The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the idea of a ‘world order’ is changing: A primer

A view of Earth from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, released in December. (NASA/AFP via Getty Images/NASA)

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 1991, then-president George H.W. Bush made a momentous claim: The global political structure has reached a “new world order,” one 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.”

His vision was certainly not without support. Just over a year earlier, at the Malta Summit of 1989, Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had spoken of “enduring cooperation” and the beginning of a “lasting, peaceful era.” And this particular address came midway through the Gulf War, perhaps the largest internationally-cooperative conflict since the Korean War, notable for being one in which the United States worked alongside many other United Nations members and welcomed peace-brokering efforts by the Soviet Union, a longstanding rival, to check “outlaw” aggression. In a broad sense, the flowering of this new order promised to usher in increased international cooperation (especially between major world powers, and often facilitated by international institutions such as the United Nations), a focus on collective security, and shared expectations for international conduct that would act as a check on offensive force by renegade nations.

At least in theory, the liberal world order wasn’t one in which the United States took the lead as a police power — rather, it was meant to be a rules-based and truly democratic form of international cooperation. Yet Bush concluded his 1991 speech by noting that the United States held a “burden of leadership” and remained “the beacon of freedom in a searching world.” Since then, economic growth, military might and political influence have continued to sustain the United States as a global superpower  and the world order as generally American-led, even through crises and the changing fortunes of other nations.

Statements heralding an emergent world order are nothing new, of course, whether cooperation is seen as a result of shared faith or newly solidified borders.  Often, it seems as though they begin to disintegrate as soon as they are announced. Yet since it was proposed, this particular ideal has been taken up, affirmed, and debated by international relations theorists and statesmen from all corners — from Charles Krauthammer to Noam Chomsky to Tony Blair.

Recent events, however, have shown that the new order Bush spoke of may no longer be extant — if it ever was. Russia has muscled its way into the Ukrainian crisis, the Islamic State has grown in strength and China frequently displays its power in the Asian-Pacific sphere. In fact, a converse has been hypothesized: a “new world disorder” characterized by a breakdown of the old norms frowning upon inter-state aggression.

Is the ideal world order that Bush lauded nearer today or have we moved further away? Is it a vision of the future still shared by other nations? As the strategic balance of power shifts, information and economic resources become more fluid, and countries in the global east and south gain power, our conception of a “world order” will almost certainly have to change. But if so, what will replace it?

Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:

Ali Wyne, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project and Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School,

G. John Ikenberry, politics and international affairs professor at Princeton University;Ali Wyne, a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project and Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School,

Kim Ghattas, international affairs journalist for the BBC,

Joseph Nye, economist and foreign policy professor at Harvard University.