The Delicate Balance : The Gulf coalition is a onetime shot. A new world order must be built of less grand schemes.


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, with President Bush describing it as an 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.”

But the new world order cannot possibly fulfill such idealistic expectations; actually, I doubt whether these hopes accurately describe what happened during the Gulf crisis.

Despite the near unanimity of U.N. decisions, historians will probably treat the Gulf crisis as an unusual set of circumstances that 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. China, though wary of superpower military action, sought to demonstrate the advantages of practical cooperation despite Tian An Men Square and ideological conflict.


France was torn by conflicting emotions: concern over the reaction of the 5 million Muslims who live in France, its quest for preferential status in the Arab world and the desire to keep the United States linked to France should its nightmare of German resurgence come true. Thus, France, for once, resolved its ambivalences in favor of our view. Among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, only Great Britain held views practically identical with those of the United States.

The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia saw their survival at stake and were not much concerned with the principle invoked to safeguard their existence. Syria’s President Hafez Assad has been in mortal conflict with Saddam Hussein for 10 years, a struggle likely to continue if Hussein remains in office after the war. As for Egypt, the rulers of the Nile competed with the rulers of Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago. The Persian-Arab conflict is of more recent vintage--only 2,000 years old. This is why Iran will support the U.N. resolutions only until Iraq is sufficiently weakened.

Even in the current crisis, the principle of collective security was not applied uniformly. Israel was urged almost unanimously not to avail itself of its right of self-defense under the U.N. Charter despite unprovoked Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli civilians. The nations of the world seem afraid that the Arab members of the coalition would change sides.

Finally, two special circumstances facilitated the creation of the alliance. The first was the noxious character of Hussein. Naked and unprovoked aggression against a member of the United Nations and the Arab League was followed by looting, hostage-taking and the abuse of civilians. It had been preceded by the use of gas against Hussein’s domestic opponents.

The key element was American leadership--symbolized by the extraordinary set of personal relations between Bush and world leaders. Without the U.S. role, the world community would almost certainly have reached different conclusions.

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

Most poignantly, U.S. pre-eminence cannot last. Had Kuwait been invaded two years later, the decline of the U.S. defense budget would have precluded a massive overseas deployment. Nor can the U.S. 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 the Gulf crisis. The United States will be unable henceforth to supply the vast preponderance of military force for security missions far from its shores. As a result, neither the United States nor foreign nations should treat the concept of the new world order as an institutionalization of recent practices.

Any reflection on a new world order must begin with noting its difference with the Cold War. The principal fissure during the Cold War was between East and West. The ideological conflict led to a more or less uniform perception of the threat. The military and, for the greater period of time, technological predominance of the United States also shaped a common military policy. Economically, interdependence moved from slogan to reality.

The world we are moving into will be infinitely more complex. Ideological challenges will be fewer; the danger of nuclear war with the Soviet Union will be sharply reduced, though no one can know how well Soviet command-and-control arrangements for nuclear weapons will withstand domestic upheaval.

Elsewhere, 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. 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 these imperatives:

--They must recognize it is not possible to deal with every issue simultaneously. The United States must be selective, husbanding its resources as well as its credibility. Three levels of threat must be distinguished: threats we must be prepared to deal with alone, if necessary; those we will only deal with in association with other nations, and those that do not sufficiently challenge U.S. interests to justify any military intervention.

--They need to re-examine alliance policy and reallocate responsibility. Countries associated with us must be brought to understand that the U.S. armed forces are not a mercenary force-for-hire. The special circumstances of the Persian Gulf left Bush no choice, except a disproportionate assumption of risk by the United States. As a general rule, however, U.S. military forces should be employed only for causes that we are prepared to pay for ourselves. That, in fact, is a good working definition of U.S. national interest.

U.S. policy-makers must recognize that the new world order cannot be built to U.S. specifications. The United States cannot force-feed a global sense of community where none exists. But it has an opportunity for creating more limited communities based on a genuine sense of shared purpose. This is why perhaps the most creative foreign-policy initiative of the Administration is its effort to create a Western Hemispheric Free Trade Area, beginning with Mexico, Canada and the United States.

In the end, the deepest challenge to the United States will be philosophical: How to define order? History has shown us two roads to international stability: domination or equilibrium. We have neither the resources for domination nor is such a course compatible with our values. So we are brought back to a concept maligned in much of America’s intellectual history--the balance of power.

There is no escaping the irony that our triumph in the Cold War has projected us into a world where we must operate by maxims that historically have made Americans uncomfortable. To many Americans, the most objectionable feature of the balance of power is its apparent moral neutrality. For the balance of power is concerned, above all, with preventing one power or group of powers from achieving hegemony. Winston Churchill described it: “The policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. It is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances or likes or dislikes . . . “

A policy based on such concepts knows few permanent enemies and few permanent friends. In the Gulf crisis, it would seek to balance rivalries as old as history by striving for an equilibrium between Iraq, Iran, Syria and other regional powers. In Northeast Asia, it would seek to maintain equilibrium between China, Japan and the Soviet Union. In Europe, where the old balance has collapsed, the shape of its successor will depend on the outcome of the Soviet Union’s internal struggles, especially on the Soviet capacity to continue its historic role in Europe.

These balances need a balancer--a role America can no longer play alone and in some circumstances may not choose to exercise at all. But the United States needs criteria to establish priorities.

Paradoxically, no nation is better able to contribute to a new world order than the United States: It is domestically cohesive, its economy is less vulnerable to outside forces, its military capacity for the foreseeable future is still the world’s largest and most effective. Our challenge is the price of success: Triumph in the Cold War has produced a world requiring adjustment of traditional concepts. But the price of success is one for which most other nations would envy us.