What happened to the new world order

Michael Naumann
6 September 2006

When we talk about "the world", we usually do not refer to its territorial political divisions, or its military and economic status quo or, more grandly, to that beautiful blue gem floating in space, as first seen by American astronauts on their way to the moon. To most of us, the phrase "the world" is just a symbol of what goes on in the realm of our daily experiences at home or at work - or on TV. It is, at best, a limited view.

When president George W Bush implied, in an aside to China's president Hu Jintao at the Group of Eight (G8) summit meeting in July 2006, that - unlike himself - Hu had but a short flight home from St Petersburg to Beijing, it appeared as if Bush had brought his private concept of "the world" along to the meeting in Europe, leaving the true geographical meaning of "the world" - all time zones included - for others to look after.

Us vs Them

Yet, the larger geographical implications of the "world' are at the root of most of our present political difficulties. We simply can't get away from each other. And even if we could, evil could follow us onto an airplane, or, worse still, with an intercontinental ballistic missile. In our lifetime and those of the next generations, the tectonic shifts will make no difference. If, however, the United States would be so far away from all neighbours that they could never be reached by anyone - neither by ship nor plane nor missile, perhaps not even by telephone or text message - all Americans could live in peace in a culturally and financially closed marketplace.

If this sounds silly, which in a way it is (except we'd prefer to call it utopian), we should remember that the missile-shield programme of the Reagan years - now known as National Missile Defense (NMD) - Is still on the table and the first radar stations to guide it have been established in Alaska. And while political decisions do not change geographical realities, the signature of the last five years of American politics is the paradoxical unilateral projection of economic and military power unto a world of friends and foes alike: as if the world had shrunk indeed - leaving two continents - "us" and "them". The consequences are just beginning to unfold.

After 9/11, the new world as seen from the White House seemed to be divided into two halves: those nations who never questioned the wisdom of America's strategic and tactical response and those that had gone through the Henry Kissinger school of Realpolitik, which had provided them with a heavy dose of doubt vis-à-vis the promises of Machtpolitik (power politics). The concomitant political process had the appearance of lonesome decision-taking by the current US administration, bent on hardware-based action, regardless of the fact that unilateral problem-solving will always create new problems to be solved - specifically among those who did not participate in the original decision-making.

In other words, the appearance of American foreign policy after 9/11 conveyed the notion that the US was (and to a degree remains) aloof from its former allies - If not geographically, then at least mentally and strategically. With its description as a hyperpower came the epithet of unilateralism. Yet from a European perspective, American unilateralism looked like the secretly raised child of American isolationism. Recently, it has not been helpful for the country (in which this European observer has spent almost a decade and which he considers his second home), nor for the rest of the world.

Michael Naumann is the Editor / Publisher of Germany's influential weekly Die Zeit. After being senior foreign editor of Der Spiegel, he ran the publishing house of Rowohlt Verlag in Germany, Metropolitan Books and Henry Holt Inc. in New York, and was German minister of culture from 1998 to 2000

This text is adapted from a talk Michael Naumann was invited to deliver at the Claremont Hotel on Mount Desert, Maine

Among Michael Naumann's other writings on openDemocracy:

"Between Rumsfeld and France"
(10 February 2003)

"The end of Realpolitik" (27 February 2003)

"War in the ruins of law" (3 April 2003)

"Gerhard Schröder's last stand" (25 May 2005)

"Germany's unfinished business"
(22 June 2005)

"Germany's election sleepwalk"
(5 August 2005)

"The CIA archipelago"
(8 December 2005)

An end and a beginning

Transcending the experience of our own little world, looking at the world outside from a historical, geographical and political point of view, we can say that while the continents remain in place, the ozone layer does not. Climate change is obvious. The traditional global ecological balance is out of kilter. And the people of this world are going through economic, cultural, scientific, hygienic, communicational, military and political upheavals of hitherto unknown proportions. This change - which emanated from the economic and financial dynamics of the western hemisphere - is affecting all nations. Its repercussions are being felt not only in the countries that came in second, or last, in the process called globalisation, but also in the western nations assumed to be sitting in the driver's seat of history.

In terms of cultural pessimism, we are certainly looking at a diminishing of the civilised status quo. I am not talking about the more than fifty wars since 1945, with their cumulative death toll approaching that of the second world war, or the numerous genocidal occurrences after the holocaust, which remain horrible blemishes on the thin veneer of human history. Those upheavals have had some interesting domestic manifestations beyond military battlefields.

Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) has become a childhood disease in the dot.com world; HIV - the virus which causes Aids - has been killing millions of people (often as a result of drug addiction, which in its abundance is a fairly new global disease, emanating from an international billion-dollar business). New viral diseases like Ebola or avian flu are showing up in far-away corners of the world - and paying visits to continents yet unprepared for them. Fighting mental depression, obesity and concomitant diabetes, but also smoke-induced lung cancer, will gobble up large portions of our future health expenditures, especially in the United States.

The decline of the number of known animal and plant species is alarming. The list of systemic failures in our high-tech world is endless and could induce a worldwide feeling of impending disaster - especially if one considers that at least 12,000 nuclear bombs are still around, a few of them being 3,000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. To cite the English metaphysical poet John Donne, all coherence [is] gone - or so it seems. People's yearning all over the world for a new and just order manifests itself in manifold ways, and not all of them are peaceful.

Messianic movements - religiously transcendental in the United States, politico-religious and well armed in the Islamic realm - are but an expression of a global search for a state of spiritual certainty and order, which may have existed in the past. A longing for some kind of lost order lies behind the deeply conservative movement of anti-globalisation. Anti-Darwinism, this strange movement out of the past, yearns for the generous simplicity of a well-meaning divine founding father.

Perhaps the attempt of the American president and his advisors to spread the constitutional ideas of democracy in the middle east can be described as a noble and conservative strategy to project an ancient European ("western") idea in the disorderly world of archaic "eastern" political systems.

These potentially anarchic "eastern" systems are based on the royal or religious, on ancient clan-based legitimacy of the ruling elites, or simply on the persuasive appearance of secret services, death squads and other murderous dictatorial instruments, such as torture, blackmail and "disappearances". Which of course aren't so "eastern" at all, as anyone who watched the horrible actions of the Chilean, Argentinean, Salvadoran and Guatemalan regimes in the 1970s and 1980s will remember.

We all recall the "end of history?" euphoria after the sudden end of the cold war and the implosion of the Soviet empire. Francis Fukuyama's famous 1989 essay (which later became a book, The End of History and the Last Man) did not, of course, claim an end of time, the arrival of eternal peace, freedom and wealth for all. The clocks did not stop. Every morning the New York Times continued to remind us that history is alive and kicking. But Fukuyama claimed that the definite decline of totalitarianism exemplified by the demise of the Soviet Union not only proved the superiority of the democratic and economic ideas of the west - In particular of the United States - but it also opened a perspective of a non-violent world order under American domain.

Nothing came of that. And yet, the victorious mood, which befuddled the western leaders after the fall of the Berlin wall, survived more or less intact in the closed world of Washington's neo-conservative think-tanks, while the rest of the world continued in its old self-destructive ways, especially in Africa and the middle east.

The last superpower

"Anything is possible" seemed to be the neo-conservative motto - at least for the military might of the United States. Congress moved to displace Saddam Hussein in Iraq during the end of the Clinton years. While this was a noble plan from a humanitarian point of view, it also was a slap in the face of those who believed in the validity of international law and the charter of the United Nations, which protects the sovereignty of all nations. (And China, a nation that boasts more than 10,000 usually public executions per year, remains as morally abhorrent as ever.)

The notion of national sovereignty had come into existence in 1648 at the end of the devastating Thirty Years' War, which had diminished Germany's population by two thirds. The Westphalian peace treaty was meant to provide international peace despite all the religious or political differences, which in those times were definitely considered to be moral differences as well.

With its openly stated doctrine concerning their right to wage "pre-emptive war", the US opened a new chapter in international law in 2002. It transcended the experience of 9/11, and while it originated in the metaphysics of nuclear deterrence, it now conveyed a totally different picture of the country. The doctrine was greeted with a feeling of disbelief by its European allies. How can a nation without a draft believe in its capacity to wage a pre-emptive war - except by air strikes alone? As it turned out, the US is severely taxed by its war, which involves fewer than 250,000 soldiers. If the Bush administration had been serious about its preemptive-war doctrine, it would have reinstituted the draft.

And yet, with a continuously growing defence budget, which is now estimated to be about 60% of all other global defence budgets combined, Washington aspired to be the remaining and last superpower. And for the moment, that is certainly true in a strategic sense. However, the lessons of Thucydides seem to be forgotten: as Athens aspired to more and more power, its closest competitor, Sparta, finally decided to draw even. The rest is history.

Nor did anyone in Washington seem to care about another phenomenon: the flaunting of military, economic and cultural superiority would not go down easily with the sore losers of modern history - the once great nation of (mostly) Muslim Arabs. Since modernity raised its enlightened head, that nation had developed a profound feeling of inferiority and shame, easily amalgamated with a religious contempt for the secular culture of the west. The United States turned out to be the designated projection-screen for Islamic hate. Anti-Americanism became a foundation of Islamic theologica civilis, the concept of political or civil theology.

A question of leadership

In the meantime, for the European members of Nato, the world was about to change - and not only for them. Under the new Bush administration, the US bade farewell to a number of multilateral efforts concerning a new and possibly better world order. Washington did not ratify the international landmines treaty, or the Kyoto protocol to the UN climate-change convention; it refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Congress even passed a law authorising the president to use "all means necessary and appropriate" to free any US soldier held for the court's jurisdiction - a law critics termed the "Hague Invasion Act"). The US returned to a passive role in the so-called peace process in the middle east. It practically declared Nato obsolete, while simultaneously moving the alliance's borders perilously closer to Russia. And then, after the colossal crimes of 9/11, it decided to confront the evil of global terrorism according to its own rules.

Europe's preferred post-war way of confronting any international political crisis through negotiations came to be considered as the way of weaklings, as was proven by the events in the Balkans, when Europe watched more than 250,000 people killed, mostly by the troops of Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic. The Europeans, in turn, claimed that they were waiting for American leadership - which finally arrived, culminating in the Dayton agreement in 1995. So, if Europe today bemoans the lack of respect its politicians receive from Congress and the White House, that lack reflects the self-induced impotence of Nato during the Balkan crisis.

In the meantime, the arc of crisis, as the political scientists like to call it, had moved into the middle east. By far the biggest power there was not Iraq, nor Egypt, but Iran. The US, however, refused to talk to the emerging regional middle-power after the hostage crisis in 1980 - just as they haven't talked to Cuban leader Fidel Castro for two generations. While Castro remained in place, the Iranians turned into the most powerful enemy of the US in their region, which happens to be the petrol station for the rest of the world. They and the Saudi Arabian government are also sponsors of Islamic terrorism, feeling secure in their splendid isolation from the west. Why the Saudis haven't really been taken to task for their ominous role in this growing disease of our time will one day be explained by historians - if anybody is still around to take notice.

Shortly after 9/11, I was having lunch with Daniel Coats, then the ambassador to Germany, when we were informed that Nato had just invoked its Article 5 for the first time, pledging mutual military assistance in the case of attack on one of its members. Washington could not care less. This was, as we were to hear from Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, a few months later, "old Europe" talking. We turned on CNN.

The view from Germany

The "war on terror" began with the quick defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In this - as well as the preceding Kosovo conflict - Germany participated, sending out troops for the first time since 1945, and providing what is known as "human intelligence" on the ground. As to humanitarian efforts, Germany had admitted more than a million refugees from the Balkans in the space of a few years, twice as many as all other European nations combined. Most of them have by now returned to the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia.

The hub of all airborne strategic activities of the US air force during the Afghanistan war, as well as in the Iraq war of 2003, remained in Germany - with the exception of B-52 bombers making non-stop runs between their bases in Missouri or on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. With their American allies, German special forces combed the Hindu Kush and the border mountains near Pakistan, looking for Osama bin Laden and his men - in vain.

Germany had maintained close diplomatic relations with Afghanistan since the days of the Weimar republic; thus, the 2002 Petersburg Conference - instrumental in setting up the government of Hamid Karzai - picked up a thread which had been cut by the Taliban and their predecessors, the communists of Kabul. Today, the Europeans exercise the dubious privilege of nation building in Afghanistan without the United States. The country quickly turned back into a leading narco-state. And 100,000 more American soldiers more would not be able to change that.

Five years after 9/11, relations between the US and its European allies - with the exception of Poland, Britain, Denmark and the Baltic states - are frazzled. Looking at the mess in Iraq, one should not be surprised by an attitude of "I told you so" in the foreign offices of Paris or Berlin, let alone Moscow. Self-righteousness is an old European trait.

A few days after the al-Qaida attacks on the US, the German government knew that Washington intended to retaliate, not only against Afghanistan - the home base of Osama bin Laden - but also against Iraq, whether it had anything to do with al-Qaida or not. Today we know from numerous publications that indeed George W Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, had Baghdad in their sights.

While there may have been some psychologically interesting motives for this, considering that "Operation Desert Storm" of 1991 was a half-finished war and nothing else, it is now clear that behind the Bush government's unshakeable determination to choose war against Iraq lay a grander vision. That was introducing democracy into a region which for centuries had existed on a political diet of coups d'état (four in Iraq since its arbitrary creation in 1936), military dictatorships, ethnic cleansing and religious fundamentalism.

All of that was to be achieved by a small-scale invasion (no "nation-building" for this government), with some structural repairs of the ravaged nation being handled by the Halliburton corporation, formerly headed by Dick Cheney. At the end of the day, the liberated citizens of Iraq would choose the proven model of constitutional democracy, the western model, as had the Germans after 1945.

Iraq and beyond

The two US-Iraq wars in the middle east may be the beginning of an expanding und uncontrollable military conflagration. And historians may ask the same questions that have kept them busy debating the origin of the first world war: how did this colossal insanity come about?

One answer can be discovered in a strategy paper written by a number of American neo-conservative intellectuals almost ten years ago. They prepared a policy report for former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which prescribed a new role for Israel. It recommended "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper". The bellicose report goes on to say that "Israel can shape its strategic environment in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq - an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right - as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."

Such grandiose intellectual pipedreams would have been forgotten, had the authors not been, among others, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, later close advisers to Rumsfeld and surely co-architects of the present military malaise. The important difference is that their dreams of regime change all over the middle east were adopted, if only partially, not by Netanyahu but by Bush.

The results are now well known. On the day of the Iraq invasion, the lively reform movement in Iran quietly died, as it did in Saudi Arabia. The formerly reliable Turkish army opted out, closing the western front for the Pentagon. Iran accelerated its defiant nuclear policy, following the North Korean example. Despite the astonishing tactical achievement in the short ground war against Saddam Hussein's troops, the deterring appearance of a mighty American military machine suffered - thanks to grandiose strategic mistakes by the civil administration of the Pentagon.

To pacify a nation the size of Iraq, you need more than 200,000 soldiers - most of them, as usual, in the logistics departments and not on the permanently changing frontlines of the insurgency, which has now turned into a civil and religious war. The end is not in sight. The other shoe to drop will soon fall in what is known as Kurdistan.

You also need a population which, in the moments of defeat and renewal, shares a common purpose unspoiled by ethnic or religious prejudices. But first of all, you need respect for those who conquered your country. Or, to make it clear, you need authority and perhaps even fear. It seems as if this is lacking in Iraq. In the years following 1945, more than 1,000 German Nazis were hanged after military and civil trials. Nothing of the sort happened in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and elsewhere contributed to a colossal image disaster for the United States, far outweighing pictures from the Vietnam war. The pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib travelled around the world on the internet, staining the image of the US to a degree clearly underestimated by the government. Against this background, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, Hizbollah, felt encouraged to strike against Israel - and, as was to be expected, Israel struck back. And oil prices reached a record high, as did the profits of British, Dutch and American oil companies, along with Russia's Gazprom. In short, the picture is not pretty and the way out cannot be as unilateral as the way in.

Let me quote Richard Holbrooke's analysis of the status quo, as published in the Washington Post on 10 August 2006: "Turkey is talking openly of invading northern Iraq to deal with Kurdish terrorists there. Syria could easily get pulled into the war in southern Lebanon. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are under pressure from jihadists to support Hezbollah ... Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of giving shelter to al-Qaida and the Taliban ... India talks of taking punitive action against Pakistan for allegedly being behind the Bombay [Mumbai] bombings. ... The only beneficiaries of this chaos are Iran, Hizbollah, al-Qaida and the Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr ... This combination of combusting elements poses the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis."

Holbrooke goes on to say that containing violence must be Washington's first priority. Yet the entanglement of the US in Iraq may just as well be described as the opening salvo of a yet-undeclared general war scenario in the region. Withdrawing from Iraq would deprive the US of diplomatic leverage. It would be considered a humiliation and a victory by Islamic extremism. Improving its role as a serious peacekeeper in the region, on the other hand, would imply a total reappraisal of America's military and diplomatic strategy in Iraq. It would most probably mean the reintroduction of the draft and a concentration of the US on the needs of a wartime economy. That is not going to happen with a president who presents himself as a "war president", without accepting the concomitant demands of a wartime economy, with its higher tax burden for everyone.

If I had any easy solutions, I'd be afraid to offer them. They all would suffer from a hopeless optimism, which is not my strength. To sum it all up from my point of view: the distance between the US and Europe after 1945 has never been as wide as in the last six years; to heal that split will take a long time and very different administrations - and I mean on both sides of the Atlantic. If in the end it would mean a stronger military commitment by Nato, we might be justified speaking of a new world war. It would be a grand disaster in the making, with three superpowers on the sideline - Russia, India and China - waiting to exploit unavoidable strategic, political and military mistakes by what was once known as "the west".

Seen from the moon, the world, that blue gem I mentioned at the beginning, seems to be floating peacefully in space. Which reminds me of a French postcard of the early 1960s, which I received with a sigh from Paris: "War on the moon, if they like, but peace on earth". It arrived during the Christmas season.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData