Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 184-186
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In the aftermath of the Cold War, President George Bush in September 1990 called for the creation of a "new world order" based on justice, freedom, and peace, "an era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony." The Persian Gulf war and military interventions in Somalia and Bosnia have proven, according to some, the existence of an international system in which democratic nations of the world, under the leadership of the United States, act together to ensure the rule of international law and order in the face of aggression and suppression.
Debates over the reality, feasibility, and desirability of a "new world order" have mainly been confined to the domain of political science. Now, however, the debate is moving into the historians' arena. The U.S. Air Force Academy and the Rocky Mountain Regional World History Association invited ten American scholars to assess the "new world order" debate in a historical perspective. Their contributions are collected in The "New World Order" in Historical Perspective. In the foreword the volume editor, David M. Kirkham, announces that the contributions are primarily directed at Americans because of their inclination "to claim the more positive recent changes in the world as their private victory." The message conveyed by most of the authors is that both the problems and the progress made in the different regions of the world are mainly due to internal historical forces and processes working in the longue durée. Consequently, the end of the Cold War cannot explain all the changes taking place in the different regions of the world. According to Lynda Norene Shaffer, to give one example, the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989 were not inspired by Western democratic and humanitarian ideals. Rather, they are best understood within a Confucian context where it has been a long-established tradition to oppose public leaders (even the emperor himself) whenever established rules of conduct were violated.
To some political observers, the end of military contest between the United States and the Soviet Union is a watershed in history, a new beginning in which a democratic alliance led by the United States will ensure stability and predictability in the world. What emerges from the analyses in this book is not a "new world order," but a picture of uncertainty and great regional variation. In the introductory chapter, William H. McNeill casts doubts on the notion that we are heading for a unipolar world, asking: "Will the free world hang [End Page 184] together with no plausible enemy to fear? Or will U.S. relations with Japan and with Europe start to deteriorate into rival blocs?" (p. 8). His chapter foreshadows a future in which the United States may have problems competing economically in international nonmilitary markets and the rich capitalist countries will have to divert energies and resources into fighting urban crime and drugs. Carter Vaughn Findley, a specialist on the Middle East, admits the success of the free world in the Gulf war but is eager to "expose the long-standing gap in adequacy between the good intention of U.S. policy and the tough realities of the region" (p. 49). To oppressed Kurd and Shiite minorities, there is no such thing as a "new world order." Generally, efforts toward democratization face problems in different regions of the world: among poor nations because of centralized government, the crowding of cities, and an inability to generate economic growth; in eastern Europe because of the loss of political legitimacy. The concluding chapter by historian Dennis Showalter is the only contribution implying that the United States, as the winner of "World War III," will play the dominant geopolitical role into the twenty-first century.
While both the introduction and the conclusion discuss the post- Cold War scenario from the viewpoint of the United States, the remaining...