By Richard Falk
There is no more reliable guardian of entrenched conventional wisdom than The Economist. And so when its cover proclaims ‘the new world order,’ and removes any ambiguity from its intentions, by its portrayal of Putin as a shirtless tank commander with menacing features.
No such iconography accompanied the last notable invocation of the phrase ‘new world order’ by George H. W. Bush in mobilizing support for a forcible response to the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, the dirty work of Saddam Hussein. Here the elder Bush was seeking to suggest that with the Cold War winding down that finally the UN Security Council 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 relation to Ukraine. 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.
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 unseemly burdens accepted by a defeated Germany in the Versailles Treaty after World War I, an international arrangement often given a large share of the blame for later tipping the internal German balance in an extremist direction.
Bush claimed victory over Iraq in the Gulf War with the rather vulger geopolitically slogan, “finally, we kicked the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’” – meaning that America had shown itself and the world that it could again win wars quickly, decisively, and at minimum cost to itself in lives and treasure. Some ventured to suggest that this renewed confidence in its war making prowess was the real new world order.
There were questions raised at the time about such a 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 in 1990 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 the United States and its coalition partners, but only an ultimatum delivered by the then UN Secretary General.
Also, there were questions about the failure of the American led military campaign to give the Security Council any supervisory role in relation to the military undertaking during its operational phases. Such an opportunistic manipulation of UN authority was repeated far more controversially in the Libya intervention under NATO auspices in 2013 when an expressly limited Security Council authorization was expanded dramatically without the slightest subsequent effort to obtain UN approval.
Questions were raised as to whether the United States 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 by the military campaign 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 American diplomat, in effect, informing the world that the United States was not prepared to repel aggression unless warranted to do so by its national and strategic interests, and certainly not willing to allow the UNSC to make the call as to when international force should be used. In effect, 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 the former government official,”What ever happened to ‘the new world order’?” To this day I find his response rather revealing: “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 globalizing 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 in the early 1990s by Francis Fukuyama on the theme of ‘the end of history,’ that is, the universal triumph of liberal ideas of governance best embodied in the United States, but now manifest purpose of the long, tortuous historical journey into the present.
Of course, invoking ‘the new world order’ also had some earlier uglier resonances, especially, its proclamation as those heralding achievement of the Nazi version of fascism.
Putin and the New World Order…?
So what shall we make of its renewal as descriptive of Putin vision in the aftermath of the Ukrainian intervention, followed by the Crimean annexation. There is no doubt that from a statist perspective, Russia violated international law by non-defensively using force to acquire territory belonging to another sovereign state, international legal wrongs accentuated by breaking a treaty signed by Russia with Ukraine in 1994 to respect existing borders.
This agreement was also regarded as notable because it included the commitment by Ukraine to transfer their stockpile of nuclear weapons to Russia for safekeeping following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
From the perspective of a Ukrainian nationalist, I would wonder at this point whether the Ukrainian borders might have been more respected had the Kiev government retained this weaponry, and thus what Putin has unwittingly done, is to rekindle an interest in nuclear weaponry as a security deterrent that could seem beneficial for the security of secondary states.
By and large The Economist berates the vision thrust upon the world by Putin as a dangerous repudiation of international agreements upon which international law rests, and a kind of ‘revanchism’ in which hard power is relied upon to challenge the territorial integrity and political independence of a neighboring country. It is alleged that Russia’s argument for intervention could be used in many contexts throughout the world to rescue unhappy minorities that find themselves subject to a national governance structure that is not to their liking.
In The Economist’s call for firm leadership by Obama that imposes heavy costs on Russia the stated purpose is to salvage for people spread around the planet “the kind of world order they want to live under.” The magazine posits its sense of the central issues at the end of the editorial: “Would they prefer one in which states by and large respect international agreements and borders? Or one in which words are bent, agreements are borders ignored and agreements broken at will?” [March 22, 2014, 9]
This choice is put rhetorically, and avoids a more objective observational standpoint that seems to suggest the existence of a widespread public interest in having others abide by international norms while keeping oneself unconstrained. And wouldn’t the rest of the world care more about a more equitable economic order than whether ambiguous agreements about distant territorial rights are respected?
Two clusters of issues
There are two clusters of issues raised – conceptual choices and policy options.
On conceptual matters, there is the matter of coherence. Should Russia be expected to abide by agreements when the West seeks to interfere with the internal dynamics of self-determination in an important country on its border? The Economist makes no mention of a variety of covert efforts to destabilize the admittedly corrupt and abusive Ukrainian government headed by Yukanovych and entice the Ukraine to accept Western credit arrangements and a European alignment.
In turn, such a move is a reinforcement of the incorporation of East Europe into the European Union via ‘enlargement’ and to deploy defensive missile systems in countries surrounding Russia.
To have the world order based on international law that The Economist and the West abstractly favors in this context then these advocates should be prepared to live by a similar set of rules and agreements.
Putin referred capriciously to the Kosovo precedent as a quasi-legal justification for seizing Crimea, and this has some plausibility, although there was a strong argument that Serbia had forfeited its sovereign rights in Kosovo by the commission of crimes against humanity in the course of resisting the breakup of former Yugoslavia.
The invasion 2003 of Iraq
The better precedent to test what the West really wants in relation to world order is undoubtedly the invasion and occupation of Iraq after being rebuffed by the UN Security Council in 2003. Here was an instance of blatant aggression on trumped up false premises, an intrusive regime-changing occupation with devastating impacts on the entire fabric of Iraqi society, and the deliberate manipulation of religious and ethnic tensions by the occupying power so as to create the kind of Iraq that wanted to emerge. Is this the world that The Economist, and those of similar inclinations, have in mind?
When done by Putin such behavior is seen as disruptive, but when done by the United States, uses of force are benignly described as “the aggressive pursuit of American values.” The Iraq War seems to me to have set a far worse precedent than the Putin worldview as exhibited so far in relation to Ukraine.
When it comes to Iraq, the editorial writer for The Economist doesn’t ignore it, but air brushes the precedent by dismissing it as a momentary diversion, an ill-advised move “puffed up by the hubris of George Bush” in “’the unilateral world’” that followed upon the Soviet collapse, a venture that “choked in the dust of Iraq.”
But is Iraq such a deviation from American approaches to the use of force ever since the Vietnam War? And don’t overlook the oppressive and bloody consequences of covert intervention in a host of countries, including Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973)? And what about the unleashing of lethal drone warfare in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?
In the end, then, we have to ask the question as to what kind of world order has the United States pursued over the course of recent decades, and is it the same one that The Economist seems to be promoting. In light of such a reconstruction can it be claimed that pre-Putin, the dominant states had displayed a consistent respect for international law. Also it should be mentioned that to date the Russian aggressive moves in relation to Crimea, and Ukraine, have been bloodless.
Of course, international law is invoked as a matter of diplomatic convenience by every state whenever it seems to support its foreign policy. The United States is adept at mounting such arguments. The true test of national adherence to international law, however, is the behavior of a leading government when international law poses an obstacle to its preferred course of action.
To insist that the adversary adhere, while claiming the discretion to act on the basis of national interests, is a hegemonic form of world order that accepts as a prime implicit norm, the inequality of states, and thus goes against the major premise of international law as presupposing the equality of states when it comes to applying codes of behavior. It is the leading state or states that sets the rules of the game in a statist structure, which either establishes a law-oriented world order or subverts it. The United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, have since 1945 wanted it both ways: freedom of action for themselves, rule of law for their adversaries. The Ukraine illustrates both sides of the argument, as well as its pitfalls.
In the current setting, ‘American exceptionalism’ has been unashamed of mounting a patently hypocritical argument. Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, explains that the banishment of Russia from economic summit events will last for “as long as Russia is flagrantly violating international law.” Until Russia is unwilling to reverse its policy on Ukraine it is, according to Mr. Rhodes, “outside the rules of the road.” [International New York Times, March 25, 2014]
Russia is within the rules of the road so far as the geopolitical game is concerned, but if it were the case that international law sets the rules, then Russia is acting outside the rules, but so are those who now purport to act as enforcers. Nothing is more corrosive of respect for international law over time than a blatant reliance on double standards, which is the hallmark of geopolitics.
What remains to be considered is the policy response to the Putin moves.
Here the facts and complications make any firm set of conclusions an expression of dogma rather than a nuanced interpretation of context. In truth, there are no guidelines, or rules of the road, when external actors destabilize and silently intervene on one side, and the other side reacts more overtly. The people are caught in between. As an African proverb points out: “When two elephants fight, the grass is destroyed.”
I believe that the sort of posturing that has been generated by the Ukraine crisis works against responding to the question put by The Economist: What kind of world order have we had, and what kind do we want and need? I think a more humane future can be ensured by adopting an international law approach to peace and justice, but only if it is done consistently and reciprocally.
The depressing evidence of the old cold war, not a new one
As matters now stand, the foreign policy of major states continues to be principally dictated by perceptions of vital national interests, and not by the obligation to obey the rules of the road as set by international law, and administered by the United Nations. The geopolitical logic at play is not only hypocritical, but tends toward producing an escalating conflict spiral.
In the current setting we hear loose talk about organizing for a second cold war, with all the embedded dangers, including the potential horror that nuclear weapons might be threatened and used. It seems strange that our most heralded realist gurus do not dare speak about nuclear disarmament as a process that could greatly contribute to the avoidance of a catastrophic future, and erect a firm safety barrier for the containment of future wars.
All things considered, rather than view the recent events involving the Ukraine as a sign of ‘the new world order’ it would be more appropriate to view them as depressing evidence of the persistence of ‘the old world order.’
And it is this that we should regret. It is not only provocative behavior in violation of basic rules of international order, but it is a system that encourages violence and predatory behavior, lacking a moral, spiritual, and vital institutional center.