World Affairs

Turbulent decades

Print edition : February 06, 2015

The last 30 years in international politics witnessed many momentous events that have decisively changed the course of history. The 1980s began with the disastrous eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, which led to the death of more than a million people. That war witnessed the widespread use of chemical weapons. The decade of the 1980s was a defining one in many ways. The South African army, the most powerful on the continent, was defeated in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 by a combined Cuban- Angolan force. The military defeat in the battle, the biggest fought on African soil since the Second World War, signalled the start of the complete decolonisation of southern Africa. Namibia soon became free and the racist apartheid regime in South Africa was weakened beyond repair.


Even as the last vestiges of colonialism were crumbling, the Soviet Union, which had played a key role in the struggle against imperialism, was experiencing an existential crisis of its own. The election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the presidency and his reformist policies of “perestroika” and “glasnost” brought into play political forces that would, within a short period of time, manipulate the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the sidelining of the Communist Party of Russia. The Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving the country at the mercy of warlords, Islamists and their American and Pakistani handlers. The Socialist bloc also started unravelling by the end of the 1980s. Poland, with the Solidarity Movement leading the way, was the first to leave the Socialist East Bloc in 1989.

There was an attempt to stage a counterrevolution in China, under the guise of spreading democracy and freedom. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were the first serious destabilisation threat against communist rule in China since the 1949 revolution. The protests, spearheaded by student groups in Beijing, were put down within days after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stepped in. The economic reforms started by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s were accelerated after that by the Communist Party leadership. China never experienced any further political turbulence on the scale witnessed in Tiananmen. From the 1990s, the Communist Party’s single-minded focus was on ensuring China’s peaceful rise as a global super power.

In South Asia, the civil war in Sri Lanka had prompted the Indian government to dispatch the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to the north of the country. The IPKF’s presence in the island from 1987 to 1990 only complicated matters, both domestically and internationally for India. In neighbouring Pakistan, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s rule ended after he was killed in a plane crash in 1988. Civilian rule once again returned, but the army has continued to cast a long shadow. In the elections that followed, Benazir Bhutto went on to become the first woman Prime Minister of the country in 1988. She was on her way to becoming Prime Minister once again before an assassin’s bullet stopped her in 2007.

The 1990s decade was an even more eventful one. The beginning of the decade witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. It signalled the end of the Cold War between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Multi-polarity in international politics became an immediate casualty after the Soviet Union broke up a few years later. The Warsaw Pact, the rival to NATO and led by the Soviet Union, was disbanded. Despite promises given to the Soviet leadership at the time, NATO was not dissolved, but has, instead, continued to expand eastward to Russia’s borders. Key Eastern European countries, former military allies of Moscow, are now NATO members.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison in 1990. The apartheid government was duly voted out in the first free elections that followed. When Mandela was sworn in as President in 1994. In that year, Africa also witnessed the horrendous genocide in Rwanda which claimed more than a million lives. Mandela only chose to serve one term in office. He became a revered elder statesman. His passing away in December 2013 closed a glorious chapter in the annals of the anti-colonialism struggle. Leaders from all over the world came to pay their tributes to the departed leader.

In 1991, the year when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. and its allies launched the first Gulf War against Iraq. That war devastated Iraq’s economy and led to inhumane sanctions being imposed on the country. The full-scale invasion and occupation of Iraq was to follow 14 years later. In a unipolar world, the West was now free to embark on wars and military interventions in an unencumbered way. The break-up of the Yugoslav Federation was an illustration. The civil war embroiling the Serbs, the Croats, the Kosovars and the Bosnians gave Washington the pretext to intervene, culminating in the NATO-led war against Yugoslavia in 1999. That war was a precursor to the U.S.-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and military interventions in other countries.

Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo Peace Agreement in 1995. The agreement was supposed to lead to a two-state solution within years. But the Jewish state has reneged on its commitments since then and the struggle for a Palestinian state continues 20 years after the signing of the accords. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who signed the Oslo deal with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was assassinated by a Zionist in 1996. Arafat passed away in 2004. The Palestinians believe that he was a victim of an Israeli assassination plot. President Saddam Hussein, who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad imposed by the American occupation forces, was tried by a kangaroo court and sent to the gallows at the end of 2006. Despite his many political missteps, the Iraqi leader had cast a larger-than-life shadow on the world stage.

The 1990s ended with attention focussed on the Indian subcontinent. India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in quick succession in 1998, becoming de facto members of the elite nuclear club. Sanctions were clamped on both the countries by the West. In the same year, international terrorism announced its arrival in a big way, when the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam were targeted. As the 1990s drew to a close, a charismatic figure emerged from Latin America in the form of Hugo Chavez. He won the elections in Venezuela, signalling the rise of a “pink tide” in the rest of Latin America. Today, the majority of governments in the region are ruled by progressive governments pursuing an independent foreign policy.

The last decade did not begin on an auspicious note. The terror attacks of 9/11 had a profound impact on world politics. The events triggered an American response that continues to have a global impact. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on specious grounds have given a fillip to international terrorism. Much of the Muslim world is in ferment. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are in turmoil, with their neighbourhoods also being impacted. The Americans had a grandiose design to redraw the map of West Asia after the invasion of Iraq. Their immediate targets were states that refused to be drawn into their orbit, like Syria and Libya. Iran has been in Washington’s sights since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Since the last decade, Washington has been tightening sanctions on the country. There were expectations of the much-heralded nuclear deal with Iran being signed in 2014. The deal has yet to materialise as the West is demanding even more concessions from Tehran.

Israel launched an invasion against Lebanon in 2006 in an abortive bid to defeat the Hizbollah militia. The Israeli military had better luck hitting the civilian populace in Gaza in two invasions. The first, “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Gazans, most of them civilians. In the 2014 invasion, even more damage was inflicted on the besieged population. The Palestinian Authority has now taken Israel to the International War Crimes Tribunal.

The chaos in the region has been compounded by the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” rebellions. The West and its allies in the region have cynically used the Arab Spring uprisings to pursue their own agendas. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have already been hijacked. In Libya, a secular government has been forcefully overthrown by the West. In Syria, the West and its allies funded Islamists and terror groups to oust the government. The political and military vacuum left by outside interventions in Iraq and Syria has led to the growth of new and more powerful groupings like the Islamic State (IS) that have supplanted Al Qaeda in their messianic zeal and terrorist acumen. More than 200,000 civilians have been killed in Syria. Four million Syrians have been turned into refugees.

In Sri Lanka, the brutal civil war finally ended in 2009. The LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed on the battlefield along with thousands of his fighters and civilians trapped in the conflict zone. But the scars left behind by the three-decade-long conflict are yet to heal. The surprise defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who spearheaded the campaign against the Tigers, in the recently concluded elections could provide the necessary balm for the beleaguered Tamil population of the island. In Pakistan, as recent events have shown, the Taliban and other terrorist groups have yet to be subdued.

More ominously, as the raging civil war in Ukraine has illustrated, there is a growing danger of another Cold War being ig nited. This war has the potential of escalating into another face-off between the old adversaries, Washington and Moscow.

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