Aims and Outputs

This lecture aims at presenting the wider security environment in and around Europe since the end of the Cold War. Its outputs include various security challenges and military responses to these, how the number of conflicts evolved in European neighborhoods, and how various wars took place within Europe despite expectations contrary. The lecture also summarizes alternative ways the European institutions and countries dealt with various military security challenges to European security since the end of the Cold War. It finishes with a snap outlook for the future and attempts to identify the most salient aspects of security threats to Europe.



Post-Cold War Challenges

International Responses

Other Security Challenges



The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought about a significant shift in the security landscape of Europe. The bipolar world order that had kept Europe divided and defined its security for nearly half a century was gone, replaced by a more fluid and uncertain security environment that created a new set of challenges.

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, there was a significant decline in military spending in Europe as the threat of a large-scale war between the blocs led by two superpowers receded. Many countries, particularly in the former Eastern bloc, dismantled part of their militaries and reduced their overall military spending. Benefitting the so-called peace dividend, European members of NATO spent 1.7% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense in 2008, while this figure was, on average, 3.1% for the Western European members of NATO between 1985 and 1989. This also affected the US, which, except for its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Homeland Security Department, decreased its military spending from %6 to %4 of its GDP and downsized its presence in Europe during the same period.

However, the decline in military spending did not last long, and by the 2000s, European military spending started to increase as a response to several new security challenges that emerged in Europe, including ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, the rise of terrorism, and the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Graph 1: Total military expenditure by region, 1960–2014.

Source: Todd Sandler and Justin George, “Military Expenditure Trends for 1960–2014 and What They Reveal”, Global Policy, Vol. 7 (2), May 2016: 174-185 (178).


Post-Cold War Challenges

One of the most immediate challenges was the need to manage the transition of the former Warsaw Pact countries to democracy and market economies. These countries were in a state of flux, and there was a real risk that they could be drawn into instability or even conflict. The United States and its European allies responded by providing financial and military assistance to these countries and by working to integrate them into Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. As a result, by 2023, all the former Eastern European countries and most of the Central and Southeastern European countries, except a few in the Balkans, have become members of the EU and NATO.

Graph 2: Overlapping Membership of the NATO, EU, and OSCE, 2022