Skip to content

The Post-War International Order: Past, Present, Future?

  • Home
  • Posts
  • The Post-War International Order: Past, Present, Future?
Authored by Dr. Danielle Young
Published on 16th August, 2021 12 min read

The Post-War International Order: Past, Present, Future?

In Western historiography, it is often presented as a given that the end of the Second World War ushered in a new international order. As this archival collection shows, a series of treaties and institutions including the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the pre-cursors to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Union (EU) have clearly identifiable roots in the immediate post-war period and were in many ways developed in response to both World Wars that preceded them. 

Packaging these developments as a clearly identifiable international order can make history more intelligible and accessible to us. This packaging is not necessarily wrong, but it is incomplete, and less distinctive than it may appear at first glance. The meaning of events alters over time, the role of institutions and our understanding of them change, and our historical record sometimes becomes more expansive and detailed. The "post-war" period, for example, was not post-war at all for several key actors, especially China.[1] The "post-war" period was neither a definitive end to conflicts and clashes that had been brewing before and during the Second World War, such as that between the United States and the Soviet Union, nor was it a definitive beginning of something new. The process of decolonization and the struggle for independence from European rulers, for example, began well before the post-war period and persists in many ways despite an international order that theoretically rejects formal, explicit imperialism. 

It is important, then, to tread lightly and reflect carefully on what we mean when we talk about any international order, post-war or otherwise. At the same time, the idea of a post-war international order has taken on new significance as the institutions, ideas, and leaders of that international order seem to falter in the face of serious challenges, both internal and international. 

In what follows, I will briefly examine what we mean by international order, the historical (and relatively recent) development of global international orders, and how contemporary challenges to the "post-war" international order reveal its significance and shortcomings.

What We Mean By "International Order"

Fragmentation and multiplicity always characterize international politics to some extent because "international" implies the existence of discrete political units, whether those are states or other forms of political communities.[2] International orders, broadly speaking, emerge out of how these different political units interact with each other over time. Political units that engage in practices of exchange and interaction, such as trade, develop rules that regulate their dealings with each other, although those rules do not necessarily reflect an intentional or equitable process.[3]  Such orders also falter, disintegrate or transform as these interactions change, whether as the result of events or practices that are internal or external to the existing order. The control or stability implied by the word "order" is thus never complete and never permanent. 

International order that is global in scope only became possible in the past couple of centuries with the advent of technologies that accelerated, in speed and volume, the travel of people, ideas, and goods.[4] Regional international orders were much more historically common as a result of the limitations on things like how far, how fast, and how many people could travel, and what kind of weapons technology they had to impose their will on others.[5] Industrialization and changes in weapons technology enabled and intensified practices of colonization and imperialism that helped to forge the beginnings of a global international order, albeit one characterized by domination, violence, and extraction, and that still reflected aspects of older, regional orders. 

The Historical Development of Global International Orders

The more or less global order that emerged during the period of European imperialist expansion retained key elements of prior more localized European order that is often traced back, in International Relations scholarship, to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which is posited as the end of the Thirty Years War that wracked much of Europe and led to the emergence of modern states, though this historical account is heavily contested.[6] 

The idea of sovereign equality among states is part and parcel of the 1648 Westphalian international order and is an assumption that has persisted in subsequent iterations of international order, including the "post-war" international order. 1648 serves as shorthand for the idea that there is no sovereign above states in the international system—thus it is a system characterized by anarchy in which no state is above another. However, despite the repeated insistence on anarchy being the defining feature of the international system, the Eurocentrism of international political orders since at least the nineteenth century has always had gradations or hierarchies of sovereignty, with "civilized" Western states at the top of or central to the international order.[7] 

The World Wars helped dispense with some of the practices and structures that characterized the nineteenth century international order, centred around Europe and European imperialism, and that had carried forward monarchical structures of government from earlier iterations of the regional European order. However, not everything was swept away—no new international order emerges with a fully clean slate that carries on no significant elements of the order(s) that came before. 

The nineteenth century and past practices of overt imperialism and racism are sometimes used to make the post-war or contemporary international order seem far more innocent and evolved than the reality warrants.[8] While certain explicit practices of racism and imperialism became unacceptable during the twentieth century because of developments such as anti-imperialist rhetoric from both the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, this did not mean that racism and imperialism disappeared from the international, or even became less significant.[9] 

According to John M. Hobson: “In general, the upshot of the emergent Western racist-imperialist guilt complex was not so much a turn away from imperialism in practice, given that both the Western superpowers continued it in a variety of ways between 1945 and 1989, even if it reined in Europe’s imperialist ambitions—but a desire to hide or obscure imperialism from view.”[10] Outright annexation of territory for explicitly colonial purposes became more or less taboo in the post-war international order, but many past practices were sublimated into economic and political relations that reproduced similar colonial or Eurocentric hierarchies.[11] 

Since its inception, whatever post-war international order that exists has been under siege. This is in no small part due to being born in battle, and even as a battlefront. Just as the dates and meaning of the Second World War vary for different actors, how to date the beginning of the Cold War is a matter of some debate. Were the US and the Soviet Union set on an inevitable collision course, temporarily interrupted by their mutual concern with the rise of the Third Reich, in 1917? Did the Cold War begin before the Second World War ended in the Pacific theatre or the race for control of Europe? Did it start with the Truman doctrine in 1947? 

There is a case for all of these, but the point in this context is that the actions taken, and institutions developed in the "post-war" period cannot be easily disentangled from Cold War machinations. The UN, perhaps the paradigmatic institution of the "post-war" international order, has never fully realized the vision that informed its establishment because of the decades-long near confrontation between its designated "great powers" on the Security Council. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), recognized by this archive as a key institution in the "post-war" international order, is also very obviously a salvo in the battle over what the nature of international order will be in a "post" Second World War but not post-conflict world. Outside of, or at least parallel to the Cold War context, the "post-war" international order and its institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—later WTO—have been subject to continuous challenge and critique for their role in reproducing practices that continue patterns of exploitation rooted in imperialism. The orderliness of the "post-war" international order has always been in question. 

Contemporary Challenges to the "Post-War" International Order

Most of the institutions of the "post-war" international order are still active today and still comprise an international order with global reach, but how to refer to that order and what its future might be are the subject of both debate and concern. Whether it is a "rule-based" international order, liberal international order, US-led international order or the same "post-war" international order, it is floundering. The nuclear governance regime, central to contemporary international order by any name, is being described as unravelling or in crisis.[12] Such crisis does not bode well for international governance of emerging technologies in Artificial Intelligence or Climate Geoengineering. Extant international order continues to fail to meet the growing challenges of climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deeply dysfunctional system of international cooperation. Key actors in the international order, especially the US and the UK, are experiencing internal political turmoil that has also placed them at odds with or seriously strained relations between them are other core actors and institutions, including NATO and the EU. Russian interference in elections and broader disregard for the rules of international order, evidenced not least by its 2014 invasion of Crimea, call into question how effective or cohesive international order remains and China’s continued economic rise and political and military expansion raise questions about when and how the political centre of gravity in international order might shift or transform into something new. 

The seeds of many, if not all these challenges were arguably planted in the immediate post-war period into which this archive provides a valuable window. The advent of nuclear weapons was central to the need for and shape of international order in the post-war period. The problem of nuclear weapons has not disappeared or even diminished, but the map for their continued governance is hard to read. NATO’s existence and persistence after the end of the Cold War is indicative of the centrality of securing a certain set of values, as well as providing straightforward security, and tensions over its future reveal increasing tension over those values. The US has shown itself to be less willing, but more importantly much less able to lead the international order it was integral to forging. The UK is in the process of negotiating a new position in the world with its break from the EU, and that new position may well be defined by its continuing tensions with the EU. Here, perhaps, is both one of the clearer examples of the continuity of international order, and an indicator of uncharted waters to come. 

The Future of the "Post-War" International Order

The UK, for better or worse, has been at the centre of global international order for the past two centuries. During the nineteenth and into the twentieth century it forcibly shaped an international order it was able to more or less dominate. The centre could not hold, but despite the end of the formal empire, the UK retained vestiges of its former position and established itself as a key player in the post-war international order over time and in part through its association with what became the EU. An undercurrent of tension has existed between Britain and Europe writ large through several iterations of regional European and then global international orders. What may be swept away with any new emerging or significantly transformed international order is how much that tension matters. We may (or may not) finally be moving towards an international order with a de-centred Europe, and a UK unaffiliated with a de-centred Europe is not likely to retain its status as a much diminished but still "great" power in that situation. Given the many, varied, and major challenges the international order currently faces it is impossible to get a clear reading of the tea leaves. However, this archive contains information that is core to any insightful analysis of the past, present or future of international order. 


References and Bibliography

[1] 'Chinese Civil War, 1945-1949', obo, accessed June 23, 2021,

[2] Justin Rosenberg, 'Basic Problems in the Theory of Uneven and Combined Development. Part II: Unevenness and Political Multiplicity', Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, no. 1 (March 2010): 165–89.

[3] George Lawson, ‘The Rise of Modern International Order’, The Globalization of World Politics, 8th edition (2020): 39-52.

[4] Barry Buzan and George Lawson. The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015).

[5] Daniel R. Headrick, 'The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century', The Journal of Modern History 51, no. 2, (1979): 231–63.

[6] Andreas Osiander, 'Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth', International Organization 55, no. 2 (2001): 251–87; Benjamin de Carvalho, Halvard Leira, and John M. Hobson, 'The Big Bangs of IR: The Myths That Your Teachers Still Tell You about 1648 and 1919', Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39, no. 3 (May 2011): 735–58.

[7] John M. Hobson. The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 334-335.

[8] Hobson offers several examples of this ‘whitewashing.’ See: Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, pp. 320-321.

[9] Daniel Immerwahr. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Picador, 2019).

[10] Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, p. 320.

[11] Geeta Chowdhury and Sheila Nair. Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations. (London: Routledge, 2004).

[12] Miriam Barnum and James Lo, 'Is the NPT Unraveling? Evidence from Text Analysis of Review Conference Statements', Journal of Peace Research 57, no. 6 (November 1, 2020): 740–51; Alexey Arbatov, 'Mad Momentum Redux? The Rise and Fall of Nuclear Arms Control', Survival 61, no. 3 (May 4, 2019): 7–38.


Image: United Nations Emergency Force soldiers resting in Sinai during the Suez Crisis. Credit: Zdravko Pečar - Museum of African Art (Belgrade). 

Authored by Dr. Danielle Young

Dr. Danielle Young

Dr. Danielle Young is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of the Ozarks in the United States. She earned her PhD in International Politics from Aberystwyth University in Wales. She has an Mlitt in International Security Studies from the University of St Andrews and an MSc in International Relations from Aberystwyth University. Her research interests include International Relations theory, global security challenges, historical sociology and the history of the modern international system.

Share this article

Contextual Essays
Back to Top