracy and capitalist-weighted systems, the UN would resume its enumerated responsibilities, and countries would focus on nation-building. These were the naive thoughts of people unfamiliar with the ongoing competition for global supremacy. The world has never been united on democracy and capitalism or fundamental freedoms for all, in agreement with the roles of the UN, or even the replacement of empires by nation-states.
But there would be no return to empire. The world had turned a corner. The Soviet Union was the last hurrah of empires, and it did not turn out well.
Nation-building continued to face enormous challenges. The responsibilities for oversight allocated to the United Nations were dogged by disunited former Allied Powers and the Organization of Islamic Powers. A void of global supervision was replaced with regional oversight by familiar global powers. China, the European Union replacing Europe’s empires, Iran and Saudi Arabia for the Islamic empires, and Russia were rebuilding spheres of influence in areas where people followed similar religions, spoke similar languages, and shared common histories. These were the same areas ruled by their predecessor empires. Aftermaths of the competition for global supremacy created a means for the grandest competitors of the Era of Empire to perpetuate global power in the Era of Nation-States.
The influence these nations/unions have on their respective spheres has been impressive. The global influence of the United States has also been impressive. But rarely does influence exceed that from sovereign leaders. Sovereigns’ control national resources and ultimately decide on the relationships with foreign powers. They manage national success or failure. Their collective track records are abysmal. Initially, this was foreseeable. Neither the empires nor the UN were running national leadership academies. A continuation of so much lousy national leadership decades later is harder to reconcile. There is nothing that prevents sovereign nations from developing qualified leaders.
Nineteen forty-five was a pivotal year in world history and not just because WWII ended. This is when the world began transitioning from the Era of Empire (1453–1945) to the Era of Nation-States (1945–?). The Era of Nation-States is historically speaking brand new. The world is filled with start-up nations built upon the aftermaths of empires by many inexperienced and misguided leaders. Examining these premises offers context to connect and simplify world events. Instead of events being hard to fathom, there is an easy path to make them understandable. Grasping high-level issues, like why some nations are rich and others poor, and why some nations see discrimination as bad and others see it as useful for organizing society can be streamlined. Insights into the nuances of relationships between China, the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States can become increasingly evident.
At a more granular level there is context to grasp things like: Why does the United States attract so many poisonous barbs from nations in Latin America? What possesses Russia to create havoc in western democracies? Why did Islamic militancy begin rising when the Cold War ended? Why can’t nations in Eastern Europe escape the clutch of Russia? Why do many small nations in eastern Asia live in trepidation of rising China? Why do so many take exception to Western European statesman as the pontificators of peace? And, why was the UN’s mission as a peacekeeper doomed at inception?
[i]. A sovereign by definition has ultimate power between its recognized borders.
[ii]. In this book, the term nation refers to a UN-recognized sovereign. However, applying this definition in 1945 would leave out nations like Germany, Italy, and Japan because initially the only sovereigns recognized by the UN were those that supported the Allied Powers. In this instance, the reference to fifty-seven nations is an approximate number of independent nations in 1945.
[iii]. With the Soviet Union supporting Arab nations and the United States supporting Israel, some consider these Cold War-related conflicts, but these wars had nothing to do with communists vs. democrats or anti-communists, and they continued after the Cold War ended.