It is now more than a quarter of a century since George H.W. Bush delivered to a joint session of Congress a speech calling for a “New World Order.” In it, the president—famous for his skittishness about “the vision thing”—laid out an ambitious vision for the post-Cold War world. Although the Berlin Wall had fallen just over a year earlier, Bush still looked forward to a unipolar world led by the United States, with the Soviet Union as junior partner: “Our relationship to the Soviet Union is important, not only to us but to the world. That relationship has helped to shape these and other historic changes.”
It was a heady time, with the demise of communism heralding for some “the end of history.” For Bush, “the triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America and the continuing struggle for freedom elsewhere all around the world all confirm the wisdom of our nation's founders.” There was only one fly in the ointment: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. But this was a manageable problem, and resolving it would mark the first step toward the realization of the president’s bold vision: “What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind—peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”
To read the “New World Order” speech 25 years later is to experience something akin to what “the traveler from an antique land” experienced upon glimpsing the ruined statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Out of the “colossal wreck” of Bush’s vision of a geopolitical system dominated by the United States a new world order has indeed begun to emerge, but it bears little resemblance to what President Bush Sr. imagined 25 years ago. The skirmish involving Kuwait turned out to be just the overture to a Thirty Years’ War that has begun to reshape vast swathes of the globe. President Bush’s son—Ozymandias Jr.—tried to amend the New World Order doctrine, replacing the imaginary U.S.-Soviet partnership with an equally fictive “coalition of the willing.” By then, of course, a decade after his father’s speech to Congress, the Soviet Union had faded into oblivion, and the younger Bush had famously looked into the eyes of the new Russian leader and come away with “a sense of his soul.”
But nothing has gone as planned. Putin’s soul has soured. The “liberal democracies” that were supposed to serve as the backbone of the New World Order have become progressively less liberal, as terror attacks have sown fear everywhere and led to restrictions on civil liberties and heightened surveillance of citizens. They have also grown less attached to democracy, as Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have shown.
Slow growth across the developed world has put pressure on the welfare regimes that flourished in the half-century after World War II, providing the economic basis for social peace and enhanced international cooperation. The success of the European Union in underwriting President Bush’s four goods—“peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law”—has been threatened by economic slowdown, wage stagnation, and growing inequality. Populist and nationalist movements have emerged in a number of countries, and British voters recently voiced their frustration by electing to withdraw from the EU altogether.
Economic difficulties have been compounded by population movements on a scale that exponents of the “end of history” thesis failed to envision. Large-scale migration has historically been a major force in reshaping world order, as Americans should know better than anyone. The very attractiveness of the liberal democracies that President Bush hoped would animate the New World Order has enticed hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan to South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa to flee their troubled homelands for the relative sanctuary of the West. The disappointment and repression that followed the Arab Spring and above all the atrocities of the Assad regime in Syria have uprooted thousands more and destabilized the entire region.
The Middle East is not the only part of the world in which the expected benefits of the post-Cold War era have failed to materialize. When President Bush spoke in 1991, his optimism was buoyed in part by high hopes for the transformation of Eastern Europe, freshly liberated from the Soviet yoke. Poland and Hungary have prospered since 1989, but despite improved material conditions their governments have lately taken a repressive turn. And Russia, far from cooperating with the United States as Bush envisioned while Mikhail Gorbachev remained in power, has assumed an antagonistic role in a region it regards as its “near abroad.” In 2014, the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, which had belonged to Ukraine, signaled an ominous escalation in Russian resistance to the introduction of any semblance of the West’s idea of a new world order into territory it regards as vital to its national security—and vital as well to the assertively nationalistic foreign policy on which Vladimir Putin’s power rests.
Russia has also rushed to fill the partial vacuum created in the Middle East by President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the Syrian civil war. After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan crushed last month’s attempted putsch, he sought closer ties with Russia, with which relations had been strained since Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet less than a year ago. This sudden reversal of alliances is typical of the chaotic reality of the New World (Dis)Order. Turkey is a NATO member and was at least nominally interested until recently in joining the EU (although the prospects of full membership dimmed considerably after the economic crisis). But Erdogan’s overture to Putin has dramatically transformed Turkey’s role. With tens of thousands of refugees living in Turkish camps and Russia controlling gas supplies to Germany and other consumers in Western Europe, the Moscow-Istanbul axis is in a position to ratchet up the pressure on Europe considerably. What comes of this brand new alliance remains to be seen, but the potential for mischief is great.
So much for Russia. What of the other so-called BRICs (Brazil, India, and China), the emerging global powers that were supposed to become pillars of the New World Order by moving toward Western models of governance? Brazil is in the throes of a legal putsch following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on trumped-up corruption charges. And India has become increasingly intolerant of religious and ethnic minorities since the election of populist Prime Minister Nadendra Modi in 2014.
Which brings us to China, a country that barely figured in Bush’s 1991 anticipation of a New World Order. Since then, however, China’s rapid economic growth has made its presence on the global stage impossible to ignore. With economic power has come global political influence and increased assertiveness. China is clearly determined to protect its access to global supply chains and markets, if necessary in defiance of established international norms, as in the recent controversy over islands that stand athwart important shipping routes in the South China Sea.
What is more, China is daily flexing its muscles in the economic sphere. The takeover of the innovative German robot-maker Kuka by the Chinese firm Midea has raised anxiety in Germany that China is positioning itself to dominate the market for digital machine tools, which the Germans currently dominate. And China is even mixed up in the spat over Brexit, since China is a major investor in the nuclear power plant that the French firm EDF is building at Hinkley Point in the U.K. Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May has called a halt to construction, however, perhaps to pressure France into offering better terms on any post-Brexit trade deal with the E.U.
In short, the world today bears little resemblance to the unipolar global system of cooperating liberal democracies that President Bush envisioned in 1991. Nevertheless, it would not be quite accurate to say that the contemporary world order is the opposite of what Bush imagined. The United States is still the dominant power but now in a multipolar system in which the ineffectiveness of the substantial American advantage in military assets and spending has been repeatedly demonstrated. Europe, whose alignment with the U.S. President Bush all but took for granted, is hamstrung by internal difficulties and facing possible disintegration in the wake of Brexit. Less powerful but still nimble players such as Russia and Turkey are testing the limits of American forbearance, while China is increasingly uninhibited about asserting a leadership role in the Far East. The pious wish of a New World Order has proved to be a mirage, and the American overconfidence that it inspired has turned into its opposite. Distracted by terrorism, we have lost sight of broader strategic challenges. Our current uncertainty about the true nature of the new global order has encouraged Russian adventurism and led to neglect of less developed countries and to a largely ad hoc policy in response to Chinese assertiveness. The world has consequently become a more dangerous place.