On Sept. 11, 1990, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed Congress. He spoke in the wake of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, the weakening of the Soviet Union, and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. He argued that a New World Order was emerging: “A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor, and today that new world is struggling to be born. A world quite different from the one we’ve known. 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.”
After every major, systemic war, there is the hope that this will be the war to end all wars. The idea driving it is simple. Wars are usually won by grand coalitions. The idea is that the coalition that won the war by working together will continue to work together to make the peace. Indeed, the idea is that the defeated will join the coalition and work with them to ensure the peace. This was the dream behind the Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, the United Nations and, after the Cold War, NATO. The idea was that there would be no major issues that couldn’t be handled by the victors, now joined with the defeated. That was the idea that drove George H. W. Bush as the Cold War was coming to its end.
Those with the dream are always disappointed. The victorious coalition breaks apart. The defeated refuse to play the role assigned to them. New powers emerge that were not part of the coalition. Anyone may have ideals and visions. The reality of the world order is that there are profound divergences of interest in a world where distrust is a natural and reasonable response to reality. In the end, ideals and visions vanish in a new round of geopolitical conflict.
The post-Cold War world, the New World Order, ended with authority on Aug. 8, 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war. Certainly, this war was not in itself of major significance, and a very good case can be made that the New World Order actually started coming apart on Sept. 11, 2001. But it was on Aug. 8 that a nation-state, Russia, attacked another nation-state, Georgia, out of fear of the intentions of a third nation-state, the United States. This causes us to begin thinking about the Real World Order.
The global system is suffering from two imbalances. First, one nation-state, the United States, remains overwhelmingly powerful, and no combination of powers are in a position to control its behavior. We are aware of all the economic problems besetting the United States, but the reality is that the American economy is larger than the next three economies combined (Japan, Germany and China). The U.S. military controls all the world’s oceans and effectively dominates space. Because of these factors, the United States remains politically powerful — not liked and perhaps not admired, but enormously powerful.
The second imbalance is within the United States itself. Its ground forces and the bulk of its logistical capability are committed to the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States also is threatening on occasion to go to war with Iran, which would tie down most of its air power, and it is facing a destabilizing Pakistan. Therefore, there is this paradox: The United States is so powerful that, in the long run, it has created an imbalance in the global system. In the short run, however, it is so off balance that it has few, if any, military resources to deal with challenges elsewhere. That means that the United States remains the dominant power in the long run but it cannot exercise that power in the short run. This creates a window of opportunity for other countries to act.
The outcome for the United States of the Iraq war can be seen emerging. The United States has succeeded in creating the foundations for a political settlement among the main Iraqi factions that will create a relatively stable government. In that sense, U.S. policy has succeeded. But the problem the United States has is the length of time it took to achieve this success. Had it occurred in 2003, the United States would not suffer its current imbalance. But this is 2008, more than five years after the invasion. The United States never expected a war of this duration, nor did itand it was planned for this duration (!)it. In order to fight the war, it had to inject a major portion of its ground fighting capability into it. The length of the war was the problem. U.S. ground forces are either in Iraq, recovering from a tour or preparing for a deployment. What strategic reserves are available are tasked into Afghanistan. Little is left over.
As Iraq pulled in the bulk of available forces, the United States did not shift its foreign policy elsewhere. For example, it remained committed to the expansion of