Is This The New World Order?

In the summer of 1990, before the first gulf war, an adviser to President George H.W. Bush instructed White House aides on how to deal with the media. "Tell them we can't just let Iraq get away with this," he said. "There is a new world order developing." Half an hour later, that famous catchphrase blipped up on CNN. The great consolidating idea of a new era was born.

Too bad about the son. Like some weird sort of geopolitical anti-force, Bush II seems bent on undoing much of his father's work. Call it the New World Disorder. The world is in crisis. The Western Alliance is split. So are the United Nations and the European Union. Almost everyone in the world hates America, whose messianic brand of 21st-century Manifest Destiny has propelled it toward a questionable war in the Middle East--even as it neglects a nuclear crisis in Asia. Stock markets have fallen everywhere. Oil prices are nearing record highs, and the forecast is for worse to come. The architects of the old postwar world thought themselves, in Dean Acheson's phrase, "present at the creation." Today? We're all present at the destruction.

As American attempts to build something resembling a "coalition of the willing" collapsed at the Security Council late last week, the costs of the diplomatic debacle mounted. The concerns went beyond the possible consequences of the war, in lives and money, and beyond even the economic and political dislocations that will accompany it. The fears went deeper, to the very foundations of the modern international system. At bottom, everyone recognizes that Washington's most recent effort to win a second resolution authorizing force against Iraq has been undertaken largely to support key allies, chiefly Britain's Tony Blair. It transparently did not grow out of a genuine commitment to multilateralism. On the other side of the great divide, the main concern of Germany, France and Russia is not having to cast a veto. If they do, and the United States goes to war anyway, says a ranking European diplomat, expressing an increasingly common view, "it's the end of the United Nations."

What would that mean for the world? An "irrelevant" United Nations, as the Bushies put it, could be more easily bypassed in future crises. Yet almost as if willing just that, Washington pushes ahead. Administration hawks led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney are said to want the U.N. on record--with the United States, or against it. "It's time for people to show their cards," Bush himself said last Thursday, "and let the world know where they stand." Nations that do not happen to be superpowers, and that see the U.N. as the one international institution through which power can legitimately be exercised, heard the president's words as a direct challenge to the established world order--and to their own place in it.

No one can tell what the war will ultimately cost, either for the United States and its allies or for Iraq and its beleaguered people. Nor can we fully know what toll it might take on the still-young international order that Bush I sought to create. Yet clearly, the body of laws and multilateral institutions that has come to be known as the "international community" has suffered a grievous blow. Governments across the globe are being pushed into painful choices, with aftershocks potentially lasting years. Russia, for one, sees its seat on the Security Council as its last source of real international influence. It knows that its future depends on closer economic and political integration with both Europe and America. Forced to choose, it has cast its lot with the United Nations, as represented by Germany, France and China, against the United States.

Blair is at the epicenter of all these woes. Not quite 50, dog-tired and intense, the British prime minister looks (and is) devastated by the events of the past two months. Last autumn he was riding high. He could take credit for helping persuade Bush to go down the U.N. road. The Security Council passed Resolution 1441 unanimously. His country had followed him into Kosovo and Afghanistan; he had no doubt that they would listen to him on Iraq.

No such luck. Blair couldn't sell the war at home, to his own Labour Party, to greater Europe. This has been crushing for a man who cherishes multilateralism. He hoped he could sell it to Bush and coax America to embrace it, initially on matters of war and peace but eventually in international law, trade and the environment as well. Now Blair's high-minded policy of moral internationalism itself looks destined to become a casualty of war. Despite all the sound arguments for removing Saddam Hussein, it's fair to ask: could the dictator do as much damage to America or its allies as the United States is doing to itself and the world in its single-minded quest to oust him?