Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 2 Notes: Historical Context

  • What developments shaped world history before the twentieth century?
  • What were the causes and consequences of World War I?
  • What factors resulted in the outbreak of the World War II?
  • What were the causes and consequences of the 'end of empire'?
  • Why did the Cold War emerge after 1945, and how did it end?
  • What are the major factors that have shaped post-Cold War world history?

Politics and history are inextricably linked. In a simple sense, politics is the history of the present while history is the politics of the past. An understanding of history therefore has two benefits for students of politics. First, the past, and especially the recent past, helps us to make sense of the present, by providing it with a necessary context or background. Second, history can provide insight into present circumstances (and perhaps even guidance for political leaders), insofar as the events of the past resemble those of the present. History, in that sense, 'teaches lessons'. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush thus justified the 'war on terror' in part by pointing to the failure of the policy of 'appeasement' in the 1930s to halt Nazi expansionism. The notion of 'lessons of history' is a debatable one, however; not least because history itself is always a debate. What happened, and why it happened, can never be resolved with scientific accuracy. History is always, to some extent, understood through the lens of the present, as modern concerns, understandings and attitudes help us to 'invent' the past. And it is also worth remembering Zhou Enlai (Chou En lai), then Premier of the People's Republic of China, who replied, when asked in the 1960s about the lessons of the 1789 French Revolution, that 'it is too early to say'. Nevertheless, the modern world makes little sense without some understanding of the momentous events that have shaped world history, particularly since the advent of the twentieth century. What do the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I and World War II tell us about the causes of war, and what does the absence of world war since 1945 tell us about the causes? In what sense were years such as 1914, 1945 and 1990 watersheds in world history? What does world history tell us about the possible futures of global politics?

  • The 'modern' world was shaped by a series of developments. These include the final collapse of ancient civilizations and the advent of the 'Dark Ages'; the growing dominance of Europe through the 'age of discovery' and, eventually, industrialization; and the growth of European imperialism.
  • WWI was meant to be the 'war to end all wars' but, within a generation, WWII had broken out. The key factors that led to WWII include the WWI peace settlements, the global economic crisis of the 1930s, the programme of Nazi expansion, sometimes linked to the personal influence of Hitler, and the growth of Japanese expansionism in Asia.
  • 1945 is commonly seen as a watershed in world history. It initiated two crucial processes. The first was the process of decolonization and the collapse of European empires. The second was the advent of the Cold War, giving rise to bipolar tensions between an increasingly US-dominated West and Soviet dominated East.
  • Cold War bipolarity came to an end through the Eastern European revolutions of 1989–91, which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a result of factors including the structural weakness of Soviet-style communism, the impact of Gorbachev's reform process, the advent of the 'Second Cold War' and the wider implications of economic and cultural globalization.
  • 'Liberal' expectations about the post-Cold War period flourished briefly before being confounded by the rise of forms of ethnic nationalism and the growth of religious militancy. This especially applied in the form of 9/11 and the advent of the 'war on terror', which has sometimes been seen as a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West.
  • Power balances within the global economy have shifted in important ways. While some have linked globalization to the growing economic dominance of the USA, others have argued that the global economy is increasingly multipolar, especially due to the rise of emerging economies.