Cold War I, Post-Cold War and Cold War II: Geopolitical Contexts for UN Peacekeeping, Human Rights and NATO

Michael Doyle
December 10, 2021

UN peacekeeping, human rights and NATO have flourished in complementary contrast with each other. Their relationship has evolved against the shifts between three geopolitical eras since the Second World War: the first (the first Cold War) began in about 1948 and lasted until 1988; the second (the Post-Cold War Liberal Primacy) ran from 1989 to around 2012; finally, since 2012 the world has been threatened with the emergence of a second Cold War.

During the first geopolitical era, NATO was the centerpiece of the Western Cold War alliance. However, its importance declined when the Cold War waned. Thereafter, during the Post-Cold War Liberal Primacy, Human Rights and UN peacekeeping flourished. In our current geopolitical era, both Human Rights and UN peacekeeping are under stress, yet it is not clear that these new forces are strengthening NATO.

Human Rights during Cold War I

Human rights––as established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ––UN peacekeeping and NATO were all born between 1948 and 1949. The first two preceded, and the last directly reflected, an escalating Cold War.

The Cold War was a warlike conflict aiming at defeat, “burial,” but not by military conquest. Hot war between the US-led West and Soviet-led East was deterred first by the power of conventional arsenals and subsequently by the weight of nuclear deterrence.

Instead, the United States and USSR competed with each other through proxy wars in East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America and through industrial rivalry, covert action, propaganda campaigns and cultural struggle.

The Cold War was comprised of a threefold multidimensional mutually reinforcing rivalry; first, a bipolar international system; second, competition between capitalist and communist economic systems; third, contestation between two political ideologies – liberal democracy and communist dictatorship.

The UDHR was endorsed in 1948, just as the era of the WWII “United Nations” alliance was fading and Cold War tensions were rising between Western Liberalism and Soviet Communism. Eleanor Roosevelt’s social democracy, John Peters Humphrey’s liberalism, and Charles Malik and Rene Cassin’s cultural humanism kept these ideologies together enough to produce the UDHR amalgam.

The UDHR passed in 1948 with no negative votes, 48 positive, but with 9 abstentions (including the USSR, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and – for obvious reasons – South Africa and Saudi Arabia). This soon produced divisions on human rights, with the West sponsoring civic and political rights and the East social and economic rights – all of which had been united in the UDHR.           

NATO and Peacekeeping during Cold War I

A multilateral stalemate between the East and the West at the United Nations Security Council also limited the scope of UN peacekeeping. “First generation” peacekeeping emerged in 1948, designed to launch interpositions between warring parties to monitor truces. However, its reach was limited to the few conflicts that both the United States and the USSR wanted to isolate, and its functions were limited to monitoring truces – with the notable exceptions of peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Lebanon.

On the other hand, NATO directly reflected and flourished in the Cold War. It was not merely a military alliance, as suggested by its preamble, which stipulated that:

“The Parties to this Treaty… reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

The Cold War stimulated, reinforced and gave shape to NATO’s confrontation with the Warsaw Pact across Europe, which was replicated and mirrored in numerous regional conflicts and in the alphabet soup of alliances including the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) with a focus on the Middle East.

In the Post-Cold War Period Human Rights and Peacekeeping flourished and NATO’s role evolved

The Cold War ended with Gorbachev’s loosening of the restraints on Eastern Europe: the famous “Sinatra Doctrine” (each country could now do it “my way”); his announcement that open democracy was the crucial foundation of genuine socialism (1985 Party Congress Speech); and, most strikingly, his announcement that human rights were not Western, but were rather “human values”, owned and acknowledged by all human beings. The end of the Cold War was reinforced by movement the toward glasnost and perestroika in the USSR and ultimately secured with its collapse in 1991.

After the Cold War, human rights doctrines flourished; with the highpoint being the 1993 Vienna Declaration’s consensus that human rights are “universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated” – rhetorically amalgamating civic and political rights with their economic and social counterparts.

Similarly, with the UN Secretary-General’s Report on an Agenda for Peace (1992) UN peacekeeping flourished with a rapid escalation in the number and depth of missions: move from First Generation ceasefire monitoring to Second Generation multidimensional peacebuilding and third Generation peace enforcement (including the protection of civilians).

Before 1988, there were 13 peacekeeping operations (an average of just over 3 per decade), while between 1988 to 2010 there were 53 (26 per decade).

Whilst human rights and peacekeeping operations blossomed, NATO entered a period of identity crisis. It had been designed to deter the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and to stop the spread of communism. What should it do once these threats were gone? Indeed, many scholars of International Relations predicted its rapid demise.

NATO, however, did not die. Rather it expanded its membership and evolved by undertaking new roles, including peacekeeping in the Balkans and then peace enforcement in Afghanistan. Institutions rarely do die; the United States still has two powerful regiments called cavalry, though now they ride helicopters and armored personnel carriers (APCs). But NATO budgets fell and readiness slipped.

Are we in a New Cold War?

Since 2012 – the year of Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency and Xi Jinping’s ascendancy in China, both of which sparked alarm in the United States and Europe – we have seen the re-emergence of global rivalry. These phenomena can be understood as the threatened development of a second Cold War.

The West is alarmed by cyberthreats. The United States, United Kingdom and French intelligence services all agree that Putin waged a concerted campaign to intervene in United States, French and British elections and referenda in 2016. It is widely assumed that this cyberwarfare was undertaken with the intention of tilting elections toward Right-wing candidates or with the purpose of discrediting democracy itself. China is seen as a geostrategic power rival by the United States – one that might replace it – and is deeply engaged in industrial espionage and technology theft. This new level of tension is characteristic of a legitimacy conflict.

Russia has acted aggressively because it resents its eclipse since the 1990s and because it is fearful of democratic upheavals encouraged from abroad, tilting former allies toward NATO and impinging upon its sphere of influence. In particular, it has been concerned by the “color” revolutions which have toppled pro-Russian oligarchies in Ukraine and Georgia. China feels that it is being contained by the US.

Both China and Russia have experienced the emergence of autocracy and hyper-nationalism which put an internal premium on external conflict (whether focused on Ukraine or the South China Sea) as a way to gin up nationalist support and reinforce autocracy by discrediting local internationalist voices.

Moreover, the tension between Russia and China on the one hand, and the United States on the other, are also the result of deep institutional differences between them. Russia and China are Corporatist Nationalist Autocracies (CNAs) which are aligned with remaining communist states – North Korea and Cuba – and clients such as Venezuela.

Conversely, the United States (as well as other allies, such as the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Japan) are liberal capitalist democracies. By “liberal” I do not mean that they are left leaning politically but rather classically liberal ranging from social democracy, which envisages extensive social welfare, to libertarian, which presupposes minimal social welfare. In the US case, the range is from Bernie Sanders to Paul Ryan.

Importantly, this burgeoning second Cold War is not as extreme as its predecessor. Neither Russia nor China is as implacably hostile as USSR or PRC were during the first Cold War. There are areas of common concern between current actors. The United States and China both worry about the nuclearization of North Korea; the European Union and China are both troubled by climate change; and the United States, European Union and Russia are connected in efforts against Islamic State terrorism. Moreover, all these actors are much more economically interdependent than during the original Cold War, and tensions between them are thus much more costly.

An odd dynamic of the second Cold War is that the United States is a Liberal Capitalist Democracy, but Donald Trump was not a liberal in the usual sense of that word. Although even the Trump government was democratic and capitalist, Trump endorsed torture and trafficked in the rhetoric of violence and white nationalism. He was much closer to the views of Putin (and many other hyper-nationalists such as Poland’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro) than any previous or current liberal leaders.

The concoction between rising Cold War style tensions and Trump’s illiberalism greatly harmed the human rights project. The United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council––although the US recently rejoined it). China and Russia also made aggressive moves to undermine human rights. China’s actions against Uighurs and Putin’s attack against freedom of speech (criticism of state and government is now illegal) have both been condemned by the European Union Parliament.

How does the New Cold War affect Peacekeeping, Human Rights and NATO?

A commitment to UN peacekeeping has also been collateral damage of escalating tensions. There have been only 5 peacekeeping operations launched since 2012, and because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Security Council has been AWOL on Syria.

One might thus expect that NATO, as during the first Cold War, should now be reviving. However, although European and Canadian defense expenditure, after falling during the Great Recession, sharply revived in 2014, NATO too entered a crisis. NATO became subject to deep divisions between its Western European members and the United States. To quote two prominent diplomats, Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute:

“The single greatest challenge NATO faces today is the critical need for reviving strong, reliable American leadership… At the most basic level, the next American president must reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Alliance, especially the Article 5 collective defense pledge, in both words and deeds. Given the opportunity to do so within months of his inauguration in May 2017, President Trump refused to honor the U.S. commitment to Article 5, even while unveiling a memorial at the new NATO headquarters commemorating its historic invocation after 9/11.”

Ironically, then, the New Cold War has been producing problematic prospects for all three pillars of post-World War II international order. UN peacekeeping operations and human rights are harmed by the new Cold War rivalry, while NATO is damaged by Trump’s Presidency.

The Biden Presidency signals a new era, restoring US rhetorical support for alliances, reaffirming human rights and multilateral cooperation, endorsing global efforts to curb climate change. It also defined the global order as a contest between “autocracies and democracies.” Restoring the liberal order bodes well for US international security, but it also signals that the forces moving the global order toward a new version a cold war are far from eliminated.

About the Author

Michael W. Doyle is a University Professor of Columbia University in the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Law School and the Department of Political Science.  His current research focuses on international law and international relations.  His major publications include Ways of War and Peace (W.W. Norton); Empires (Cornell University Press); Making War and Building Peace (Princeton Press); Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict (Princeton Press); and The Question of Intervention: J.S. Mill and the Responsibility to Protect (Yale University Press, 2015).  He served as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan where his responsibilities included strategic planning (the “Millennium Development Goals”), outreach to the international corporate sector (the “Global Compact’) and relations with Washington. He also served as an individual member and the chair of the UN Democracy Fund from 2006 through 2013.

The author thanks Nathan Feldman for his assistance in preparing this draft. This essay draws on a talk presented to the American Society of International Law in 2019. The author plans to address these themes in his forthcoming book: Cold Peace (WW Norton).

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.