On September 10, 1990, U.S. President George Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued a simple and remarkable joint statement. "We are united in the belief that Iraq's aggression must not be tolerated," the former Cold War opponents declared after a seven-hour meeting in Helsinki to discuss Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait. "No peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors."
Observers understood immediately the historical significance of two previously antagonistic superpowers agreeing on the principle that countries cannot swallow one another. What was less obvious at the time is that the moment would look like science fiction from the perspective of the future as well.
President Bush—we did not need to differentiate him as "H.W." back then—was so giddy about the prospects of rules-based global cooperation that on the not-yet-portentous date of September 11, 1990, he gave an unfortunate name to the concept during an address to a joint session of Congress: new world order.
"Most countries share our concern for principle," he asserted. "A new partnership of nations has begun, and we stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective—a new world order—can emerge: a new era-freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony. […] 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."
Because "new world order" sounded creepy and was already a phrase used by conspiracists worried about one-world government, Bush's larger point got washed away in the ensuing brouhaha. But terminology aside, the creation of an international taboo against subsuming weaker countries was a worthwhile endeavor.
When an unprecedentedly large U.S.-led coalition drove Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in February 1991, it was possible to imagine that this non-aggression principle might be elevated into an international norm. Instead, the idea has been systematically degraded ever since, to the point where Gorbachev's successor in Moscow can gobble up entire swaths of his weaker neighbors without the international community doing much more than issuing strongly worded memorandums.
So what happened? Like all international theory, the don't-devour-your-neighbors dictum became much messier when translated into real-world action. The Gulf War, like every military conflict, created a host of consequences neither intended nor foreseen, beginning with Saddam Hussein's murderous post-war crackdown against his own marsh Arabs and separatist Kurds.
"We never really expected him to survive a defeat of such magnitude," former Secretary of State James Baker recalled in his 1995 memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy. "The result was a sobering reminder that the consequences of success are often far more intricate and unpredictable than anticipated."
Hussein's reprisals gave rise to two parallel American responses—one practical, the other ideological—that each, paradoxically, began to erode the very notion of national sovereignty that the Gulf War was intended to reinforce.
The first was the creation of "no-fly zones," in which coalition forces patrolled much of the air space of Iraq and sent periodic volleys of missiles over the territory, in the name of restraining Saddam Hussein's ill designs against his neighbors and his own people. This was accompanied by a strong philosophical push, led by American neoconservatives, to declare that Bush erred grievously by not having the Gulf War go "all the way to Baghdad" in the first place.
Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neoconservative architect of the Iraq war, told The Independents (the nightly show I co-host on the Fox Business Network) this April that history will likely judge the second Bush presidency more kindly than his father's, precisely because of this perceived failure of the first Bush to finish the job while he had the chance.
To which Baker has a tart retort: "Many of those who now complain that we erred badly by halting the war fully supported the decision at the time," he wrote in his memoir. (Among those who did so was the senior Bush's defense secretary, Dick Cheney.) "The fact is conveniently overlooked that the President's decision to order a ceasefire after 100 hours of fighting was enthusiastically endorsed by the military, our coalition partners, the Congress and American public opinion."
It's true that both American and international public opinion was much more unified around the far narrower concept of expelling the aggressor country out of the neighbor it annexed. But George H.W. Bush muddied that objective by spending months in the run-up to the Gulf War comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler (after all, if you had a chance for a historical do-over, wouldn't you do more than merely expel the fuhrer from the Sudetenland?) and encouraging Iraqis to revolt against their government. The constant small-scale interventions into Iraq's business, complete with punitive sanctions, soon made the war's original aims a distant memory.
As the messy 1990s unfolded and Bush gave way to Bill Clinton, sovereignty-busting American sorties into the world's affairs became routine. Somalia and Haiti were first, and then a disintegrating Yugoslavia complicated the picture still further by posing two difficult questions: How long can the world tolerate watching a dictator and his allies slaughter his own non-combatant civilians? And at what point do you recognize that a country has irrevocably fallen apart, thus no longer qualifying as a sovereign whole?
Answering these questions effectively unified two foreign policy camps that otherwise spend a lot of oxygen disagreeing with one another: the neoconservative right and the humanitarian-interventionist left. For the latter group, best represented these days by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, the U.S. has a "responsibility to protect" human beings anywhere who face potential genocide, mass killing, and ethnic cleansing, from Libya to Syria to Nigeria. National sovereignty, in their worldview, is an excuse to do nothing and an obstacle to overcome. (In his 2004 book The Bubble of American Supremacy, Democratic financier George Soros, even while criticizing the Iraq War, devoted an entire chapter to strategies for overcoming sovereignty in order to intervene in countries such as Liberia.)
The neocon right, while sharing many of the same humanitarian concerns, is more focused on combating specific dictators. The Bush-Cheney administration's September 14, 2001, Authorization of the Use of Military Force gave the U.S. an open-ended legal rationale for waging the War on Terror wherever it is perceived to be, regardless of who runs the territory. So it is that America is killing people in countries, such as Yemen and Pakistan, with which we are not at war.
Vladimir Putin is a hypocritical authoritarian with blood on his hands and expansionism in his heart, as he follows through on longstanding political promises to undo the humiliation of the Soviet Union's imperial collapse. But he is not operating in a vacuum. The United States and the western world are rightly weary of the wars that followed from interventionist impulses of the American right and left. And the Bush-Gorbachev principle of not tolerating larger states devouring their smaller neighbors has been tattered by sovereignty-busting exercises from Kosovo to Iraq to Libya.
Most people no longer believe in a new world order, and they are right not to. But as we transition into whatever comes next, it's worth lamenting the degradation of an important taboo. No, we should not be shooting at Putin. But nor should we be greeting invasions with a world-weary shrug.