Novus Ordo Seclorum

February 25, 1991|By HENRY KISSINGER

America has never been comfortable with fighting wars for limited objectives. World War I was cast as the war to end all wars; World War II was to usher in a new era of permanent peace to be monitored by the United Nations. Now, the Gulf War is justified in similar terms deeply embedded in the American tradition.

In his speech of January 16 announcing hostilities with Iraq, President Bush described the opportunity for building a new world order ''where the rule of law . . . governs the conduct of nations,'' and ''in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and the vision of the U.N.'s founders.''

I have greatly admired President Bush's skill and fortitude in building the coalition. But the new world order cannot possibly fulfill the idealistic expectations expressed by the president; I doubt indeed whether they accurately describe what happened during the Gulf crisis.

Despite the near unanimity of U.N. decisions, historians will in all likelihood treat the Persian Gulf crisis as a special case rather than as a watershed. An unusual set of circumstances combined to foster consensus. The Soviet Union, wracked by domestic crises and needing foreign economic assistance, had no stomach for conflict with the United States. But this does not mean that postwar Soviet objectives in the Middle East will necessarily be identical or even compatible with those of the United States. China sought to demonstrate the advantages of practical cooperation despite Tiananmen Square and ideological conflict. For Beijing considers Washington an important partner in China's determination to resist either Soviet or Japanese hegemony in Asia.

France was torn by conflicting emotions: concern over the reaction of the 5 million Muslims resident in France, its quest for preferential status in the Arab world and the desire to keep America linked to France should its nightmare of German resurgence come true. France for once resolved its ambivalences in favor of our view; but it would be unrealistic to treat a practical decision as a philosophic commitment. Among permanent members of the Security Council, only Britain held views practically identical with those of the United States.

The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia saw their very survival at stake and were not much concerned with the principle invoked to safeguard their existence. Syria's President Hafez el Assad has been in mortal conflict with Saddam Hussein for 10 years preceding the gulf crisis and will likely continue to struggle if Mr. XTC Hussein remains in office after the war. As for Egypt, the rulers of the Nile competed with the rulers of Mesopotamia for 4,000 years before the doctrine of collective security was invented. The Persian-Arab conflict is more recent -- only 2,000 years old. Iran will support the U.N. resolution only until Iraq is sufficiently weakened. After that it probably will continue its historic quest for dominance in the gulf by pressuring America to leave.

None of this is to deprecate the extraordinary achievement of the administration in coalition-building. It is to warn against counting on being able to repeat this pattern in the future.

Most poignantly, American pre-eminence cannot last. Had Kuwait been invaded two years later, the American defense budget would have declined so as to preclude a massive overseas deployment. Nor can the American economy indefinitely sustain a policy of essentially unilateral global interventionism -- indeed, we had to seek a foreign subsidy of at least $50 billion to sustain this crisis. Henceforth the United States will not be in a position to supply the vast preponderance of military force for security missions far from its shores. Therefore, neither the United States nor foreign nations should treat the concept of the new world order as an institutionalization of recent practices.

Unlike the Cold War, when ideological conflict led to a more or less uniform perception of the threat, the world into which we are moving will be infinitely complex. Ideological challenges will be fewer, but local conflicts will be both more likely and, given modern technology, more lethal. The collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the loosening bonds of the Western alliance have unleashed nationalist rivalries not seen since World War I. The post-colonial period has spawned fanatical fundamentalist forces very hard for the comfortable, if not smug, industrial democracies to comprehend, much less to master. Economic rivalry among Japan, the European Community and the United States will no longer be restrained by overriding security concerns. The confluence of these elements will characterize the new era as one of turmoil and require major adjustments in how we think about international relations.

U.S. policy makers face a number of imperatives:

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