The Second World War had made it clearer than ever – especially in Southeast Asia – that a world of empires was to be followed by a world of nation states. The UN and its Charter envisaged that, clearly enunciating the ‘Westphalia’ principles, coupled with the Versailles ideals. But the process was complicated by the Cold War between the two super-powers, the US and the SU, that promptly ensued, and it was intensified by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. That both promoted the change and qualified it. The two super-powers, as at the end of the First World War, were in agreement that the old empires should come to an end. In some sense, they were, therefore, in accord: they accepted the nation state. Indeed they seldom openly challenged the frontiers of the states that emerged from the colonial states, questionable though they might be. But they did try to influence them, and there they competed. Sometimes they sought the allegiance of the new leadership, offering aid and advice, civil and military. Sometimes they sought to befriend it, sometimes to undermine it, to change its composition or manipulate it, often meeting the kind of difficulties the Japanese had met with their puppets. Sometimes they sought to draw the states into alliances or offer them protection at the risk of also making them targets. In such ways their independence might be modified, even though their sovereignty was nominally respected. The Cold War entered a second phase in the 1960s. The PRC concluded

an alliance with the SU in 1950. After the Korean War both followed a co-existence policy, but by the late 1950s the PRC was adopting a line that increasingly diverged from that of its partner. Mao believed that Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was too ready to compromise with the West. The ‘Communist Bloc’ fragmented in the 1960s, though never quite disintegrating, and when the US came to terms with the PRC, the Cold War entered a new phase that lasted till the collapse of the SU in 1991. China’s rhetoric was generally one of struggle. But after the Korean

War the super-powers did not come into open or direct conflict. Instead they took part in the conflicts of others, to some extent making them their own, though rarely holding sole responsibility for them. It is a mistake to regard them merely as proxy wars as was often done at the time.

Frontiers and sovereignty were acknowledged. But the emphasis was often on the nominal. Subversive movements were urged on by agents, money, and propaganda. Minorities were encouraged to oppose the majorities that now dominated the new nation states. And on the other hand the newly independent governments, seeking aid, sometimes paid the price of what opponents and critics at least called ‘satellization’ or, alternatively, victims of ‘neo-colonialism’. ‘Puppets’ was another term of abuse that the super-powers employed

to describe the allies of their opponents. Some rulers could rightly be termed puppets, though, like earlier puppets, they were not always easy to control. They differed from those that the Japanese set up, however, inasmuch as the states which they appeared to rule were in general widely recognized by other states as independent, were not within a Sphere, and were usually members of the United Nations. But they faced something of the same paradox. If their independence did not seem real, their usefulness would be less. But they might act too independently, like Pinocchio. The SU had limited control over Castro, and the US found ‘counter-insurgency’ in Guatemala ‘running wild’.1 Their patron would try to control them, wondering if aid were better or worse ‘with strings attached’. Failing to do so, it might try to dispense with them. Replacing them was, however, even more difficult than replacing a collaborative elite in a colonial state or protectorate. It would signal a lack of independence and make the role of new puppets, if found, even less credible. Independent states and their rulers indeed reacted in various ways. Some

accepted aid and support, whether or not there were ‘strings attached’. Some believed it possible to play off one super-power against another. Others adopted ‘non-alignment’, an Indian phrase, or ‘neutrality’. A few went further and were or declared themselves ready to be neutralized, thus in fact formally sacrificing some of the rights and capacities of an independent state. Southeast Asia offers examples of all those reactions. Other territories seemed too small to survive in the dangerous world that had followed the overthrow of the colonial pattern and the security it had seemed to offer. Surely – as Leibnitz had argued in the late seventeenth century – some states were simply too small to be independent?2 Should they become independent states or be joined with larger entities through incorporation or federation? Of those approaches Southeast Asia also offered examples. Though states finally succeeded empires throughout the region, the process was a prolonged one, and differentiated by style and timing. It also took place in changing international circumstances. Those included not only the changes in the nature of the Cold War.

They included the decline of British power both in Southeast Asia and the world at large, the emergence of an independent India, the decolonization of Africa, and the expansion of the UN, both in terms of membership and range of activities. Less obvious, and more difficult to define, was the emergence of the further elements that were necessary to a world ‘system’,

the kind of practices and presumptions that makes a system operate or affects the extent to which it may operate. That involved not only the ‘traditional’ diplomacy of the Westphalian pattern and the new diplomacy of the UN and of ‘summitry’. It also involved – to a greater extent than before – the play of ‘opinion’. In the imperial world colonial rulers had ultimately been responsible in

some measure to metropolitan governments, and – for good or ill – to their expanding democracies. The Cold War contenders were not answerable to a metropolitan government: they constituted that government. They were responsible to their domestic constituencies, democratic or otherwise. They were responsible to ‘world opinion’, a developing phenomenon, not only stimulated by inventive technology and growing literacy, but also stimulated, if confused, by the propaganda the rival powers put out at the UN and through all the media, new and old. Only at the end of the twentieth century had all the colonial states of

Southeast Asia become nation states. Timor Leste was the last, a remnant of the first European empire in the region. Decolonization had been a clear aim, but the means had been much less clear. Like wars colonies were easier to get into than out of. Improvisation played a major role in the creation of the system. There was a role for it in its conclusion. Politics, domestic and international, practicality, precedent, prejudice and prestige were all factors in the forms decolonization took and in its timing.