A high school student watches as two classmates fight in a the school cafeteria.

International politics. It's a dog-eat-dog world.

Much like cafeterias in teen dramedies, the world is often thought to exist in a state of anarchy.

In international relations (the study of how countries, organizations, and other actors interact), anarchy is often used to describe the lack of an ultimate authority to enforce rules.

In other words, there is no referee like there is in a soccer match.

A soccer referee holds up a red card. A player reacts negatively.

How do players survive and prosper in this world?

As you can imagine, competition can quickly get out of hand without referees. In international politics, rivalries and disagreements can lead to conflict.

Unfortunately, there is no authoritative survival guide for international politics — but a few basic principles and concepts help players navigate the world.

Carl from The Simpsons drives a jeep in Africa. He says,

Rules, Rule Makers, and Players

Many players dot today's global landscape. These players — often called actors — include nation-states, international organizations, individuals, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations.

The Player Select menu of Mario Kart. Characters appear: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Bowser.

Some players are also both rule makers and referees.

Flaticon Icon


A nation-state is a country that rules itself and comprises people bonded together — whether by religion, culture, language, ethnicity, or something else.

Flaticon Icon

Intergovernmental Organizations

These are groups of countries that pool resources and coordinate efforts to tackle global challenges. Examples include the UN, the EU, and NATO.

Flaticon Icon

Non-state Actors

The world's players comprise individuals, corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

These include think tanks, human rights groups, terrorist networks, organized crime syndicates, tech companies, banks, etc. When these entities operate across borders, they are called transnational actors.

Flaticon Icon


There are occasions when a country is so strong that it comes to dominate a region or even the entire globe.

Hegemons influence politics beyond their borders. Influence can be exerted through a formal empire (such as the former British Empire) or indirectly through trade, security arrangements, and the appeal of its soft power.

Happy World Cup GIF by FIFA

The United States, with its vast network of military bases and economic power, has for decades been a global hegemon.

Today, China appears to be making a bid for global hegemony through its Belt and Road Initiative — a global infrastructure investment effort — which could bring recipient countries into Beijing's sphere of influence.

EU Central Bank President Christine Lagarde at a podium. She explains that rules need to translate to positive change.

Institutions and norms are established when these players interact.

Flaticon Icon

International institutions make the rules that govern what countries can and cannot do. They are also playbooks for how states should work together.

International Institutions can be formal written laws, informal arrangements among states, and the day-to-day bureaucratic procedures of international organizations.

The European Union is one example of an international institution. Its members agree to follow the rules established by the EU.

Other examples include bilateral (between two countries) or multilateral treaties (between three or more countries). For instance, the United States and the Soviet Union signed Cold War arms control treaties that regulated nuclear weapons.

Flaticon Icon

International norms are widely shared beliefs and expectations about how countries and other international actors should interact with one another. They're usually unwritten — though they may later be codified into law.

One example of an international norm is the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons.

Norms may evolve organically as individuals and groups such as political activists and human rights organizations deliberately spread them.

The International System

A soccer stadium in bird's eye view.

Like an athletic competition, global politics is played in an arena of sorts — the international system.This system is sustained through the many interactions of its parts — i.e., the players of the game: countries, international organizations, institutions, people, etc.

Biologists agree with the fundamentals of how the human body's systems work. But, international relations scholars often disagree on how the international system works.

Flaticon Icon

Billiards Table

Some liken the international system to a pool table in which states are billiard balls that strike one another. In this view, the critical factor in understanding the international system is not what goes on within countries but the impact of external forces.

Except, some of these billiard balls are larger than others.

The distribution of military power and economic capability influences the rhythm of global politics. The distribution of power can constrain a country's maneuverability and make war or peace more likely. 

Old footage of two couples playing pool in a game room.

Historically, power has been distributed across the system in 3 ways:

  1. 🔵 Unipolarity: This system has only one superpower — a state much stronger than any other. In this system, the superpower may go to war to spread its ideals, keep order, or pacify its periphery.

  2. 🔵 🟡 Bipolarity: This system comprises two countries or blocs stronger than the rest. The world during the Cold War was bipolar: the United States and the Soviet Union were the world's two superpowers. In a bipolar system, conflict may occur through proxies rather than in a great power conflagration.

  3. 🔵 🟡 🔴 ➕ Multipolarity: This is a system of three or more great powers or blocs (think of the world on the eve of the world wars). Some think this system is the most unstable since it adds layers of complexity — although countries may learn to coexist.

Flaticon Icon


While the billiards model can tell us a lot about whether confrontation is likely in the international system, it's an inadequate representation of the times when states cooperate.

Some look to a different model to describe the international system. They compare it to a spider web. In this view, the international system is an overlapping series of connections between countries, people, organizations, and groups.

Through these complex networks, players exchange information, rules and norms are developed, and economic relations are facilitated. The game's players build trust and depend on one another for their well-being.

A series of interconnected webs.

People who view the international system like a web may quibble over the details. Some scholars...

  • Say the international system is a web in constant flux. New connections are continually woven or broken, influencing the behavior of states and the world's other players.

  • Highlight the role of international institutions, which serve as hubs that connect countries. These hubs encourage cooperation and incentivize good behavior.

  • Emphasize a spider's role in constructing a web. In this view, the international system is given order by a hegemon. The hegemon shapes the system's rules, encourages players to work together, and binds itself to the rules so others willingly buy into the system.

An animation depicting the evolution of species.

Evolution and Change

Today's world looks different from fifty years ago. And much different from a few centuries ago. In a hundred years, it will probably look even more different. How does change in the international system occur?

Flaticon Icon

Technological, Economic, and Political Shifts

Countries that can adapt to these shifts will become more powerful and transform the world's balance of power. Changes can lead to either stability or instability.

  • ⚙️ 🔄 Changes in weapons technology may impact the international system. Countries may be more prone to war if new weapons are believed to yield an offensive advantage on the battlefield. If weapons are better suited for defense, they may stabilize the international system. Some argue that nuclear weapons are so powerful that they make competition between nuclear-armed states futile.

  • 🌐 🔄 Political Ideologies may also have an impact. The spread of democracy may have made relations among states more peaceful, while the rise of totalitarianism after World War I made the international order more violent and dangerous;

  • 📈 🔄 So, too, economic systems. The spread of free-market economies may have made states more willing to cooperate as they realized they were better off trading than fighting.

Flaticon Icon


Defeat — or even victory — in a major war may severely weaken a country and create space for other states to emerge relatively more powerful than before.

Flaticon Icon


Norms have changed the international system. The era of formal empire ended as people internalized ideas of sovereignty and self-determination.

A cartoon bird pulls a brick wall across the ground that a cartoon pig smashes into.

Wait, what's sovereignty?

It's the idea that countries have fixed borders. And that national governments have authority over what happens within these borders.

It's also the idea that states must respect national boundaries by not conquering territory or meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.

Sovereignty, Liberalism, and the Nation-state

Open Source Deal With It GIF by nounish ⌐◨-◨

The history of sovereignty is also the history of the modern state system — sometimes called the Westphalian system.

This is primarily told as a European story that dates to the 16th and 17th centuries when Europe emerged from feudalism and began to interact heavily beyond the continent and forcibly export its systems outward.

While Western Europe is central to this history of the modern state system due to its power in this period, true nation-states were neither ubiquitous in Europe nor around the globe until decolonization after World War II.

Flaticon Icon

The state system was neither inevitable nor necessarily permanent. Societies have organized themselves in various ways throughout history:

  • Empires such as the Islamic caliphates and the Aztec, Incan, Roman, and Mongol Empires once dominated the world.

  • Dynastic rulers, kingdoms, and fragmented city-states once dotted large swaths of the world — from China and Japan to Africa, Europe, and South America.

  • Though some argue nation-states have become less dominant, they are enduring players within the international system.

Making the Modern State System

Flaticon Icon

Peace of Westphalia

The Holy Roman Empirewas rife with religious conflict. These conflicts ended with agreements that cemented sovereignty as a norm and established the foundations of the European state system.

✒️ Peace of Augsburg (1555): This treaty allowed the Empire's rulers to choose their official state religions.

✒️ Peace of Westphalia (1648): A series of treaties that ended the Thirty Years War, which affirmed the ability of the Empire's states to control their international and domestic affairs.

Flaticon Icon

Birth of the Nation-State

European states became more powerful and expanded to fund, train, and mobilize national militaries.

At the forefront of this trend was France under the rule of King Louis XIV (you may know him as the Sun King). Louis XIV was an absolute monarch who centralized power and fashioned a robust administrative system.

Other states emulated what occurred in France under the Sun King's rule.

A man standing in front of a starry background. A supernova explodes out of his head.

Two Big Ideas

As leaders built strong states, several ideas emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries to challenge the authority of monarchs.

Flaticon Icon


This is the idea that people have certain political rights and should have a say in their government. Kings and other leaders derive their right to rule not from a divine authority but from their country's citizens.

Economically, liberalism emphasizes the free market and individual property rights.

Flaticon Icon


It's the idea that a group of people who share common traits — language, religion, culture, ethnicity, history, etc. — form a community that should govern itself.

Though nationalism binds some people together, it is often exclusionary and can lead people to believe that their national identity is better than others.

Flaticon Icon

Age of Revolution

Nationalism and liberalism are powerful ideas that shape our world today.

Flaticon Icon

Liberalism began to take hold in the late 1700s as Great Britain industrialized.

📖 English philosopher John Locke penned Two Treatises of Government(1689). Locke argued that citizens enter contracts with their governments, expecting their rights to be protected.

📖 Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations(1776),which made the case for minimal government intervention in the economy.

Flaticon Icon

The forces of nationalism and liberalism collided during the French Revolution (1789-1799).

Revolutionary fervor spread among the masses in France but was led from the top by the bourgeoisie— a social class that had made its wealth from industrialization.

The revolution overthrew France's monarch, challenged the aristocracy's dominance in French society, and advanced liberal ideals. "Liberty, equality, and fraternity" was the rallying cry of the revolutionaries.

Flaticon Icon

The French Revolution sparked a backlash among Europe's monarchies, who invaded France to crush the revolution and prevent it from spreading to their countries.

However, foreign intervention inspired nationalism among French citizens defending their nation.

Flaticon Icon

Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the chaos of the French Revolution.

As Napoleon embarked on his military campaigns in Europe, he successfully marshaled French nationalism to build a disciplined army. Though Napoleon was an emperor, his troops spread the French Revolution's ideals as they conquered Europe.

However, Napoleon's troops became bogged down by Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian resistance, partly motivated by nationalism of their own. Ultimately, Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of European powers.

Minions fighting in a snowy landscape as part of Napoleon's army. They fail to fire a cannon.

Napoleon's victors forged a system designed to maintain stability in Europe. The continent's great powers met at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). They built a security architecture for Europe known as the Concert of Europe.

These countries met semi-regularly for nearly half a century to ensure stability on the continent. They aimed to...

Flaticon Icon

Keep a Lid on Liberalism

The Concert strove to contain the revolutionary fervor which had swept through France. It opposed liberal movements among the great powers and elsewhere in Europe.

Flaticon Icon

Maintain a Balance of Power

The goal was to prevent the emergence of a hegemon. The Concert maintained a balance of power for some time. There were small wars, but none were as destructive as the Napoleonic wars.

Frédéric Sorrieu's painting, "République universelle démocratique et sociale. Le Pacte."

Nationalism Spreads

Nationalism and liberalism collided again in 1848 — a year of (attempted) revolution. Revolutionaries took to the streets of Europe in revolt against the continent's monarchs. The revolutionaries demanded freedom of the press, constitutional reforms, self-determination, and governments that derived power from their people.

Monarchists and their supporters crushed these revolutions, but the cat was out of the bag. While liberalism faltered, nationalism swept through Europe. And in the mid-1800s, Germany and Italy — then an assortment of kingdoms, principalities, and city-states — both went through the process of national unification.

Imperialism and Total War

A political cartoon depicting England as an octopus in an ocean. Each of its tentacles touches part of the British Empire.


Many European countries in this period were nation-states with global empires.

Europe colonized much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in the 19th century. While Europeans embraced nationalism for themselves, they repressed nationalism in their colonies.

Flaticon Icon

An array of factors drove colonization. Here are a few:

  • Economic drivers: Colonies were stripped of their natural resources and provided a market for European goods.

  • Civilizational drivers: Racism drove colonialism. Many Europeans believed their culture and way of life were superior. They also believed themselves responsible for (forcefully) exporting it to others.

  • Geopolitics: Colonies gave countries power and prestige. They also provided an outlet for European competition. Instead of fighting over resources in Europe, states expanded outward.

Flaticon Icon

Breakdown in the Balance of Power

Today's international system was born from a period of total war. One major cause was the arrival of new players who contested the rules and what they perceived as unequal status in the international system.

World leaders at the Paris Peace Conference walk through the streets of Paris together in front of a crowd.

World War I

Europe's balance of power broke down during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), but new alliance configurations quickly restored order.

However, the German Empire's emergence as a great power placed new strains on the international system. Germany desired an overseas empire and an advantageous European order.

Tensions on the continent boiled over in 1914. The world went to war.

Flaticon Icon

When the war ended in 1918, the world that emerged was shattered.

  • The German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires collapsed.

  • Across Europe's colonies, people agitated for independence.

  • Revolutions beset Russia, and Communists took power.

Leaders at the Paris Peace Conference drafted the Treaty of Versailles. They endeavored to reconstruct Europe. But rather than accommodating Germany, the Treaty punished it as the aggressor.

Flaticon Icon

The Treaty's terms stirred resentment in Germany and helped plant the seeds for future European conflict.

The Treaty's drafters saw the war's end as an opportunity to transcend great power politics and build a rules-based order. They established the League of Nations to write and enforce these rules.

This international organization, at least in theory, embodied two core principles:

Flaticon Icon

Collective Security

Countries would cooperate to stop aggression through condemnations, sanctions, or military force.

Flaticon Icon


It's the idea that national communities have the right to statehood and self-government.

A political cartoon titled "Toppling the Idol". It depicts the League of Nations toppling a statue representing war.

In practice, the League was a disappointment.

  • It couldn't be divorced from the era's imperialist sentiment. The colonies of WWI's defeated powers were considered "unfit" to rule themselves and placed under League management. Those who built the League denied self-governance to many groups of people, a decision that continued to have repercussions later in the century.

  • Some argued the League was overly optimistic in its belief that international law could prevent war.

  • Despite US President Woodrow Wilson's enthusiasm, the United States never joined the League. The United States was a great power, and its absence diminished the League's effectiveness.

  • The League failed to prevent the Spanish Civil War, Japan's Manchuria conquest, Italy's Abyssinia invasion, Germany's blitzkrieg, and ultimately World War II.

Footage of US Marines hosting the American Flag at Iwo Jima.

World War II

Europe and the world went to war again in the 1930s and 40s. Germany, Japan, and Italy were the aggressors.

Their motivations were partly to rewrite the rules to their benefit.

This war was more destructive than the last.

Even before the war's end, the Allied powers — the Big Three: the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union — laid out their vision for the world after the conflict.

The Big Three outlined this world in their wartime conferences and documents. The Atlantic Charterwas a crucial blueprint for global order.

The Charter set the objectives of the United States and Great Britain. These objectives revived the principles of collective security and self-determination, called for an end to territorial aggression, and promoted freer and more open trade.

A propaganda poster depicting the United Nations fighting together "for freedom".

FDR was an optimist. He supported constructing a new international organization to replace the League of Nations — the United Nations.

But Roosevelt also had a healthy respect for power. He envisioned this organization as dominated by the great powers who would work together to enforce law and order within their spheres of influence.

An old cartoon showing a police officer waving a baton.

The Post-war Order(s)

Optimism that the United States and the Soviet Union could work together quickly faded after World War II when the Cold War set in.

A Cold War era documentary. A cartoon fist slams on a table. A map of Eastern Europe appears. An atomic drops from the sky.

The Cold War international system was bipolar, with at least two distinct orders. For relations that cut East to West, this system, for all its tensions, was remarkably stable due to the advent of nuclear weapons and the specter of mutually assured destruction.

Flaticon Icon

Western Bloc

The United States emerged from WWII relatively unscathed and more powerful than ever.

Like a spider, the United States weaved a web of organizations, rules, and laws that governed international politics (remember the cobweb model). It used its influence to create an order that is, in theory, underpinned by liberal values.

A man in an office dressed as Uncle Sam. He says,

The United States

  • Oversaw the establishment of economic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

  • Implemented gigantic foreign aid programs. The Marshall Planwas the most notable. It helped turn Western Europe away from Soviet influence and kept its markets open to American trade.

  • Secured these efforts through a patchwork of military alliances — most notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

These organizations and initiatives, along with others, are the foundations of what many admiringly describe as the "rules-based" or "liberal" international order.

Over time, this rules-based order evolved as new organizations were spun into the web. In their idealized form, these institutions both embody and promote shared values.

Flaticon Icon

Open Markets and Free Trade

The rules-based order aims to foster economic integration — where few barriers exist to the flow of goods, services, and finance across borders.

Today’s organizations like the EU and the World Trade Organization (WTO) promote free trade and open markets.

Flaticon Icon


The rules-based order is considered liberal because those who built and continue to lead it — the United States, Canada, and Western Europe — are democracies.

Its institutions seek to promote democratic principles such as free and fair elections, free speech, and private property.

Flaticon Icon

Human Rights

These are rights that all people are born with, regardless of race, gender, beliefs, etc. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important legal document that calls for their protection.

Flaticon Icon


As a quick reminder, sovereignty is the notion that countries must respect the territory of other states and that a state maintains authority over its borders and the people it governs.

Flaticon Icon

America: The World's Referee

Supporters describe this rules-based order as American-led because they believe the United States is a benevolent hegemon. Washington and its allies use their power to enforce the order's rules and principles — even though these restrictions limit what the United States can and cannot do.

But, as you'll later see, this order hasn't always been so orderly. Nor has American and Western leadership always necessarily been a force for good.

Flaticon Icon

Eastern Bloc

The United States held sway in Western Europe, Japan, and other parts of Asia. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's influence was predominant in Eastern Europe from WWII to the end of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union scorned many US-led international institutions and molded the areas under its influence in its own image. The society in the Eastern Bloc was top-down and centralized.

The Soviet Union violently squashed dissent within its sphere of influence. Like the United States with NATO, the USSR established a military alliance: the Warsaw Pact.

Three aircraft carriers leading naval battleships in the ocean.

Post-Cold War Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the Cold War ended.

The 90s were an optimistic time for many observers. Geopolitical barriers to the spread of the US-led order seemed to disappear. At this time, the international order had several essential characteristics...

Flaticon Icon


The United States was the world's only superpower. The strength of its military and the scope of its influence were unmatched.

Some argued Washington should cut defense spending and give its allies and partners more responsibility in managing the geopolitics of their regions. Others argued Washington should use its predominance to maintain international security.

The United States would keep its military superiority, expand its system of alliances, and intervene in conflicts around the world.

Flaticon Icon


Globalization is the political, cultural, and economic interdependence of countries, organizations, and people. In today's globalized world, goods, people, and ideas move across borders cheaply and freely.

Globalization isn't a new phenomenon — there have been periods of great economic integration at other times in history — but globalization, as we know it today, took off in the 1970s.

Telecommunications, commercial airlines, and shipping advancements have made travel, trade, and communication cheaper and more accessible.

Flaticon Icon


There was hope that countries would unite to solve collective problems and enforce international rules and norms.

If no longer split between rival blocs, international organizations like the UN would have more teeth.

Other international organizations, like the modern EU and the WTO, were founded in this period to promote free trade and political liberalism. Other organizations, like the World Bank and IMF, tried to push low-income countries in this direction by conditioning loans and aid for economic reforms.

Flaticon Icon

Economic and Political Liberalism

In the 1980s and '90s, many countries transitioned into capitalist democracies, including those inside the Eastern Bloc following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

There was a strong sense that democracy and capitalism went hand-in-hand. For instance, many were optimistic that Beijing's free market transition and integration into the global economy would bring "change and freedom to China."

Making Sense of the Rules

Denis from Always Sunny in Philadelphia in front of a board covered in papers.

Now that you've learned about the international system, the world's actors, and the supposed rules-based order, it shouldn't be surprising that there is no consensus on how players play the game.

Different perspectives inform how people talk about global affairs.

Flaticon Icon


Realists look at the international system and see anarchy.It's a world with no referee, where countries must take it upon themselves to ensure survival.

Countries are like billiard balls. Unable to see through the thick shells of the pool table's other balls, states worry about the intentions and capabilities of others. Always looking over their shoulder, states assess how their strength stacks up with others and act accordingly.

States may...

  • Pursue domestic policies that make themselves stronger.

  • Ally with other nations threatened by the same great power to combine their strength.

  • Join forces with and seek the protection of the most powerful state.

Animal from The Muppets lifts weights.

Neorealists are also skeptical of the ability of international institutions to moderate state behavior. At times, helpful, powerful countries use institutions to further their self-interests.

Rather than rely on institutions, countries self-police. Good behavior is incentivized, since other countries might team up against an aggressor. Peace is maintained when a balance of power is achieved and managed through diplomacy.

Flaticon Icon


In international relations, neoliberalism refers to a broad set of beliefs about the workings of the cobweb that is the international system.

Like neorealists, neoliberals tend to think the world is anarchic. But they depart from neorealists in significant ways.

Old documentary footage of a diagram depicting the path from democracy to despotism.

Individuals and groups are essential players since they shape how countries behave.

Whereas neorealists look at how power is distributed in the international system to predict a country's behavior, neoliberals might emphasize the influence of a country's form of government.

  • Authoritarian governments are more likely to break the rules.

  • Democracies are the least prone to start a war, at least with other democracies, because they are more transparent and share similar values. Voters may also be reluctant to support leaders who want to go to war unless vital national interests are at stake.

Flaticon Icon

Institutions are important because they promote teamwork and help countries overcome the challenges of anarchy — especially if such institutions foster liberal political and economic values.

  • Institutions reduce the uncertainty that causes conflict. Institutions clarify rules and provide a forum for countries to interact and better understand one another's intentions.

  • Institutions foster economic and political interdependence. As countries become increasingly interconnected, they have more to gain from working together.

Flaticon Icon

Some neoliberals emphasize the role played by hegemons.

  • They think unipolar systems provide stability, especially if the hegemon is a proponent of liberal values. Hegemons use their power and influence to stabilize international relations and keep weaker countries from fighting among themselves.

  • They also (much like the spider in our analogy) weave a web of institutions, which lures and ensnares countries within their sphere of influence.

Flaticon Icon


Ideas are at least as important as nation-states and institutions. The beliefs players have about the world — and their role in it — influence the game's rules and how it's played.

Norms of behavior evolve as individuals and groups interact with one another and share ideas. Social media and smartphones can spread and reinforce norms in today's digitized world, while institutions embody preexisting norms and codify new ones.

Flaticon Icon

Critical Views

Critical thinkers argue that today's institutions have made the world unequal and that the game's rules unfairly benefit the most powerful players.

Similar to constructivists, critical thinkers argue that ideas matter. For instance, they believe that how we talk about international relations is shaped by biases and the legacy of colonialism.

Order and Disorder

A South Park episode. UN delegates react in pandemonium to an event during a meeting.

Critics argued the post-World War II order has not been as fair as it's sometimes idealistically depicted.

There is deep inequality among the world's countries. Additionally, the pillars of the order — democracy, free trade, human rights, etc. — are often in tension.


World War II's conclusion set in motion the Cold War. It also unraveled Europe's empires.

The UN served as an essential institution for managing this process. But Europe often denied self-determination to those who agitated for independence.

For example, France violently fought to keep control of its empire in Vietnam and Algeria. And countries in the Global South faced resistance when they nationalized — that is, took control of — their resources.

Within newly independent states, self-determination and sovereignty came into conflict. Ethnic groups clashed, and civil wars erupted as new governments — which wanted to establish authority within their borders — resisted insurgents and rebels.

Such upheaval was fertile ground for the United States and the Soviet Union to take the Cold War global. While nuclear weapons stabilized East-West relations, the Cold War proved violent in the Global South.

Flaticon Icon

Breaking the Rules

The United States and the Soviet Union supported rival nations and groups with violent track records.

For its part, the United States often behaved in ways inconsistent with the values of the rules-based order: it supported illiberal dictators, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, and militarily intervened in such places as Vietnam.

Flaticon Icon

Non-Aligned Movement

Some countries picked sides during the Cold War, while others attempted to maintain their independence.

Many independent countries — notably Yugoslavia, India, and Egypt — formed the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955. Though it never solidified into a bloc that could rival the superpowers, the Non-Aligned Movement amplified the voices of developing countries in world politics.

Flaticon Icon

Global Inequality

The Non-Aligned Movement raised issues of inequality in the international system — objections many raise today.

Flaticon Icon


Overall, globalization has improved the world's standard of living. However, economic growth has been slow to trickle down to the Global South. Critics argue the conditions the United States, IMF, and World Bank place on loans to developing countries force countries to liberalize too quickly and cut back on social welfare programs.

Flaticon Icon


For all the talk about order, power remains the chief currency in international relations. It allows countries to make — or break — the rules to their advantage.

Take the United States and the United Kindom, for example. These countries faced few significant repercussions for their invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had no UN mandate.

Flaticon Icon


Today's international organizations struggle to represent the interests of some of the world's major global economic and military players.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a case in point. Its five permanent members — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — were the winners of WWII.

But today, it's hard not to notice the absence of middle and emerging powers like Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa from the UNSC. Several continents, including South America and Africa, have no permanent representation.

Flaticon Icon

The Human Rights Challenge

Human rights are generally considered universal — that is, they apply to everyone. However, countries may have different conceptions of rights. While democracies speak of rights that apply to individuals, socialist countries emphasize rights that apply to groups.

Critics accuse governments or non-governmental organizations that promote human rights abroad of meddling. These players usually promote human rights peacefully, but sometimes they use military force.

Peackeepers attend to civilians in a village. The narrator explains that

A consensus developed in the 1990s and early 2000s that if governments failed to protect human rights within their borders, the international community had a moral responsibility to intervene, with military force if necessary, to protect endangered populations.

Flaticon Icon

This belief culminated in 2005 in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. However, implementation faces major obstacles:

  • Humanitarian interventions challenge notions of sovereignty.

  • What happens when good intentions lead to bad results? Military interventions have unintended consequences. They may cause human rights violators to become more violent. They may also create instability.

  • Countries with the means to lead humanitarian interventions face tough choices. Sacrifices for missions that may not be in a country's immediate national interest are hard to justify or sell to the public.

Flaticon Icon

Backlash to Globalization

Even within countries that have benefited from globalization, there is much discontent.

Immigration, international organizations, and free trade are blamed for economic disparities, cultural changes, and infringements of sovereignty. Some believe democracy has failed to meet citizens' needs.

Disillusionment has given rise to populism, fostered an "us versus them" mentality, and elevated leaders who attack domestic and international institutions. Discontent with the EU is emblematic of this backlash.

Hungary and Poland have defied the EU's rules on governance, environmental protection, and immigration. Citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in 2016. According to many referendum voters, a vote for Brexit was a vote to reclaim the UK's sovereignty.

Dark waves in the ocean.

Illiberal Tide

Populism, in many cases, has given rise to authoritarianism and propelled into power illiberal leaders who tap into their citizens' disillusionment with democracy.

They stoke divisions, scapegoat others for the country's problems, and consolidate control, proclaiming that only they can navigate their countries into a better future. Democratic institutions are undermined, and often, one ethnicity is favored over another.

In the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, democracy has come under strain worldwide. Notable examples include...

Flaticon Icon

The United States

Former President Donald Trump is in legal trouble for his role in the Capitol Hill insurrection and overall efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which some worry has set the wrong example for other countries.

Partisan polarization is perceived to have become the norm in American domestic politics. And in recent years, democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the free press have come under attack.

Flaticon Icon


Disillusionment with corruption led to the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, who empowered the military, attacked Brazil's democratic institutions, and challenged without evidence the country's election results when he lost re-election.

Flaticon Icon


Poland and Hungary have become poster children for Europe's democracy recession. Propelled to power through populism, their governments have attacked the rule of law and driven out independent media organizations.

Flaticon Icon


Civil conflict continues in Ethiopia. A war between rival military factions continues in Sudan. And in the last few years, there has been a spate of military coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sudan;

Flaticon Icon

Arab Spring

Mass protests, fueled partly by social media, swept through this region in the 2010s. However, authoritarianism persists in many of these nations. Democratic progress even appears to be slipping in Tunisia — the only country to have emerged from the Arab Spring more democratic.

Take Action

Today's interconnected world faces many challenges. Some are new, while others have endured for a long time, and many will likely persist.

the rock wrestling GIF by WWE

Competition with No Referee: Geopolitics Strikes Back

Scholars can't seem to agree on the contours of today's international system. Some say it's unipolar. Others say it's bipolar. Many say it's multipolar.

What's more certain is that the United States cannot shape the world like it once did. Today, other players challenge the United States and the game's rules.

Flaticon Icon


Russia today doesn't have the same capability as the Soviet Union. Still, it's a vast country with a robust nuclear deterrent and a sizable military.

Russia is described as a revisionist power — meaning it challenges the world order's status quo.

  • Russia's war in Ukraine is an attack on sovereignty.

  • Russia attempts to undermine democracy in countries through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns.

  • Private military forces backed by Russia pose challenges to global stability.

Flaticon Icon


China is an economic and military rival to the United States. Tensions mount as they challenge one another's influence in Asia and beyond.

China's great power status benefited from the global economic order. Contrary to many predictions, China did not become more democratic.

China is constructing newer, more accommodating institutions and refashioning old ones to serve its interests better. Some fear these revisions will reflect China's authoritarian model of government.

Flaticon Icon


This acronym refers to a loose group of five countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — whose economies were rapidly developing in the early 200Os. Today, these countries represent 42 percent of the world's population.

Though this group doesn't have the formal architecture of established international organizations, it holds annual summits, positions itself as a rival to the Western-led economic order, and voices the Global South's discontent.

During their August 2023 summit, BRICS expanded the group's membership to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Argentina. Many more countries have expressed interest in joining.

While the expansion of BRICs may challenge American hegemony, the group would need to overcome significant hurdles, such as the geopolitical rivalries among its members.

Two tennis players exchange volleys across a net. One looks at his watch, while the other raises her hand and yawns.

Gridlock in the International Community

The world today appears increasingly fragmented. Values are important, but so are interests. And when push comes to shove, countries will likely prioritize the latter.

Many countries are hesitant to choose between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Flaticon Icon

Russia-Ukraine War

Major war has returned to Europe with the war in Ukraine. The transatlantic alliance between the US and its allies and partners in Europe appears reenergized.

Some depict the war as a battle between democracy and autocracy. However, there are tensions within this way of framing the conflict...

  • The United States nurtures friendly relations with non-democratic countries, such as Saudi Arabia.

  • Some democracies like India are reluctant to condemn and sanction Russia and provide Ukraine with military assistance.

  • Several of America's NATO allies have taken troubling turns away from democracy.

Flaticon Icon

US-China Rivalry

Caught between the United States and China, many would prefer to work with both. Some might find China a valuable economic partner. Others might find the US to be a trusted security partner. And many might wish to maintain economic ties to both.

Flaticon Icon

Trouble at the UN

The history of the UN (especially the UNSC) has been turbulent.

  • During the Cold War, the UNSC was hamstrung by geopolitical tensions between its most powerful members — the United States and the Soviet Union. They rarely found agreement, and due to their veto powers, the UNSC could not respond to crises quickly.

  • Gridlock persists today. Russia's membership in the Security Council makes the UNSC powerless to react meaningfully to the Russia-Ukraine war.

  • As tensions mount between the US and China, whether these countries can work together at the UN remains to be seen.

Flaticon Icon

Teamwork is Hard

In today's interconnected work, many of the globe's most pressing challenges cross borders, and their management requires cooperation.

Flaticon Icon

Nuclear Weapons

The rules and norms developed during the Cold War are unraveling. Arms control agreements have been suspended or terminated, and to make matters more complicated, today's nuclear world is less stable. There are now three countries with very robust nuclear capabilities: the United States, Russia, and China.

Flaticon Icon


The early days of the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the difficulty of coordinating public health policy among countries. Some countries refused to share information, many pursued conflicting policies, and wealthier countries had more access to vaccines than lower-income countries.

Flaticon Icon

Climate Change

Nations face tough economic tradeoffs in implementing environmental policy, and global inequality makes it difficult for the world to respond. Many of the world's wealthiest nations are the heaviest polluters, while financial support for sustainable development in the Global South is slow to materialize.

Flaticon Icon

Borders, Walls, and Firewalls

Globalization has shaped today's world but poses enduring challenges that may cause the international system to unravel.

Flaticon Icon


Famine, civil war, economic opportunity, and political freedom are reasons people may seek to live in a new country. Governments opening their country's borders struggle financially to meet the needs of migrants and often face political resistance.

Flaticon Icon


Transnational actors have successfully planned, financed, and coordinated acts of violence across borders. Counterterrorism policy is the subject of disagreement. The United States launched a war on terror in the early 2000s that critics believe was counterproductive. It eroded civil liberties at home and stoked prejudice and discrimination against religious minorities.

Flaticon Icon

Disruptive Technology

New technologies, like artificial intelligence and social media, challenge sovereignty, undermine democracy, and make nuclear deterrence more difficult. Tech companies provide forums for both information and disinformation. They can surveil and control what is said and who says it. They can also create and restrict users' financial and social opportunities.

Flaticon Icon

Money, Goods, and Services

Globalization has winners and losers. While cheap goods manufactured abroad may drive down prices, outsourcing has caused people to lose their jobs. Many assert globalization is the cause of inequality within their countries and among nations in the international system. And because the world is so interconnected, a financial crisis in one country can quickly spread to another.

A wrestler reads a book in the ring and throws it over the ropes.

Learning the Rules

Whether you agree more with the neorealists, neoliberals, or constructivists, or if you think they all make good points, it's evident that a world with no clear referee is much messier than even the chippiest soccer match.

A soccer player collapses after being tackled by an opponent.

With no perfect answers, international politics can cause much uncertainty. But don't fret! EGF and Rumie can help you take a "Byte" out of geopolitical uncertainty.

The EGF and Rumie logos.

Download these free international relations textbooks and check your local college library for these textbooks, which form this Byte's bibliography:

You can also read the Bytes below to learn more about war, peace, nuclear weapons, and international organizations.

What topics would you like covered next?

Click the "Feedback" tab to the right of your browser window and tell us in the comments!


Your feedback matters to us.

This Byte helped me better understand the topic.

Get support to take action on this Byte