The conflict in Syria has demonstrated that the internationalist victory promised at the end of the Cold War has yet to fully materialise and that old rivalries that have defined international relations since the early 20th century still haunt the corridors of power.
It was amidst the throes of the Vietnam War that an exasperated Hans J Morgenthau, the forefather of political realism, rued the US’ waste of not only American power but also American lives. ‘A blister burned on a child’s finger is more persuasive than parental warnings,’ wrote Morgenthau, ‘Perhaps we have not yet suffered enough for the lessons of Vietnam to sink in. Thus men must die, women must weep, what nature has provided and man has wrought must be destroyed, because governments, blinded by prejudice and paralysed by pride, learn too slowly for the good of the governed’.
This criticism related to the unfolding, unending and escalating political conflict in Vietnam – but the lessons and promises that emerged reverberated throughout US policy. For example, between 1981 and 1987, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger formalised these lessons with his rules for the use of American force, stressing clear objectives and overwhelming force. In 1989, General Colin Powell, a protégé of Weinberger, carried forward his boss’s rules as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and put them into effect during the military intervention in Panama in 1989 and in Iraq in 1991 when the US first engaged Iraqi forces after the annexation of Kuwait as the first international conflict since the end of the Cold War.
Of course, the post-Cold War era was greeted by the US as an opportunity to re-evaluate the use of force as a promise to never again repeat the mistakes of Vietnam. However, there was not an equal re-evaluation of American diplomacy. Diplomatically, the end of the Cold War was heralded by the US as a victory and the US simply assumed its position as an unchallenged and uninterrupted global superpower as the Soviet Union disintegrated into the Russian Federation, jettisoning the Eastern European Bloc. But in the absence of a superpower rivalry, it was the United Nations that finally had the opportunity to reinforce its purpose – to protect the peace and security of the international community.
In 1990, US President George H W Bush referred to this post-Cold War era as the beginning of the New World Order – an order in which the United Nations would act as the institution through which rivalries were moderated, injustices were rectified and peace was established, protected, and when necessary enforced. Reversing the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1991 was seen by proponents of this new, internationalist era as a victory. Leading an international coalition, the US enforced United Nations Security Council resolutions and moderated their own use of force, even withdrawing from Iraq ahead of growing domestic demands to topple Saddam Hussein.
The New World Order was not just relegated to the Middle East. In Somalia in 1992, a famine had ravaged the population and the government had failed to address the escalating crisis. In response, the United Nations began to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in order to alleviate the crisis. However, as soon as emergency supplies arrived criminal gangs in Mogadishu hoarded them. George H W Bush authorised the US military to help facilitate the delivery and distribution of aid supplies into Somalia, thus reinforcing the commitment of the United Nations and the US to international peace and security..
Despite alleviating the dire situation in Somalia, the US public began to question the purpose of US forces on the ground in Somalia where there was no obvious national interest at stake. As a result, Democrat Bill Clinton included a promise to withdraw from Somalia in his campaign for the presidency in 1992 and made good on his promise in 1993.
Clinton would make non-intervention a staple of American foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency. Clinton avoided engaging with further challenges to the internationalist order that was supposed to have been created at the end of the Cold War. These crises’ include the Rwandan genocide, the eruption of war in the Balkans and an escalating humanitarian emergency in Iraq as sanctions began to wear Iraqi society thin and punitive airstrikes continued to hit targets across the state.
Therefore, in 2003 when George W. Bush invaded and occupied Iraq as part of a broader campaign to wage war against terrorism, the promises of the new world order had all but disappeared. In the process of combating terrorists, those who harboured terrorists and those who might be terrorists, the US had ignored the United Nations altogether, disregarded the tenets of Weinberger’s and Powell’s rules for military conduct and instead relied upon the assumptions of US supremacy while acting out diplomatically and militarily. As a consequence, not only was the Middle East destabilised for the remainder of Bush’s presidency but also the effects are reverberating throughout the region with its challenge emerging now in Syria.
It has now been 25 years since the promise of the new world order emerged from the Cold War and, after 25 years of challenges, the new world order has taken two steps forward, and one step back.
In Syria, the reality of the new world order is confused. As a global superpower, the US is seen to be faltering. The US lacks any commitment to intervention and cannot match rhetoric to action when demanding Bashar al-Assad’s government step down and ISIS cease to exist. Russia, sensing an opportunity to mount a challenge to the US’ overwhelming hegemony, has made headway in Syria by conducting unilateral diplomatic and military incursions into the broken state. Regionally, Iran is supplying its own proxy forces, such as Hezbollah, with the necessary equipment to fight ISIS terrorists along the Lebanese border and Turkey has conducted airstrikes against ISIS and Kurdish outposts along its southern border.
UNHCR estimates that since the conflict began to rage in 2011, 4.2 million Syrians have been displaced and over 600,000 refugees have made the long and arduous journey through to sanctuary in Europe in order to flee war and persecution.
It is exactly at this time of crisis that the promises of the new world order must be kept. Even amidst war and terror there is still a possibility that the United Nations can push towards a resolution that might mediate the conflict in Syria. However, it will require addressing the reality that power is still very much a driving factor in international politics and recognising that those who most need protection and security do not have veto power in the United Nations Security Council.
Laurens J. Visser received his PhD in International Relations from RMIT University, where he researched a comparative history of the United States decision to go to war with Iraq in 1991 and 2003. At present he is a sessional tutor and lecturer in the International Studies program at RMIT. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.