Whither the New World Order?

February 10, 2016

In his January 29, 1991 State of the Union address — delivered shortly before the end of the First Gulf War, and less than a year before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union — then-President George H. W. Bush famously expressed his hope that the United States would lead the way in forging “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.”  In this new environment, he imagined, “brutality will go unrewarded and aggression will meet collective resistance.”

Nearly a decade later, Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, explained that the term emerged during a four-hour fishing trip he and the president had taken in August 1990.  “I was looking for a cute way to encapsulate and show that we were thinking ahead,” he recalled.  With the Cold War drawing to a close, the two wondered (in Scowcroft’s words): “could we look forward to a world where the kind of naked aggression that had been the bane of mankind could be ended, that the great powers could actually act as the framers of the UN had in mind?”  Scowcroft noted that the concept referred only to a world free of interstate wars; it was not intended to be “a vision of a whole world.  We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world.  We thought it was going to be a messy world.”

Despite the circumscribed meaning he had in mind, observers ascribed a range of expansive interpretations to the term.  And as Bush himself conceded, it represented more of an ideal than a strategy: In the first line of the 1991 National Security Strategy, he observed that a “new world order is not a fact; it is an aspiration — and an opportunity.”

How far have we come in realizing that aspiration?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be: not very. Russia’s incursions into Ukraine have set the Baltic states on edge and challenged the presumption that post-Cold War Europe would be a continent at peace. There are close to 60 million “forcibly displaced” persons throughout the world, more than at any point since the Second World War. In Syria, over 300,000 people have perished in a civil war that is morphing into an indefinite struggle of attrition between forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad and a dizzying array of rebel outfits. Yemen, already the region’s most impoverished country, is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe. The security situations in Libya and Iraq are deteriorating. The Islamic State is expanding the geographic scope of its attacks. North Korea continues to conduct nuclear tests and build its atomic arsenal, and India and Pakistan are also rapidly expanding their inventories of nuclear weapons and fissile material.

The other side of the ledger, however, is far from empty. The threat of a nuclear war has declined significantly. The United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly came to the brink of such a catastrophe, most famously during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. dubbed “the most dangerous moment in human history” — but also on many other occasions, more of which are being revealed as Cold War-era troves are declassified. While nuclear dangers abound, as noted above, important nonproliferation progress is occurring, as seen in the passage of last year’s deal with Iran and the pending establishment of an IAEA-supervised fuel bank in Kazakhstan.

While it has become fashionable to argue that World War III has started or is approaching, the probability of an interstate conflict that kills tens of millions has declined significantly (the two world wars killed over 80 million people and, all told, organized violence killed more than twice that number in the 20th century). Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, and numerous other scholars have documented remarkable postwar declines in the number and lethality of wars and genocides. The number of civil wars tragically increased from four in 2007 to 11 in 2014, according to Pinker, and the carnage in Syria has caused an uptick in the global rate of battle deaths, but neither phenomenon, for now, suggests a fundamental reversal in the downward trend in various categories of violence.

According to a July 2015 United Nations report, the percent of the developing world’s population living in extreme poverty decreased from 47 in 1990 to 14 in 2015, and the under-five mortality rate more than halved, going from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births to 43. Between 1990 and 2013, life expectancy grew by over six years. We have also made extraordinary progress against disease: the rate of mortality from malaria declined by 60 percent from 2000 to 2015, the rate of mortality from measles declined by nearly 80 percent between 2000 and 2014, and polio is now confined to just two countries.

And while “global governance” remains more of an ideal than a reality, it is still capable of producing important progress. As former USAID official Alex Their summarized earlier this year, “2015 ended with a flurry of groundbreaking summits that reinvigorated the fight to end poverty and halt climate change.”

So why do pessimistic appraisals of the world command so much more attention? One hypothesis is that we labor under misplaced nostalgia. When inundated with news of destruction and suffering, we pine for the “good old days” that were allegedly more peaceful and humane. The media does not report on uplifting trends with nearly as much rigor and fervor as it does on depressing incidents, a proclivity that compounds our cognitive bias.

Another possibility, also in the realm of psychology, stresses that we are more primed to scrutinize what is wrong in the world than to celebrate what has been accomplished. The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, argues:

[W]e humans are problem solvers. We scan the horizon for potential danger. … The average Brit doesn’t wake up thanking God that he’s not living in a cave, or dying of consumption, or that he’s wealthier and healthier than his parents were at his age. He focuses on the next problem, and tries to solve it.

A final possibility — more of a speculation, really — is that we conflate greater uncertainty with greater danger; or, conversely, perhaps both real and potential dangers loom larger when we lack a stable, high-level context within which to process changes around us. Many anxious observers note, correctly, that today’s world order is far more complex than that of 1991. While no country can credibly replace the United States as the world’s superpower, it is no longer as preeminent, and there is a broad, long-term transition of power underway from the West toward the East. China, only a half century ago emerging from the worst famine in human history, is now on track to become the world’s largest economy in the next decade — marking “the first time since the reign of George III,” notes Kevin Rudd, that that title will belong “to a country that is not western, not English-speaking, and not a liberal democratic state.”

Moreover, each of the world’s three most strategically consequential regions — the Middle East, Western Europe, and the Asia-Pacific — is in flux. Vast swathes of the first are in various states of disintegration, and a long-brewing struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is intensifying. The second is being tested by anemic growth, Russian revanchism, resurgent populism, and concerns about immigrants from the Middle East. The third is witnessing a number of contests: between a reascendant China and a United States that has long been the preeminent Pacific power; between China and U.S. allies that wish to bolster their military and diplomatic ties with the United States while boosting their economic ties with China; and between the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Chinese-initiated “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

If pressed to identify a narrative for our times, many observers would choose flux, disorder, upheaval, or some variant. At the highest level of analysis, by contrast, the Cold War could be seen as a period of stability: There were no wars between great powers for nearly half a century, and the rough bipolarity that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union provided an overarching narrative for understanding world affairs. As Patrick Porter argued in these pages this past August, however, the seeming calm of that period was chimerical: The world came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon on several occasions, while proxy wars and genocides killed tens of millions.

On balance, then, while the world may be more unpredictable and chaotic than it was 25 years ago, it is also, judged on a range of metrics, more secure, wealthier, and healthier. This latter conclusion scarcely preordains sustained progress, however. There are, after all, an infinite number of possible futures, each of which is contingent upon a combination of human intervention and unforeseen disturbances. How would we respond to an act of nuclear terrorism? Are we prepared to handle a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu, which infected roughly a third of the world’s population? Last July, a distinguished panel concluded that the World Health Organization “does not currently possess the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response.” Will we be able to slow the current trajectory of climate change, replenish our forests, and clean our oceans? One could easily think of other such questions. And we must acknowledge that as our ability to improve the human condition increases, so, too, does our capacity for undermining it.


Ali Wyne is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).


Photo credit: Tom Page