Presidential Studies Quarterly March 2001

The New World Order in Theory and Practice:
The Bush Administration's Worldview in Transition

By:  Eric A. Miller and Steve A. Yetiv

The twentieth century saw several major postwar efforts to create conditions conducive to the development of a new world order. This article focuses on the period of the end of the cold war, particularly the Persian Gulf crisis (1990-1991). The authors analyze how the concept of the new world order evolved during this period and argue that the Bush administration consciously sought to create a framework for a new world order during the Gulf crisis. This framework was based on checking the offensive use of force, promoting collective security, and using great power cooperation.

The new world order is a concept that emerged prominently three times in the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson sought to create a new world order after World War I only to find that the world, as well as the U.S. Senate, was not ready for his brand of idealism. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a new world order that would ensure greater stability and peace through the creation of an international body of United Nations (UN), although he saw it as a body that would be based on great power cooperation. Later in the century, during the Persian Gulf crisis (1990-1991), the administration of George Bush revisited this abstract concept in line with the effort to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. We focus attention on this last case.

The central argument of this article is that decision makers in President Bush's exclusive inner cabinet and in the lower-level deputies committee that served the inner cabinet consciously tried to lay out a framework for a new world order through their actions and statements during the crisis. While this effort remained secondary to other objectives during the crisis and the concept of the new world order was dramatized for political effect, it did play an important role that needs to be understood better. That Bush and his advisers sought to create the basis for a new world order is ironic because Bush was widely criticized and even ridiculed for lacking vision. While that may or may not be fair regarding how he conducted elements of domestic affairs, it is not true of the Gulf crisis. Indeed, insofar as he seriously and genuinely advanced the new world order concept, Bush did display a vision for how world affairs could be conducted in the post-cold war and post-Gulf crisis period. In part through the use of interviews with key decision makers, we seek to establish this argument by examining how the concept of the new world order, which has been widely misunderstood, evolved during the Gulf crisis and by identifying and exploring its three main dimensions.

The End of the Cold War and the New World Order

Expectations of a new era and a better world emerged in the late 1980s, well before the Iraqi invasion. The Bush administration, like many others around the world, was focusing on the unification of Germany, the domino-like fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the end of the cold war produced in part by the economic and political reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. By contrast, little attention was focused on events in the Middle East.

The end of the cold war and the Gulf crisis contributed fundamentally to the development of the concept of the new world order. The end of the cold war created conditions that made a new world order possible in theory. They included enhanced superpower cooperation, less potential that U.S. action against a regional aggressor would trigger superpower confrontation, a decreased propensity on the part of Moscow and Beijing to veto UN collective security efforts, and the possibility that former Soviet allies such as Syria would join or support U.S.-led efforts, such as collective action in the Gulf.

The Gulf crisis allowed the new world order concept to be developed and executed. Indeed, prior to the crisis, the notion of a new era was in the air, but it was ambiguous, nascent, and unproven. Bush, for instance, spoke of an "extraordinary new world" (Bush 1990, 1030) but did not attach this language to the broader vision of a new world order. Elements of what would become the new world order, such as the role of the Soviet Union, were hopeful but inchoate. In 1989, Bush spoke positively about Moscow's "new thinking," but his main concern was that it now had "an obligation and an opportunity" to demonstrate it (Bush 1990, 307). Later, on May 12, 1989, Bush announced that it was time to move "beyond containment to a new policy for the 1990s" and that Washington would now "welcome the Soviet Union back into the world order" (Bush 1990, 541). While the superpowers had begun to cooperate or engage in productive dialogue on a series of issues ranging from resolving regional conflicts to economic reform (Baker 1995, 71-72, 151-56), the Gulf crisis offered Moscow the opportunity to demonstrate on a crucial global question that it could cooperate with the United States. This was especially true because Iraq was a former regional ally that still owed Moscow billions in dollars for arms sales, and elements of the foreign policy establishment in the Soviet Union were quite reluctant to support U.S.-led efforts against Baghdad.

Prior to the crisis, moreover, the United States had not assumed a bona fide leadership role in attempting to fashion elements of a new world order. Bush understood and asserted that American leadership in the world had become "crucial" (Bush 1990, 79), but such assertions had a rhetorical ring, partly because America was widely viewed as in decline at the time. The Gulf crisis allowed Washington to crystallize positive feelings about a new era into a more palpable vision and approach while advancing its national interests and asserting its global primacy.

The ongoing effects of the end of the cold war not only made the new world order concept possible in theory but also increased the probability that, once articulated, it would have some teeth in the Gulf crisis. In this sense, the effects of the end of the cold war and of the Gulf crisis crisscrossed in history and reinforced each other, combining to elevate the concept of the new world order in theory and to establish its broad contours in practice.

We can identify one other general connection between the end of cold war, the Gulf crisis, and the new world order. The former two events not only motivated the development of the latter, but the Gulf crisis was also viewed by the Bush administration as a test of it. Thus, the concept was developed in the fall and then tested, in Bush's view, successfully in war (Bush 1992, 207).

While the concept of the new world order was made possible by the end of the cold war, it was not made inevitable by it. As David Lake (1999,285) points out, American foreign policy has always shifted between approaches of unilateralism and security cooperation and within the latter between "more anarchic and more hierarchical security relationships." Washington could have chosen any strategy along that continuum for dealing with world affairs in general or the Gulf crisis and specific aspects of it in particular. Indeed, many observers called for a policy of American isolationism, rather than interventionism at the end of the cold war (Telhami 1994, 157-58). Furthermore, while the end of the cold war created the conditions for a new world order in theory, the crisis allowed it to be put in motion. It allowed for Iraq's aggression to be reversed through some form of collective security, under UN auspices.

How the Concept Evolved during the Crisis

Some time in early August 1990, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas W. Freeman, Jr. sent a cable to Washington from Saudi Arabia in which he argued that U.S. conduct in the Gulf crisis would determine the nature of the world. That phrase, in Freeman's view, was then later picked up inadvertently by Bush and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and became a U.S. national concern (Chas W. Freeman, Jr., interview by the second author, February 18, 1999, Washington, DC). While Bush introduced the concept in its most inchoate form in an August 8, 1990, address to the nation in which he spoke of a "new era," it was first coined as the "new world order" in a reflective late August fishing trip that the president took with Scowcroft (Bush 1991, 1108). The outing was the first chance that they had to "unwind and talk" about the events of the previous weeks, and Bush and Scowcroft became absorbed in a long discussion concerning the unfolding crisis (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 353-55,400). As Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates (telephone interview by the second author, February 18, 1999) jokingly remembers, a concept such as the new world order is what happens when "you send Brent and Bush fishing with time on their hands."

Thereafter, Bush invoked the new world order at several critical junctures. On September 9, he told Gorbachev in Helsinki that he thought there was "an opportunity to have develop out of this tragedy a new world order.... But the bottom line ... must be that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to profit from his aggression" (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 363). Two days later, Bush asserted that the United States, in addition to its four key objectives in the crisis, had a "fifth objective" of producing a new world order that "a hundred generations have searched for" in vain (Bush 1991, 1219). For Bush,

   Iraq's aggression [was] not just a challenge to the security of Kuwait and 
   other Gulf nations but to the better world that we all have hoped to build 
   in the wake of the Cold War. And therefore, we and our allies cannot and 
   will not shirk our responsibilities. (Bush 1991, 1581) 

According to a search of presidential documents published by the White House, Bush referred to a new world order at least forty-two times from the summer of 1990 to the end of March 1991 (Oberdorfer 1991).

After Bush's articulation of the new world order concept in September, it began to appear in policy statements by numerous Bush administration officials. For instance, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney prioritized U.S. interests in a statement before the Senate on December 30, stating that the "first reason behind the president's policy is the prospect for further aggression"; the second, which is related to the first, is the domination of global oil supplies; and the third is the notion of the new world order.(1) That the new world order concept did not emerge in policy speeches until well after Iraq's invasion suggests that it was not critical in motivating the United States to deploy forces to the Gulf. However, one reason that it did not appear until later was that Washington, as one Bush insider points out, could not talk about a new world order officially until the Soviet collapse became clearer (John Sununu, telephone interview by the second author, August 11, 1999). A reversal of that fall would have been the death knell for the new world order.

The New World Order Concept Misunderstood

In the view of Bush and Scowcroft, the media misunderstood and distorted their vision of a new world order to be more expansive and idealistic than intended. In part, Bush's own broad descriptions contributed to the confusion and raised some question about whether the definition of the new world order was changing, even in his mind. For instance, on September 11, he noted that the new world order was

   a new era-freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of 
   justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the 
   nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live 
   in harmony ... a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the 
   jungle ... where the strong respect the rights of the weak. (Bush 1991, 

In front of the UN General Assembly on October 1, Bush drew colorful imagery of the world that could emerge if Iraqi aggression was defeated: "Success, too, will have lasting consequences: reinforcing civilized standards of international conduct, setting a new precedent in international cooperation, and brightening the prospects for our vision of the future" (Bush 1991, 1333). While it is not fully clear to what extent such statements were mere presidential rhetoric, they were taken seriously in some quarters. Some observers interpreted them to mean that the United States would yield significant influence to the United Nations or that the world would enter an era of peace and tranquility (Brent Scowcroft, interview by the second author, February 19, 1999, Washington, DC; Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 355). This interpretation painted Bush and Scowcroft as out of touch with the basic precepts of American foreign policy and all too optimistic about the nature of world affairs. Their conception of the new world order, however, was far more circumscribed and far less idealistic.

In fact, the administration's new world order concept, while idealistic in ways, was accompanied by a good dose of realism. For Bush, the concept did not mean that Washington would surrender any critical aspect of sovereignty to the United Nations either during or after the crisis. It also did not mean that it would forfeit national interests or be constrained in pursuing them. While the United States sought to promote collective action, it did not reject balance of power or commit to responding to all acts of aggression against sovereign states as collective security required in theory. Nor did Washington forsake unilateralism. It remained ready during and after the crisis to pursue its interests unilaterally if need be, with or without the United Nations or the U.S. Congress for that matter. While Bush preferred to realize American national interests fully, even if that meant dispensing with a larger UN and multilateral role, he preferred the latter route if he could, in essence, meet U.S. interests. It is not clear how much American sovereignty he was willing to forego to achieve a collective approach to the invasion, but he managed to avoid a serious trade-off between the two.

Furthermore, the new world order did not signify that the world was moving into an era of peace. Rather, it represented in part a "challenge to keep the dangers of disorder at bay" (Bush 1992, 366). And it also did not refer, as some observers assumed, to a Pax Americana. Even during the crisis, Washington had to cooperate with Middle Eastern and European states, with some twenty-eight nations in the U.S.-led military alliance, and with numerous other states in the United Nations. Moreover, it had to draw on many states for financial support, which covered nearly 90 percent of the incremental cost of the campaign (Lake 1999, 229). We argue that for Bush and Scowcroft, the new world order meant chiefly that Washington would lead and protect its interests within the context of a new era, one marked, in general, by the three key dimensions that we sketch below.

Dimensions of the New World Order

Bush's difficulty in adapting to the media-driven modern presidency fostered popular accounts that he had no vision, but his articulation of a new world order and his principled stand on Iraqi aggression countered that image (Bell, Hargrove, and Theakston 1999, 534; Rozell 1998, 127).(2) While the media projected a quite broad and idealistic version of the new world order, in fact, Bush's conception was based chiefly on three related dimensions: (1) the aggressive use of force was unacceptable, (2) it would be rejected through collective security, and (3) to meet that goal, great power cooperation was necessary.

These dimensions did not, however, constitute a clear, well-planned, and specific architecture of the overall concept. They developed in an incremental and sometimes ad hoc manner, as a function of personal, domestic, and global factors. Nor were these dimensions clearly defined and elaborated on in available primary sources. Rather, in our view, they serve to approximate the general thrust of the administration's conception of the new world order as it evolved and changed. Relatedly, the new world order concept was not just one definitive vision. It assumed several roles and meanings. It was simultaneously an idealistic construct in theory, a genuine vision for action, and, at times, a political strategy bereft of real philosophical meaning that helped Washington execute its national interests by offering political cover, legal justification, and the basis for collective action in war.

Checking Aggression

Checking the offensive use of force was the overarching principle of Bush's new world order, which rested heavily on the rule of law, although, as Bush recounts, "this objective remained distinctly secondary in our public explications of our purposes in the Gulf crisis" (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 400). Reflective of his view during the crisis, Bush noted in late January 1991 that

   what was, and is, at stake is not simply our energy or economic security 
   and the stability of a vital region but the prospects for peace in the 
   post-Cold war era--the promise of a new world order based upon the rule of 
   law. (Bush 1992, 60) 

The Iraqi invasion quickly prompted a U.S.-led international response. On August 2, the UN Security Council passed the first resolution (Resolution 660), which condemned the invasion and demanded a complete and unconditional withdrawal. As Secretary of State James Baker (1995,278) remembers, "The language was simple and crystal clear, purposely designed by us to frame the vote as being for or against aggression." A few days later, reporters greeted Bush on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return from meeting with his advisers at Camp David. In a now-famous statement, he told reporters that the invasion "will not stand," thus committing the United States to use force against Iraq if it refused to withdraw from Kuwait peacefully (Bush 1991, 1102). That was a crucial step in the effort to ensure that Iraq's aggression would be reversed.

Bush formally asserted the principle of checking aggression in an address to the nation on August 8. "This new era," he argued, "can be full of promise, an age of freedom, a time of peace for all people. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms" (Bush 1991, 1108). His determination was based, in part, on two related notions: appeasement is dangerous, and the failure to check aggression could spark greater instability in the future. Bush and members of his inner circle repeatedly invoked memories of World War II and the failure of the Western powers to stand firmly and unquestionably against Hitler's aggression (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 340; Bush 1991, 1148, 1400, 1483). To be sure, this served particular political goals at key junctures, but it also reflected genuine views about how the crisis could affect world affairs writ large. At times, Bush became very emotional over Iraq's atrocities in Kuwait, such as in his comparisons to Hitler's Death's Head Regiment or in his references to the Nuremberg trials in October 1990, an allusion to what might awake the Iraqi dictator (Scowcroft interview; Bush 1991, 1445, 1483, 1518). Bush's determination to check aggression and to set a precedent for the future explains, in part, why he insisted that Iraq's withdrawal be unconditional and why he totally rejected any efforts, including linking Iraq's withdrawal to the Palestinian question, which might provide Saddam with a face-saving withdrawal.(3) In his view, such efforts, which were advanced chiefly and repeatedly by France, Russia, and some Arab states, would not have set a positive precedent for a new world order in which aggression was not to be rewarded. They also may have given Iraq the impression that a post-Vietnam United States lacked the fortitude and resolve to go to war, thus encouraging Saddam to stay in Kuwait.

Bush and some of his advisers also believed that failure to check Iraq's aggression would encourage even more challenges to the U.S.-favored status quo and global stability (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 491). As Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger recalls, we thought it could set "all the wrong standards for the post-Cold War world by suggesting to regional dictators that naked aggression pays and by hurting U.S. credibility at a time when its leadership was being tested, if it did not take strong action" (telephone interview by the second author, July 23, 1996; Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 371). For Baker, the Gulf crisis was seen as a "critical juncture in history" and thus would have larger implications (U.S. Congress 1990, 7). While the end of the cold war increased U.S. security at the global level, it did not necessarily insulate it from challenges by regional actors.

Collective Action

During the Gulf crisis, the United States could have pursued a more unilateral approach. Instead, it leaned more toward collective action to ensure not only that the offensive use of force would not pay but also that it would be checked effectively by a community of nations--an effort that bedeviled the League of Nations in the 1930s. Indeed, as Bush characterized it, this is not an "American problem or a European problem, or a Middle East problem: It is the world's problem" (Bush 1991, 1108). Through a U.S.-led but collective military response to Iraq's violation of international law, the UN achieved the purpose originally envisioned by the architects of the post-World War II era. "Now we can see a new world order coming into view," Bush pronounced to Congress in his victory speech on March 6. "A world where the United Nations, freed from the cold war stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders.... The Gulf War put this new world to its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test" (Bush 1992, 221).

The Gulf crisis was viewed as a test case for UN credibility as well (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 370; Bush 1991, 1219, 1333). As Special Assistant for Near East and South Asian Affairs Richard Haass noted, the "bigger issues of world order were on the table and we knew that a lot of people would take cues from what we did. At the end of the Cold War, we were transcending into another paradigm, which meant everything we did would have consequences" (interview by the second author, February 18, 1999, Washington, DC). In Baker's view, the Gulf crisis was the first real crisis in the post-cold war era. He believed that "a new world order [was] going to evolve in an important way out of how we handle[d] this crisis" (Baker 1995, 297).

To be sure, Bush was determined to reverse Iraq's invasion even without support from the United Nations or even the U.S. Congress. Some elements of the diplomatic and military operations against Iraq were clearly unilateral, no matter how much multilateral cooperation was emphasized. Moreover, one of Washington's motives in addressing the Iraqi threat was to reassert itself in world affairs amid growing concerns that a united Germany and a rising Japan could eclipse it in influence and hasten what some observers believed was a trajectory of American decline (Kennedy 1987; Garten 1993). Thus, while the Gulf crisis offers the best case of collective security in history, it was not by any means pure collective security.

In Scowcroft's (interview) view, "The U.S. had to be the leader. No one else could be a focal point for dealing with aggression, but it was not coercion. It was infinite consultation, cajoling, and listening to their views. We led and got our way, but no one felt steam-rolled. We worked at it every day." Thus, the Gulf crisis could serve as a postwar precedent for the importance of generating international action authorized by an international body such as the UN and led by the United States. As White House Chief of Staff John Sununu (interview) put it, Bush's ability to weave together a coalition under UN auspices "laid the foundation for multilateral versus unilateral action for the twenty-first century." As Haass (interview) recalls, decision makers sought to establish a model for post-cold war leadership and coalition building in which aggression could be reversed by collective security. Confirming that view, Scowcroft (interview) notes that the United States tried "to behave in the Gulf crisis in ways that would be a model for dealing with future crises in the post-cold war world. That's how the new world order concept came up, as a model for dealing with aggressors. The U.S. should behave in a way that others can trust and get UN support." Even Freeman (interview), who was critical of Bush's inability to develop a coherent war termination strategy at the end of the ground war in late February 1991, found that the Gulf War taught the United States significant lessons about military coalition building and coalition management.

Bush had good reason to prefer collective UN action to an approach that was perceived to be chiefly unilateral. Collective action, to be sure, was difficult to exercise and created the potential that the United States could lose some influence over outcomes. Moreover, it left the coalition vulnerable to defection by any of its members, which might decrease its credibility, while unilateral action could avoid such a potential weakness. Even Wilson, this century's most zealous proponent of collective action, understood well the challenges of creating a new world order. On several occasions, for instance, Wilson shared his concern with other leaders about how or even whether the League of Nations could function effectively, given the problems inherent in collective action (Wilson 1983-1984, 41: 356-57; 43: 360; 47: 105).

For Bush, however, the UN was the appropriate international body for handling the Gulf crisis, despite these potential drawbacks. "Building an international response led us immediately to the UN," noted Bush and Scowcroft (1998, 491), "which could provide a cloak of acceptability to our efforts and mobilize world opinion behind the principles we wished to project." What was critical, in Scowcroft's (interview) words, was that the operation "not look like the United States was throwing its weight around." In this sense, collective action was in part a public relations strategy. Multilateral action also added credibility to the U.S.-led approach and made it harder for Saddam to paint U.S. efforts as another example of Western imperialism, something that he tried to do repeatedly. As Baker (1995, 279) put it, there were "times when great powers must forswear even trying collective action and go it alone in the first instance, as we had done in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. This was definitely not one of them."

While the conceptualization of the new world order began early in the crisis, the concept itself, as conceived by Bush and Scowcroft, was also relevant to how the war ended. The decision not to march on Baghdad or even to crush Iraq's vaunted Republican Guard at the end of the war was controversial. Many believed that the war should have been prosecuted for at least twenty-four hours more to weaken Saddam's best divisions and leave him subject to overthrow by his own army or by the anti-Saddam Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south of Iraq. Others felt that if Saddam was another Hitler, as Bush had repeatedly suggested during the crisis, he should be removed from power by U.S.-led forces. While the administration decided to terminate the ground war early for myriad reasons (Yetiv 1997), part of its decision was related to the three key dimensions of the new world order. The goal of the Gulf War was to check aggression and not to remake Iraq. That goal had been accomplished with the eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait and the restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government. Great power cooperation could have collapsed if the United States had attempted to march on Baghdad or even attack Iraqi forces further. While Moscow and Paris were willing to support the liberation of Kuwait, neither they nor most Arab states were willing to march on Baghdad. Moreover, the UN mandate was limited to liberating Kuwait. Therefore, if the United States wanted the Gulf crisis to set a precedent for collective action, it made sense to stay within the parameters of that mandate. Exceeding that mandate would have minimized the role of the UN in the crisis, especially if members of the UN Security Council opposed U.S. action.

Great Power Cooperation

Related to the principle of reversing aggression through collective action, Bush's conception of the new world order was firmly rooted in great power cooperation, with a particular focus on the Soviet Union. While Moscow had longstanding relations with Iraq and was very reluctant to see it attacked by U.S.-led forces, it was more interested at the end of the cold war in positive relations with the United States than in playing its Baghdad card. This consideration and Iraq's blatant aggression against Kuwait helped Washington garner the support it needed from the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council. Had Iraq invaded Kuwait during the cold war, when it was one of Moscow's key regional allies and the superpowers were stuck in global rivalry, the costs to Washington of taking a strong stance against Iraq would have been far higher.

From the beginning of the Gulf crisis, the superpowers agreed in large part that Iraq must withdraw. The main conduits for U.S.-Soviet dialogue were Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who had developed good working relations.(4) When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Baker had already secured a Soviet commitment to an arms embargo after meeting Shevardnadze in Moscow (Baker 1995, 280). But two factors challenged the initial momentum of U.S.-Soviet coordination. The U.S. decision to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia in early August was made without advance notice to the Soviets. While this was in some respects a minor issue, Shevardnadze was furious. "Are you consulting us or are you informing us?" Shevardnadze asked Baker on the morning of August 7 (Baker 1995, 282). The Soviets wanted to be consulted on key decisions.

The biggest problem for Shevardnadze was that Soviet decision makers were split on how to approach the crisis. Shevardnadze represented one group as the sole spokesperson for closer cooperation with the United States. The Arabists, led by Soviet Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, sought a more traditional Soviet role in the Middle East. This internal power struggle remained intense, and as one high-level Soviet insider noted, "I was not sure the Americans were fully aware of the mounting criticism of our cooperation with them in the Gulf crisis [and] whether they really understood how much heat Shevardnadze and Gorbachev were taking from the military and the Arabists was not clear to me" (Palazchenko 1997, 215). The dialogue at Helsinki is evidence of this split in Soviet diplomacy.

In talks between Bush and Gorbachev, the pro-Iraqi Soviet bureaucracy led by Primakov carefully crafted the Soviet approach. It sought linkage between Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait and an international conference to be convened on Middle East peace. At Helsinki, Gorbachev argued for linkage, but when the United States asserted that linkage would allow Saddam a potential political victory, Gorbachev shifted his position by the afternoon sessions and agreed to a more active U.S.-Soviet stance, although he still did not agree to the use of military force (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 366-68). The issue of whether to allow Saddam a face-saving withdrawal from Kuwait, however, was a point of contention between Moscow and Washington throughout the crisis and would have been far more divisive without the ending of the cold war. As Gorbachev suggested to Bush, congenial and frequent meetings between the presidents were "becoming a normal element of the new kind of cooperation--in trade, in technology, in human exchange. All of these elements characterize the new peaceful period upon which we are just now embarked, which we have to get used to" (Bush 1991, 1206). Bush agreed in earnest when he told Gorbachev in closed session that "the closer we can be together today, the closer the new world order.... I want to work with you as equal partners in dealing with this" (Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 364).

Despite its bureaucratic fights over Middle East policy, Moscow desperately needed Western technology and economic support to transform its economy away from communism and toward hybrid capitalism, and it needed U.S. political support to integrate itself into the Western-dominated world economy. Baker was told as much in a private meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow on September 12. In that encounter, Gorbachev noted bluntly, "We need help. We're in the middle of the transition right now. As we move toward implementing these reforms, there's going to be great dissatisfaction. It's very difficult for us now. The domestic situation is getting much worse" (Baker 1995, 294). Among other things, Washington arranged for the Saudis to extend the Soviets a generous $4 billion line of credit through the winter, which Baker viewed as "instrumental in solidifying Soviet support for the use-of-force resolution and keeping them firmly in the coalition throughout the crisis" (Baker 1995, 295). Such concerns clearly drove elements of the administration's approach.

Similarly, in trying to assess how to stop an Iraqi tanker steaming toward South Yemen in late August in violation of UN economic sanctions, Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, Scowcroft, and Gates argued to hit the ship. They feared that failure to do so would send Saddam a message of weakness at the outset. They also believed that Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allowed for collective defense, gave the U.S. the right to do so, provided Kuwait requested the support. But Baker sought Soviet support first as a way of generating broader U.S.-Soviet cooperation. That was an argument that Baker rightfully won (Gates, interview; Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 352). Washington allowed Moscow a few days to seek a diplomatic conclusion. When that failed, the Soviets signed UN Resolution 665, which allowed the United States and others to disable ships that refused to stop to have their cargoes checked and strengthened U.S.-Soviet cooperation during and after the Gulf crisis.

Bush's concept of the new world order also envisioned, although not as a central component, an enhanced UN peacekeeping role, and yet even in this tertiary area of importance, he stressed the need for U.S.-Soviet cooperation. As Bush put it in early February 1990,

   My vision of a new world order foresees a United Nations with a revitalized 
   peacekeeping function. I think most that follow the United Nations see the 
   economic and social side of United Nations as having performed well since 
   it was founded [but] the peacekeeping function for the most part has not 
   been effective.... I think there's going to be new credibility for that 
   peacekeeping function, new credibility for the United States. But we should 
   have and should strive to have Soviet cooperation all along the way. (Bush 
   1992, 123-24) 

Only a few short years before, such a statement would have sounded outright bizarre, which is testimony not only to the unpredictable nature of world affairs but also to the rapidity of change in superpower relations in the time period preceding the Gulf crisis.


The quasi-anarchic state of world affairs makes it difficult to contemplate seemingly idealistic constructs such as the new world order. This is particularly true for theorists of realism and those who subscribe to its more Hobbesian view of international politics. Realists believe that it is hard to temper or control the negative consequences of quasi-anarchy--mistrust, fear, and insecurity--through international laws and organizations. National interests, power considerations, and the driving need to engage in self-help and self-preservation motivate the behavior of sovereign states that cannot count on governments, laws, and a policing force above them for protection. Thus, for most realists, collective security efforts under the auspices of an international organization such as the United Nations cannot be expected to be very successful.

While the Gulf crisis was hardly on the scale of the two great wars of the century, it did motivate decision makers to attempt consciously to create the rudiments of a new world order. The concept, which was more than mere politics, was largely a function of both the Gulf crisis and tectonic shifts in global affairs. In 1989, it was an ambiguous, scarcely articulated notion; by the fall of 1990, it was created in rhetoric; and by the end of the war, it was made tangible by UN action and by the use of force under collective security.

It may take some time before we can determine if the seeds for such a new world order were really sown during the Gulf crisis. Leaders and others who observed the crisis may remember the manner by which the invasion was checked, by which numerous states did in fact join together to reverse aggression. They may also remember that the great powers for perhaps the first time since World War II truly cooperated. And that memory, that experience itself, may influence state behavior in the future in ways that are hard to predict at present. Some observers, such as Inis Claude (1993), do believe that the United States has shifted toward multilateralism, while others offer a theoretical basis for why a foreign policy leaning toward multilateralism can, under certain conditions, be an attractive strategy (Lake 1999, 217-18).

However, others might argue that the United States at a rare and anomalous moment in history in 1990 and 1991 accomplished its national objectives through collective action. They might point to the fact that in February 1992, documents emerged reflecting that Pentagon planners intended for Washington to play a selective, unilateral role in world affairs, essentially rejecting multilateralism and focusing solely on preserving American dominance. While the documents were revised in mid-April to call for American military preeminence as a catalyst rather than an alternative to collective action (Hill 1994, 201-5), and while they were not written by the executive branch and were likely related to budgetary jockeying, they at least suggested that elements of the American foreign policy establishment remained divided on the notion of the new world order. Skeptics might further point out that the cooperation that we observed in reversing Iraq's aggression cannot be easily repeated. Indeed, it is not every day that one state unabashedly invades, occupies, and annexes another in a region that is critical to the functioning of the entire global economy. Even under such conditions, which made it easier for collective security to succeed, we cannot say that Iraq's aggression was reversed through anything like a pure collective security effort. The upshot is that more time and test cases are needed to determine to what extent the Gulf crisis laid a foundation for enduring elements of U.S. foreign policy.

(1.) Statement by the Honorable Richard Cheney, secretary of defense, concerning Operation Desert Shield before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, December 30, 1990, pp. 7-9 in OA/ID CF01361, Virginia Lampley Files, NSC, George Bush Presidential Library (GBPL), Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas.

(2.) Before his August 8 announcement of U.S. troops deployment, Bush recalled that he was nervous because of the rhetoric and imagery he was using: "I knew that I was not nearly as good as Reagan in these situations" (see Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 340).

(3.) Letters from congressional members repeatedly urged Bush not to link the Palestinian question to the Gulf. This was clear from innumerable documents in the Whorm files-general, GBPL (see also Bush and Scowcroft 1998, 460-61).

(4.) Baker recalled that he and Shevardnadze exchanged eleven phone calls and five letters in August alone, which was a level of consultation "unimaginable just a year before" (see Baker 1995, 281).



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Eric A. Miller is a doctoral candidate in the graduate programs in international studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and teaches American government and international politics in the Department of Political Science and Geography. His articles have appeared in International Politics, Navy Times, and U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

Steve A. Yetiv is associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. His most recent book, The Persian Gulf Crisis (1997), won a Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book in 1998. He has published numerous articles on the Middle East, interdependence, foreign policy, and theory.

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