The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One person’s world order can be another’s disorder

A boy inspects his school, damaged in what activists said was an airstrike carried out yesterday by the Russian air force, in Injara, Syria. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the shifting world order. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Kim Ghattas covers international affairs and the Hillary Clinton campaign for the BBC and is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy magazine. She’s the author of “The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power.” Find her on Twitter: @bbckimghattas.

When President George H.W. Bush spoke of a new world order, he envisioned “a world where the United Nations … is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders” and a “new partnership of nations … based on consultation, cooperation and collective action, especially through international and regional organizations.”

Twenty-five years later, we face the complete opposite. As Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said last summer, the world order is a system “that does not seem to have international institutions with the ability to negotiate solutions to conflicts or to the big, increasing and accelerating impact of crisis.”

[Other perspectives: American leadership may be in crisis, but the world order is not]

Conflicts across the globe have created enduring humanitarian crises and a population of 60 million refugees, stretching the international system to a breaking point. The world’s new disorder, as some call it, has many parts — including the 2008 financial crisis and Russian interventionism. But nothing exemplifies the current dysfunction of the international system and the gap in empathy and understanding between the West and the rest more than the Syrian conflict and the response to the refugee crisis.

As long as the wars were far away and the refugee camps out of sight, the comfortable lifestyle in Western countries and isolationist tendencies of their leaders meant there was little empathy for the “other.” The debate about military support or intervention in Syria is a separate one, but in 2015 the United Nations received only 56 percent of the funds it needed to address the Syrian crisis.

Strangely little attention was paid even to the security consequences of a festering humanitarian problem. However, when the refugees of a distant war wash up on Europe’s shores, it becomes clear that “living apart together” doesn’t work anymore. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, German President Joachim Gauck said that “no other problem has divided and jeopardized the E.U. more than the refugee problem.”

And yet there is still little real leadership today on the issue, despite the threat to Europe’s borders or the security concerns about radicalized European citizens returning from Syria. At the same time, the refugee population is placing a destabilizing burden on Syria’s neighbors — Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon — which together are hosting more than 3.5 million refugees. The global summit on refugees that President Obama will host at the United Nations won’t take place until September.

The liberal world order was designed by the West and mostly for the West, but it provided great human and economic progress to other states and is still a model that many people aspire to. (After all, refugees fleeing conflict in Syria or Afghanistan aren’t flocking to Russia or Iran.)

But there were always contradictions, ones that highlighted the gap between the West and the rest. In his 1991 State of the Union address, Bush said that “what is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: 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.”

Yet for one small country, 800 miles west of Kuwait, the arrival of this new order marked a dark episode that has barely made a mark in the annals of history. Bush was keen to form as broad a coalition as possible, including Arab countries. To do so, he courted Syria’s former president, Hafez al-Assad, and in exchange for Syrian troops participating in Operation Desert Storm, turned a blind eye to Syrian troops invading the last part of neighboring Lebanon that remained outside of Syrian control. Order was restored, but for whom?

There were many benefits to the United States engaging Syria, including getting Damascus to help with the freeing of U.S. hostages in Beirut and having President Assad attend the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Syria’s October 1990 intervention did end Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war.

[The world is getting better. Why don’t we believe it?]

Nonetheless, Syria’s savage military takeover of Lebanon’s Christian enclave (where I was growing up at the time) — with its wanton looting, summary executions and other brutal exactions — was a glaring red blotch on the world canvas where Bush had painted strokes of peace and rule of law. Ironically, the ensuing 25 years of complete Syrian domination over Lebanon set the stage for some of the dynamics we see playing out today in the Levant.

Everyone understands realpolitik, the need for realistic policies that might mean giving up on ideals, but this episode demonstrates how one nation’s order can be another’s disorder. And it is these inconsistencies in policies, these quick fixes, these gaps between values and interests that chip away at the liberal global order envisioned by the West.

Navigating from the current tumultuous interlude into calmer times will require different kinds of leaders at the helm of world powers and world institutions. A stable world order will need leaders with a globalist vision, those who have thought about how to bridge the divide between values and interests, how to ensure collective security and how to close the empathy gap between the West and the rest.

Explore these other perspectives:

Ali Wyne: The world is getting better. Why don’t we believe it?

G. John Ikenberry: American leadership may be in crisis, but the world order is not

Joseph S. Nye: Politicians say American leadership is in decline. They’re wrong.