Which World Order? Since the dawn of the “unipolar moment,”1 the United States has wrestled with a choice in its foreign policy between pursuing hegemony or pursuing leadership. The tension between these two alternatives has been the central dynamic guiding the U.S. role in the post-Cold War world.
In 1992, the Pentagon, then led by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, drafted a Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) document that outlined a post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy aimed at preventing the rise of peer competitors and attempting to convert the U.S. position as leader of the international system into domination.2 President George H. W. Bush rejected this strategy, opting instead for a vision that U.S. presidents from both political parties had followed for decades since the end of World War II. The first President Bush viewed the crumbling of the Iron Curtain as a historic opportunity for the U.S. to forge a New World Order that attained the original post-war ambitions. Bush’s vision, as outlined in a 1990 speech to a joint session of Congress, was of “…a world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak…” and “in sight of a United Nations that performs as envisioned by its founders.”3 Though the authors of the 1992 draft DPG were temporarily pushed out of office, they continued to champion the idea. This latent inclination toward military dominance expressed itself in the Statement of Principles of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), many of whose members served in Cheney’s Pentagon and would populate the George W. Bush administration.4 Eleven years later to the day after the senior Bush’s historic speech, his son, President George W. Bush, was confronted with another “rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation.”5 Instead, George Bush the Younger decided to pick up where his father’s most aggressive advisors – now his – had left off, the pursuit of unchallenged American global dominance. Though each of these visions aimed to maintain the U.S. position atop the international order, the latter approach ultimately proved unsustainable, and the Iraq War has shown us why.
The United Nations and international institutions are essential to promoting both U.S. and broader international peace and prosperity. Despite its heated rhetoric about the irrelevance of the United Nations, even the Bush administration realized the necessity of the world body, as is evident in the administration’s consistent engagement with the United Nations on everything from Iran to North Korea to Iraq. Though left unstated, these moves represent a return to the prudent approach of the earlier Bush administration. And it is only natural. As the pre-eminent power – faced with shifting international realities and a potentially changing balance of power – the United States has everything to gain by updating the international political architecture to preserve the benefits it enjoys from the existing order.
While a strong international order offers no guarantees of perpetual U.S. leadership, the alternative will bring sure disaster, as the United States sees from hard experience. A more humble form of U.S. leadership is a virtue that will not go unrewarded.