Goodbye, New World Order

The Bush administration’s go-it-alone war has delivered the coup de grâce to the idea of an international community. Now what?

Image: AP/Wide World Photos

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Here is the pessimists’ case: Whatever else it may eventually accomplish, the war in Iraq seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of the dream of global citizenship that began more than half a century ago with the founding of the United Nations. Instead of a world order grounded, however imperfectly, in the idea of collective security, the war has made plain one of the central new realities of the post-9/11 world: The most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America, has decided to turn the international system on its head.

That system was based on strong states committing themselves not to do everything that was in their power. They did not make such undertakings out of altruism (states are states, after all, not charitable trusts), but out of the insight born in the ashes of World War II that the benefits of multilateralism far outweighed its risks. The Nazi experience showed that the right to act unilaterally was bound to be abused by evil regimes and provided democracies with insufficient means to confront evil. The organizers of the United Nations, notably such distinguished Americans as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ralph Bunche, in effect tried to constrain all nations within the legal steel hawsers of a doctrine of collective security.

In reality, this system never worked very well. War might have been outlawed under the U.N. Charter (except in the case of self-defense or threats to collective security), but throughout the Cold War era, both the United States and the Soviet Union pursued their own interests, and, when they deemed it necessary, went to war, though usually by proxy and usually in the Third World. This alone probably should have been enough to convince anyone that the brave new norms of international conduct enshrined in such founding U.N. documents as the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were nothing more than empty stipulations of collective moral ambitions. By any objective criterion, the world remained the same tragic place it had always been, as unredeemed by international law as it had been by religion, or Marxism, or liberal capitalism.

But such pessimism is unacceptable to most people except in the darkest of times. None of us wants to believe that there is no hope for a better world, any more than we want to believe that there is no hope for ourselves and our families. Americans are particularly drawn to a hopeful approach, in politics as in personal fulfillment — a faith in the notion that the present is better than the past and, even when it isn’t, that the future beckons brightly.

Of course, it was not only such psychological and cultural predispositions that led the post-1945 generation to believe in an international community, and in the possibility of global democracy and global justice. It was a time when, in Western Europe and North America anyway, people became prosperous to a degree that would have been unimaginable at any previous moment in history; when campaigns for justice — labor rights, women’s rights, the civil rights movement — seemed to have succeeded in overturning what many had considered the “natural” order of things. At such a time, why would it seem so unreasonable or unrealistic to dream of a world in which other “natural” conditions, most significantly war itself, were brought under control?

Today, not least because of Iraq, such expectations may seem preposterous, otherworldly. As a disenchanted friend of mine at the United Nations said to me recently, “We like to say at the U.N. that had the world organization not existed, the world would have to invent it. But we all know that people at the level of the founders of the U.N. don’t exist in international politics at present. In other words, we couldn’t invent it today.” Indeed, with the possible exception of British prime minister Tony Blair, there is not a single head of state of a democratic country who seems genuinely committed to a set of principles that he or she is willing to risk career and future for (and this is not necessarily to endorse the particular principles Blair is committed to, only to honor him for hewing to them).

Yes, many people still want to believe in the United Nations — though they’re becoming fewer and fewer in number. There is even the fantasy that some institutional or policy silver bullet — the International Criminal Court, say, or the Kyoto Protocol — will provide an Archimedean lever for solving the world’s woes. Were it not for the machinations of the United States, which refused to sign on to either Kyoto or the international court, the argument goes, we would be well on our way to a better world; even so, America stands only as an obstacle that will be overcome on the road to inevitable progress.

Such claims have all the ingredients of a fine press release, but the reality is more depressing. It is true, for example, that European governments increasingly subscribe to the ideology — some would say the secular religion — of human rights. But then so does the United States; after all, the official position of the U.S. government is that the intervention in Iraq was undertaken at least in part in the name of human rights. Now a doctrine that can be claimed by the United States of America as well as the still social democratic nations of Western Europe, and the nongovernmental organizations that view the United States as little more than a rogue state — not to mention major transnational corporations that have signed on to a U.N. “compact with business” — has become elastic to the point of fatuousness. If we all claim to be pledged to the cause of human rights (and who, it seems, does not?), then it is hard not to think of Dr. Johnson’s remark about patriotism, that it is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

As far as the international system is concerned, what are the most striking aspects of the current situation? There is the United Nations sunk in irrelevancy, except as the world’s leading humanitarian relief organization. There is a landscape of international relations that seems far more to resemble the bellicose world of pre-1914 Europe than the interdependent, responsible world imagined by the framers of the U.N. Charter. There is an entire continent, sub-Saharan Africa, mired in an economic calamity largely not of its own making. There is a Europe that pays lip service to human rights, but remains intransigent where its own real interests — such as farm subsidies that effectively condemn sub-Saharan Africa to grinding poverty by limiting its agricultural exports — are concerned. And then there is the United States, seemingly bent on empire.

Where was the good news again? That Augusto Pinochet was briefly detained in London, or that Slobodan Milosevic will likely spend the rest of his life in a U.N. jail? This, while somewhere between 2 and 4 million Congolese die in the first general war in Africa since decolonization? The truth is that, outside the developed countries, much of the world is actually in worse shape than it was just a few decades ago. Where there has been progress, if that term is even appropriate in so apocalyptic a context, it has been in the realm of norms — that is, the laws that nations try to evade and ignore, and in which many of the most decent people on this slaughterhouse of a planet continue to believe. But we are deep in loaves-and-fishes land here. To believe that states will suddenly come to their senses and behave as responsible members of an “international community,” when few states have ever done this, is, indeed, to believe in miracles.

There is unquestionably a globalized world economy, which remains largely dominated by the United States and is administered through central banks, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. But there is no such thing as an international community, at least not one worthy of the name — assuming, that is, we mean a community of shared values and interests, not just shared membership in the United Nations. For that matter, even the old, Cold War-era blocs are disintegrating: The G-77, the major international organization representing the developing world, now has trouble agreeing on anything beyond the most generic recommendations. The run-up to the Iraq war showed the depth of the divisions within the so-called transatlantic family, and equally sharp splits were evident within Europe during the same period. Never mind community; how can there be any international system when what we have actually witnessed in the period since 9/11 has been the steady erosion of the very idea of consensus in international relations?

There can be little doubt, unfortunately, that the United States has played a major role in this decline. Liberals tend to blame the Bush administration for this, but in reality, there is far more continuity between the Clinton and Bush foreign-policy doctrines than Democrats usually like to concede. It was the Clinton administration, after all, that embraced the principle “with partners if we can, alone if we must.” Yes, Clinton and his aides did not try to publicly humiliate the United Nations, but there was nothing genuinely multilateral about their approach to stopping the Bosnian war or resolving the Middle East crisis. Indeed, when then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali did not do what the Clinton people wanted on the Balkans, he was blocked by the United States in his bid for a second term — even though all the other 14 members of the Security Council at the time wanted to grant him one. While the atmospherics and aesthetics accompanying the use of American power do indeed distinguish the current administration from its predecessor, in substance the Clinton and Bush teams have been remarkably of one mind on issues surrounding the unilateral application of U.S. military might.

None of this is meant to endorse the radical view, exemplified by such figures of the hard left as Noam Chomsky in the United States and Régis Debray in France, that the collapse of the international system is simply the result of the wickedness of U.S. foreign policy. Such an analysis merely turns the official rhetoric of America’s inherent goodness on its head: Instead of being the root of all good, America is seen as the root of all evil. It is true that, by opting for the kind of world-defying unilateralism it chose in Iraq, the United States did a great deal to turn the United Nations into even more of a hollow shell than it already was. But the fact that the United Nations can be effective only if supported (read: underwritten) by the United States testifies to how little substance that system ever really had.

Besides, open defiance of U.N. rules is hardly the province of the United States. Few countries are more pro-United Nations than the Netherlands. But no Dutch government would dream of acquiescing in the U.N. drug authority’s demand for a strict prohibitionist and punitive policy toward soft drugs. Obviously, there is a difference between bending the rules about making war and the rules about smoking marijuana, but each reveals in its own way the falsity of the idea that any state is going to subordinate its own interests to those of some fictive international “community.” All politics is local — an adage international lawyers and human-rights activists could profit from pondering more seriously and respectfully.

To say this is not to demand that people stop dreaming of a better world. Many of us may still aspire to the idea of global citizenship and long for the day when the words “international com- munity” would not be cause for a bitter smile or a sardonic shrug. But it is important to understand how far we are from that day and to act accordingly.

At present, after the sweeping U.S. victory in Iraq, the mood among those Americans who want to continue to uphold some kind of internationalism has tended more and more toward disappointment and bitter resignation. There is much apprehensive talk about empire, much anxiety about the drift of the country, particularly with regard to civil liberties, much (in my view, grotesquely unwarranted) nostalgia for the Clinton administration, while, simultaneously, the legitimate fear of terrorism continues to haunt people’s visions of the future.

Is there a way out of this dilemma, beyond simply taking refuge in local politics? However paradoxical this may seem, it is precisely those committed to struggling for a better world in these dark times who stand most desperately in need of abandoning the fantasy of an idealized, law-based international system. In this sense, the profound disenchantment occasioned by the war in Iraq may actually be an opportunity to rethink realism.

It will not come naturally. In the minds of many, realism is associated with the right, with the crimes of a Henry Kissinger and the brutalities of the current neo-liberal order. Usually, it is conflated with cynicism and resignation. But just as there are many species of idealism — from mindless one-worldism to the Bush administration’s gloss on muscular, imperial Wilsonianism — so there are many variants of realism. And surely those are worth exploring when empire is all the rage. A realist of the type I am describing is more likely to oppose an attempt to impose democracy by force of arms than an idealist, for whom, alas, force is almost always appealing if the cause is appealing enough. A realist also might insist that the current patterns of consumption in the world are impossible to sustain. In short, there are any number of issues and causes, from women’s health and education to debt relief, that are usually conjugated in the language of idealism, but are actually easier to argue for in the name of realism.

What realism cannot do is offer the same kind of millenarian hope that is the essential DNA of idealism. Realism is fundamentally defensive. If anything, that can often make the realist’s activism more, rather than less, intense and committed. But there is no getting around the fact that the assumption underlying every variant of realism is that things will not necessarily get better, and may very well grow worse.

People, and nations, are not altruism machines — never have been, never will be — and it is about time activists learned to live with this fact rather than endlessly, generation after generation, trying to ignore it or wish it away. To say this is in no way to disparage activists. Without them the world would be even more savage and cruel than it already is. But most people commit their lives to their families and, at most, can be mobilized only occasionally in the name of some ideal. They are quite comfortable seeing themselves as citizens of a specific locality, not as global citizens. The idealist dream — whether it is Christians or Muslims proselytizing among the unbelievers, Che Guevara dreaming of creating what he called, to my ears chillingly, a “New Man,” or, perhaps, Paul Wolfowitz imagining that he can democratize the Middle East — is that this can be changed.

In contrast, the realist is anti-utopian, skeptical, and, while in no sense passive, acts from the conviction that while there are many wrongs that do indeed need to be righted, and many causes worth defending, not everything is possible, least of all, to paraphrase the slogan of the anti-globalization movement, “another” world. As the great British scientist J.D. Bernal once wrote, “There are two futures — the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to separate them.” A strange note for a Marxist of Bernal’s commitments to strike, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of the realist creed.

There is, in truth, much reason to fear for the future. Despite all the new norms, there is no evidence that the influence of morality and virtue in international relations has grown. To the contrary, it seems as if we are once more entering the Hobbesian universe of force from which the United Nations’ founders imagined they were shepherding the world away. The Iraq war was rightly seen as the harbinger of this colder world, which is why so many decent people, however much they may prefer to keep this to themselves, have turned away from hope and from the belief in global citizenship.

Is there anything to be done? It seems to me that the environmental movement offers the best model to date of the kind of realism I have been outlining. After all, environmental activism is based on a bedrock of harsh, realist calculation — the perception that humanity’s survival depends on fundamental reorderings of the way we live now. The argument at its core is not altruism. To the contrary, the environmental movement insists that while yes, it is fine to “care” about the planet in an idealistic way, and that the world would be a far better place (and we as a species might actually survive into the next centuries living in a sustainable world) if we all could think that way, it is self-interest that demands our commitment.

In principle, there is no reason why these same assumptions cannot be exported to the realm of international relations. Admittedly, it is a thin reed on which to base one’s hopes. But at this point, it may well be all we have.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.