The Post-Imperial Age; & Law and War Since 1945

Lawrence Freedman reviews two new works on the post-war balance of global power

Lawrence Freedman | Published in
  • The Post-Imperial Age: The Great Powers and the Wider World
    J.P.D. Dunbabin – Longman, 1994 - xxii + 549 pp. - £44
  • Law and War Since 1945
    Geoffrey Best - Clarendon Press, 1994 - xiv + 434pp. - £25

The period from 1945 to 1990 is destined to be remembered as the age of the Cold War, yet the East-West confrontation was only one of its defining features. The other was the process of decolonisation. Arguably, the last act of the Cold War – the break-up of the Soviet empire – constituted the last act of the imperial age. As Yugoslavia has shown, states may still fragment into even smaller units, yet there is now a sense that the expansion of the international society of states is all but complete.
This has had the result of transforming the role of great powers. They are no longer engaged in conquest and they find it difficult to identify strategic imperatives of any clarity to guide their foreign policies. If they do not threaten each others' territories, and the ideological dispute has now been resolved in favour of market forces, do they need to continue to eye each other so warily? If the sources of conflict these days lie in post-colonial upheavals, need the erstwhile 'Great Powers' feel any obligation at all to tip to impose some order? But if they do not, who will?

John Dunbabin's book describes the processes through which great powers come to disentangle themselves from distant parts. The discussion of the formal conclusion of decolonisation is in itself quite short. The bulk of the book is taken up with the subsequent years, as the successor states sought to establish themselves, but often finding their independence compromised by some local predator or the intrusion of the Cold War, and thus Great Power politics, into regional squabbles.

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