The term "New World Order" should not be confused with "New Order," which is a British quasi-punk rock group that, according to one reviewer, mixes "sour romance blues and existential nausea."

Unfortunately, no such similarly precise definition is available for the New World Order, the grave, think-tankish phrase that has become a permanent feature of President Bush's stump speech explaining why the United States is at war. We know it has something to do with the Soviet Union getting nicer, by Stalinist standards. We know this order's genesis depends on what happens in Kuwait and Iraq. The intensely cynical would wonder if the New World Order is not the same thing as Pax Americana, that hoary creature known to the radical left as U.S. imperialism.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address, gave the sweetest definition, referring to "a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind -- peace and security, freedom and the rule of law."

The Nicaraguans probably got a good chuckle out of that. In 1986, the International Court of Justice -- better known as the World Court -- ruled that the United States owed reparations to Nicaragua because the Central Intelligence Agency violated international law by mining Nicaraguan harbors. The U.S. response was to declare that the World Court had no jurisdiction. To put it metaphorically, the United States snatched up its toys and bolted from the sandbox.

"There's a whole series of cases, not only the military ones, where the record of being a good citizen in the international community is not very good," says Abram Chayes, a Harvard law professor who served as counsel to the Nicaraguan government. "The Reagan administration believed in reasserting the power of the United States to act unilaterally in matters of foreign affairs. They didn't try to hide that. That's what they believed."

The United States' rationale in the Nicaragua case was that it was an ongoing political matter that should be resolved by the U.N. Security Council. Of course, the United States could never lose in such a forum, because it has veto power on any resolution. Indeed, this is why the World Court decision in the Nicaragua case is virtually moot -- the only way the court's decision can be enforced is through the Security Council.

"No country's had a perfect record in the international era, but our country's record has easily been among the best," says Barry Carter, professor of international law at Georgetown.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat from New York, offered a more critical assessment during the Senate debate last month over the use of force against Iraq: "International law as an idea has almost disappeared from the vocabulary of American presidents. Suddenly, with the invasion of Kuwait, and the summoning of the Security Council, it appears in every other sentence. The president gave a press conference at the end of August in which he used the term 'international law' six times in 15 minutes, about equaling the total record of the previous 30 years."

Because of its geographical isolation and bountiful resources, the United States has developed a tradition of doing things unilaterally, including such recent military ventures as the invasions of Grenada and Panama and the bombing of Libya. What has happened frequently is that, after the fact, the United States has defended its actions as being within the bounds of international law, such as stating that the invasion of Panama was an act of "self-defense" in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which outlaws military aggression.

"We're a continental country and a federalist country, and therefore have legally been very much self-sufficient for at least a century," says John Barton, a professor of international law at Stanford. "Now, many nations of the world are getting into a new order in which they are constraining themselves with international institutions (such as the European Community) in which the legal systems really are beginning to bind down on governments and what they can do. We've been unwilling to enter into that kind of arrangement until now."

Is the New World Order just a happy-sounding conceit?

"I hope it's not a hollow phrase," says Carter. He calls the victors in World War II ( a war fought, by the way, to defeat a different New Order) "giants" who were able to create a new postwar order, which included establishing such institutions as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. "We're at a point where we can think that way again ... and be giants again."

Stop everything. The Geneva Convention was not an event. This was not like a gathering at Miami Beach of thousands of maxillo-facial surgeons. People did not drink too much and wear name tags. A "Geneva Convention" is an accord between nations in which they agree not to do something bad.

Okies say nuke 'em. At least that's the conclusion one might draw from a radio call-in program on Oklahoma City's KTOK. On Wednesday, Carole Arnold, host of the station's morning talk show, asked her listeners a question: Should the United States hit Saddam Hussein with a neutron bomb? That's an atomic weapon that kills people with a burst of radiation but leaves buildings standing. Callers could answer yes or no.

The results: 500 yes, 107 no.

A male caller who made it onto the air told the host that we should use "as many as it takes." Arnold was surprised by the bellicosity. "My personal guess would have been 3 to 1 against," she said. "I thought that was really frightening."

Then again, this was not her first experience with the hawkishness of her audience. "A man called me a couple of days ago and said we should nuke Iraq and kill every man, woman and child. And if there are any women left, we should sterilize them."

Staff writer Marjorie Williams contributed to this report.