PARIS — Policy in Washington characteristically follows the speech writer's phrase. To promise a ''new world order'' seemed a good idea last August. What the promise meant waits to be explained.
The promise was easily made because new orders are familiar terrain for an American people whose national experience began in the Enlightenment ambition to establish a ''novus ordo seclorum.''
President Bush's homage to international conduct based on the rules of law and a larger role for U.N. peacekeeping is in the direct line of American reformist internationalism, begun with Woodrow Wilson's invention, in 1917, of the principle of universal national self-determination, and then of the League of Nations. After that came Franklin Roosevelt's Atlantic Charter in 1941, promising ''Four Freedoms'' to the people of the world, and after that, the United Nations, an American idea.
However, this is a policy tradition that rests on a fallacy, the uncritical transposition of national to international experience. It assumes that an association or coalition of the world's nations can represent the will of the world's peoples: hence that an assembly of governments provides a form of world democracy and can claim the legitimacy of world opinion.
Abroad, there is a different idea about the new world order. It is widely thought to be one in which the United States, the ''only superpower,'' would act as world policeman to defend democratic interests. A French commentator foresees this new order's ''forbidding, in the name of the rights of peoples, repression in the Baltic states as well as [Syria's] annexation of Lebanon.'' This seems deeply unrealistic, for four reasons.
The American public is most unlikely to end what is likely to prove a punishing war in the gulf with any appetite for launching other wars elsewhere, ''police actions'' or not, which do not directly serve essential U.S. national interests. Support for the gulf war even now is fragile; the experience of this war is more likely to promote isolationism than internationalism.
Second, the European powers and Japan, which -- with notable exceptions -- have made no great military contribution to the gulf effort, would not seem candidates to join similar American-led ''police actions'' in the future. They seem likely to object to a world order-keeping arrangement in which the issues and actions are unilaterally determined by Washington -- which has been essentially the case for the gulf.
A third problem is the indebtedness and relative decline in industrial competitiveness of the United States, which diminishes its ability to lead. The United States' global leadership today rests chiefly upon military power. Europe and Japan meanwhile possess economic and industrial resources of much greater competitive value in a world released from the East-West military confrontation.
Finally is the problem of the United Nations. The vast majority of the U.N.'s members are unrepresentative governments, class or interest-bound oligarchies or dictatorships, or outright despotisms. Of the U.N.'s Security Council, two of the five
permanent members are single-party dictatorships with abominable records of human-rights abuse. It seems scarcely the suitable agency for establishing world democracy and respect for human rights.
This is one reason the United States and other democracies have in the past ignored U.N. resolutions or exercised their veto against them. The United States will cooperate with the U.N. in the future when the U.N.'s decisions coincide with or advance the policies of the United States. It is likely to pay greater respect to international law than in the recent past. But Washington certainly will not renounce its right to determine its policies unilaterally. There is nothing surprising in this. But it is not what people expect from a new world order.
It may be doubted that there will be such an order. The world in the future may prove less orderly than it was when frozen by Cold War. Rather than providing the paradigm for a new international order, the gulf war may provoke further disorder.
We too easily neglect the fact that this affair is not a product of individual ambition or the policy of a single nation, Iraq, but has cultural and historical sources in Europe's domination of Islamic society from the time of the Dutch conquest of Indonesia in the 17th Century and Britain's conquest of Moghul India in the 18th. The rage Saddam Hussein exploits -- and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Colonel Kadafi -- has its origins in more than three centuries of foreign domination.
Since 1950 three Islamic states have successfully struck back -- Algeria against France, Egypt under Nasser at Suez and under Sadat in the 1973 attack on Israel; and Iran under Khomeini. The gulf war is a fourth such effort. Only a fool would think it the last.
It is very difficult to believe that there can be an ''orderly'' resolution of the tensions that now exist not only between the Islamic countries and the West, but between all the impoverished or failing societies and the privileged nations. The gap between them grows deeper.
Who can believe that people who experience mounting anarchy, impoverishment and renewed national and communal irredentisms in the Balkans, the Soviet Union and South Asia, can be given pacification and ''order'' by a coalition led by the United States -- even if it were a coalition acting in the name of the U.N.? The idea of a new world order is not ignoble. However, an idealism which rests on illusions is itself an illusion.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.