After the Cold War, the US became the absolute dominant power and emerged as an ideological champion of capitalism by defeating the communist bloc led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While being at the top of world supremacy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the huge economic crisis of 2007-2010 and the Wikileaks-Snowden scandals diminished its reputation among the rest of the world.
At the same time, the system of globalization that the US promoted allowed other countries to rise in power, gradually transforming the world from being unipolar to multipolar (several poles of geopolitical power). Despite many well-established scholars predicting that this global interconnectedness through modern institutions would bring world peace and stability, there is a growing feeling that the international crisis seems bigger than ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The reason why many conflicts are escalating right now is because the world is experiencing a rearrangement of geopolitical blocks. The source of the current tensions come from various decades ago, but because of the nature of the unipolar world that preceded the actual one, these conflicts were cushioned by the hegemonic power of the US. In short, there have been many frozen and unresolved conflicts from the past that today are having suitable conditions to express themselves.
Certainly, today the world is geopolitically more dangerous (risk for major global conflicts) than since 1945 is because during the Cold War there was a balance of power between two blocks (NATO vs Communist block). Then from 1991 to 2010, the US had absolute economic and military supremacy in the world, which ensured that nobody could challenge this order by starting a major conflict.
But, in the last decade, other countries like Russia, China, India and the Gulf States have created additional poles of power, leading to an increased competition among geopolitical blocks compared to the 90s. And very importantly, these blocks contain a high level of differentiation in terms of values and cultures, which is the opposite of the “Global Village” that many predicted, in which ‘the humankind would be a sole one’. These tensions arise as these blocks seek to achieve a fair amount of power in order to secure their survival and the continuation of their systems of values.
Indeed, many experts did not see these changes coming as there was a strong consensus among policy-makers and scholars that the future of international relations was about tight regional cooperation blocs (EU, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Then, according to this model, all these blocs would get along well because of the economic primacy of ensuring world trade and peaceful resolutions of conflicts.
As the world was becoming more liberal in the 2010s with intense globalization, use of information technologies, and the increased anger towards hierarchical social structures, Critical Theories rose among the western Academia and the public opinion. This mindset emphasized that most of the problems in the world were due to the existence of racist, patriarchal and colonialist structures that ‘kept individuals trapped’. Thus, the remnants of conservative norms in the western world were attacked while a new wave of liberalism emerged with issues regarding race, gender and transnationalism.
However, the events in the last two decades show that concepts that were strongly dismissed by the political and intellectual elites in the West, like nationalism, strong borders, ethnic-identity, clash of cultures, diversity in values and geopolitical competition, turned out to be pretty much alive. This has been especially true among the white middle-class men, and now it is clear that conservative norms would not disappear just easily with modernity. Some sectors of the western societies realized that in order to survive and compete in this new multipolar world there was a need to come back to more nationalistic sets of norms.
Some examples of this ‘popular backlash against liberal elites’ in the western world include Brexit (2015), Trump (2016) and extreme-right parties changing the political outcomes in Europe (2015 to present). The main consequences in public policy of these changes have been manifested in more restrictive migration policies, more economic protectionism, increased budgets for national defense and using terms more frequently in the public discourses that cherishes conservative values like patriotism, family, security, and traditional gender roles.