Introducing International Relations
Reflections on world politics tend to be shaped by defining events that have precipitated significant change, especially those associated with episodes of large-scale violence such as the world wars of the twentieth century and the more recent 'war on terror'. The threat of violence on a potentially massive scale also underscored the dynamics of the Cold War period which dominated world politics for over four decades. The discipline of International Relations (IR) itself was born out of a need to address the causes of war and the conditions for peace in the wake of the First World War, and this has remained an essential focus ever since. While the earlier focus was very largely on interstate warfare and the role of state actors there is a strong case for giving equal attention to civil war, which, although ostensibly a 'domestic' matter, has a very significant impact in the international sphere.
Violence, however, is not the only factor capable of triggering disruption in the international system. Economic factors also have a major impact. From the Great Depression, which started in 1929, to the financial crises of the contemporary period, the sphere of international relations is clearly subject to significant fallout from economic calamities. Another contemporary challenge concerns the global environment, with global warming leading to climate change being one among a number of serious concerns for the longer-term future of humankind and life on the planet. So profound is the impact of human activity on the planet, especially since the advent of modern industrialism, that many believe we are entering, or have in fact already entered, a new geological epoch - the Anthropocene - as we see below.
An important point to note from the start is that these issues are all underpinned by profound normative concerns - that is, concerns with how the world ought (or ought not ) to be from some ethical standpoint. This theme informs much of the discussion throughout the book and highlights the fact that the study of IR cannot confine itself simply to descriptions of events and the compiling of facts.
Eras in World Politics
The present period in world politics is often characterized as the 'post-9/11 period', signifying the major repercussions of the terrorist attacks on landmark targets in New York and Washington, DC, which occurred on 9 September 2001. These attacks triggered the war in Afghanistan and also underscored the rationale for the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies in 2003. The long-term effects of the 'war on terror', as former US President George W. Bush and his administration dubbed the invasion of these countries, are still playing out in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, and there is certainly a strong sense in which current perceptions of world political dynamics are shaped by it.
There is also still a sense in which we occupy a 'post-Cold War period', for, although we are now in a new millennium and the Cold War is fast receding into history, the collapse of the bipolar world order in 1989-91, which marked the end of over four decades of superpower rivalry and culminated in the emergence of the US as a hegemonic power, continues to at least partly define the present period. It is interesting to note that, at the time, the Cold War era itself was generally referred to as the 'postwar' period while the years from 1918 to 1939 are known as the 'interwar' period. Large-scale wars, whether hot or cold, therefore constituted defining moments in world politics throughout much of the twentieth century. Considering it is widely regarded as the bloodiest century yet in terms of lives lost in violent conflict, this is probably appropriate.
Another way of conceptualizing the present period is by reference to the process of globalization. Although this phenomenon h