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Opinion

The new world order? Part 1

Media and foreign policy narratives of 'the new world order' are misleading about the realities of today's world.

Last updated: 07 Apr 2014 10:39
Richard Falk

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies.He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
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Former US President George H W Bush invoked the idea of a 'new world order' before the First Gulf War, writes Falk [AFP]

There is no more reliable guardian of entrenched conventional wisdom than The Economist. And so its cover recently proclaimed "the new world order", and removed any ambiguity from its intentions, by its portrayal of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a shirtless tank commander with menacing features. No such iconography accompanied the last notable invocation of the phrase by George H W Bush in mobilising support for a forcible response to the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, the dirty work of Saddam Hussein.

There the elder Bush was seeking to suggest, with the Cold War winding down, that finally the UN Security Council (UNSC) could act, as originally intended, and meet Iraqi aggression with a collective response. With some reluctance the Security Council mandated the use of force to repel Iraq, and restore Kuwaiti sovereignty.

In this central respect, there was some merit in claiming newness for this latest response to provocative moves by Russia. In the Cold War period, it is unlikely that Baghdad would have acted without a green light from Moscow, and it is even more unlikely that the Kremlin would allow its junior ally to embark on such a risky adventure. In the highly improbable event that Iraq would act on its own or win approval from Moscow, the resulting crisis would have been of a purely geopolitical character with no claim to initiate "the new world order". It would have meant confrontation, escalation, and a showdown similar to that which almost produced a nuclear World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Empire - Towards a post post-Cold War era

As it unfolded, this so-called First Gulf War of 1991 resulted in a successful launch of this earlier edition of the new world order. The Security Council mandate was quickly fulfilled in a one-sided desert war, Saddam Hussein surrendered, accepting the most punitive peace imposed upon a defeated country since the burdens accepted by Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I - an international arrangement often given a large share of the blame for tipping the internal German balance in an extremist direction.

Bush claimed victory over Iraq with the purely geopolitically slogan, "we've kicked the 'Vietnam Syndrome' once and for all" meaning that the US had shown that it could win wars quickly and at minimum cost in lives and treasure. Some ventured to suggest that this was the real new world order.

There were questions raised at the time about this use of UN authority to wage war. Was it really, as required by international law and the UN Charter, an instance of war as a last resort? The argument of critics was that sanctions agreed upon after Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait were working and should have been given a longer time to achieve results. There were also credible reports that Saddam Hussein was ready to withdraw prior to being attacked if assured that an attack would not occur in any event. Such assurance was never given by the US and its coalition partners, but only an ultimatum delivered by the then UN Secretary General.

Also, there were questions about the failure of the US-led military campaign to give the Security Council any supervisory role in relation to the military undertaking during its operational phases. Questions were raised as to whether the US command had used excessive force well beyond the limits of "military necessity", an allegation given weight by a respected UN report concluding that the industrial infrastructure of Iraq had been destroyed and the country bombed back "to the stone age".

And then there were questions raised repeatedly about maintaining for 12 years harsh comprehensive sanctions on a defeated country with a badly damaged water treatment systems. In the decade following the war as many as 700,000 Iraqi civilians died due to these post-war sanctions, which was quite widely condemned as a form of indiscriminate warfare that was not consistent with international customary law, and seemed oblivious to the lessons of Versailles.

As well, the idealistic side of the new world order was quickly put back "on the shelf" - in the words of Thomas Pickering, a prominent US diplomat - in effect, informing the world that the US was not prepared to repel aggression unless warranted by its national and strategic interests, and certainly not willing to allow the UN Security Council to make the call as to when international force should be used. Or in other words, business as usual!

James Baker, visiting Princeton for an off the record meeting on foreign policy not more than a year after this war in the Middle East, gave invited faculty the chance to ask questions. When my turn came, I asked, "Whatever happened to 'the new world order'?" His response was interesting: "We made a mistake. We should not have associated the new world order with the UN, but with the fact that the whole world would like to have an open economy and constitutional democracy like ours." 

For Baker what was being defended was a neoliberal globalising world economy, not a law-oriented system of collective security. In effect, for Baker, Bush's able Secretary of State, the new world order was not much different than the fashionable idea being disseminated by Francis Fukuyama on the theme of "the end of history", that is, the universal triumph of the liberal ideas of governance best embodied in the US, but now revealed as the purpose of the long historical journey into the present. Of course, invoking "the new world order" also had some uglier resonances, especially, its association with the claims made on behalf of the Nazi version of fascism.

So what shall we make of its renewal as descriptive of Putin's vision in the aftermath of the Ukrainian intervention?

This is the first part of Richard Falk's essay on global order and international law. The second part will be published on Sunday, April 6. 

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies.He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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