A bleak and contested new world order
A contradictory trade versus security compulsion animates inter-State engagement, with issue-based mini-polarity emerging as the predominant feature
The phrase “new world order” has been doing the rounds episodically in global political discourse since the early 20th century. Rising like the phoenix from the embers of war and tectonic disruption, the idea of a new world order embodied an idealistic aspiration — a world that would be free of violence and bloodshed. But, like many ideals, it has remained nascent and tentative. Very often, the new that followed the old world was characterised more by disorder than order.
In its semantic trajectory over the last century, it was the then United States (US) President Woodrow Wilson who first used a variant of the phrase in September 1919, when he dwelt on the concept of a “new order of the world”, a year after World War I ended. But the new global order envisioned by Wilson was as short-lived as the League of Nations that he championed. Instead, the steady trot into World War II and the Hiroshima tragedy bookmarked the end of one world order in the first half of the 20th century. The end of World War II in August 1945 marked a major global techno-strategic punctuation — the arrival of the apocalyptic atomic age.
This acquisition of macro-destructive potential by the ideologically opposed superpowers defined the world order that followed, namely the Cold War. This phase ended in 1991, but the Cold War decades marked the heady aspirational journey that saw the resolute defeat of fascism and the messy end of colonialism. Normative principles such as democracy, pluralism and liberalism were seen as objectives to be realised as the older exploitative structures of an earlier world order were being dismantled.
The high point was the end of the Cold War in late 1991, evocatively captured by the image of a defiant Boris Yeltsin atop a Soviet tank in August that ostensibly heralded the birth of a new world order. This was formally unveiled by a triumphant US which sensed the arrival of the extended unipolar moment and unchallenged American hegemony. Strikingly, it was on September 11, 1991, when then US President George Bush senior delivered his “Towards a New World Order” speech to a joint session of Congress and the post-Cold War order was born.
However, this optimism was short-lived, for within a decade, a shell-shocked US had to face the enormity of another September 11 in 2001, when the Twin Towers in New York were brought down with the diabolically audacious use of technology. From that detritus emerged the uneasy and sullen post-9/11 new world (dis)order — one in which the non-State entity posed the first of many challenges to the primacy of the State in the global sociopolitical template. Osama bin laden and al-Qaeda became the symbol of terrorism, but also the symbol that stoked global Islamophobia.
At the same time, a more pernicious non-State entity emerged — the techno-commercial corporate giant. While the early advent of technology, such as the printing press, enabled the dissemination of information and the spread of the normative value system in State and society, and principles of freedom and fraternity were venerated, the obverse now prevails. The revolution in communication technology has now spawned a techno-commercial ecosystem that peddles fake news and mistrust, even as fraternity has been replaced by an insidious stoking of revulsion for the “other”.
In the transition from 1945 to 2020, what is stark is the manner in which the values and principles once upheld as being the gold standard for State and society have now become objects of derision. Equitable, participative democracy is one casualty. And the contours of the dominant political framework for governance globally has veered towards the rise of the strong, often authoritarian, leader — and the abetment of narrow and prickly majoritarian nationalism.
The current decade is one of the relative decline in US influence and credibility, and may be termed a post-Kabul flux in global affairs. While the rise of an assertive China is a reality that some nations experience more acutely than others — India being a case in point — it is unlikely that there will be a transition to the kind of bipolarity that characterised the Cold War decades. Major conventional wars similar to those of the 20th century are a low probability exigency, but it merits recall that Sarajevo triggered World War I in an unexpected manner and it is moot if the current tension over Taiwan will follow a similar path.
The post-2020 world order may be more contested and discordant than any of its previous variants. A contradictory trade versus security compulsion animates inter-State engagement, and issue-based mini-polarity could be the predominant feature of the next few decades.
This decade has revealed in an irrefutable manner that planet earth is stressed and polluted. While such adversity ought to have impelled urgent consensus and unity of global effort, the global political leadership has abdicated. Pious platitudes and earnest falsehoods swirl around even as empathetic societal concern is deviously replaced by petty bigotry. Bleakness alas is the leitmotif of the new world order that beckons.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal