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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 41, September 28, 2013

Rethinking World Order

Tuesday 1 October 2013, by Sunita Samal



The term ‘new world order’ has been used to refer to any new period of history bearing testimony to a dramatic change in world politics and economics and sociology. Despite various interpretations of the term, it is primarily associated with the ideological notion of global governance in the sense of identity which addresses worldwide problems that are beyond the capacity of individual nation-states to solve.1 In Benedict Anderson’s notion, a nation is an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of its fellow members, meet them or even hear them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of communion; and nationalism is not awakening of nations to self-consciousness. It invents nations where they do not exist.2 There are a wide range of economic explanations for the process of the new world order ranging from the more structural approaches in the classical Marxist and Weberian traditions to the cultural manifestations of the world order. The problems of explaining such a process, however, are complicated by agency and structure and to what extent the process is related to power and expansion of the capitalist economy.

Politics of World Order

One of the first and most well-known Western usages of the term ‘world order’ was surrounded by the call for a League of Nations. The most widely discussed application of the phrase in recent times came at the end of the Cold War.3 Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George W. Bush used the term to try to define the nature of the post-Cold War era and the spirit of great power cooperation that they hoped might materialise. Gorbachev’s initial formulation was wide ranging and idealistic, but his ability to press for it was severely limited by the internal crisis in the Soviet Union. The Bush vision was in comparison much more circumscribed and realistic, perhaps even instrumental at times, and closely linked to the Gulf War. The first Gulf War had been justified not only in terms of the US’ national interest but in moral terms to make the world safe for democracy. The American policy is based on human nature as it is, not as it ought to be.4

The term ‘world order’ fell into disuse when it become clear the League was not living up to the over-optimistic expectation. Former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim felt that this new world order was a projection of the American dream. The UN, NATO, IMF, World Bank, Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were seen as characterising or comprising this new order. But the principal statement on creating the new world order concept came from Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations on December 7, 1988. He advocated strengthening the central role of the United Nations, de-ideologisation of relations among states, and spoke of the new levels of cooperation to be achieved. Concurrently, Gorbachev recognised only a one-world economy—essentially an end to economic blocs. He called for the Soviet entry into several important international organisations. Reinvi-goration of the UN’s peacekeeping role and recognition of the fact that superpower cooperation can and will lead to the resolution of regional conflicts were especially key to his concept of cooperation. He argued that the use of force was no longer legitimate and the strong must demonstrate restraint toward the weak.

He asked for cooperation on environmental protection, debt relief for developing countries, disarmament of nuclear weapons, preservation of the ABM treaty. At the same time he promised the significant withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe.

The phrase ‘New World Order’, as used to herald the post-Cold War era, had no developed or substantive definition. It was been progressively redefined, first by the Soviets and later by the United States before the Malta Conference on December 2-3, 1989 and again after Bush’s speech of September 11, 1990. The Malta Conference projected various expectations such as German re-unification, human rights and polarity of the international system. The Gulf War crisis refocused on superpower coope-ration and the regional crisis. North-South problems, the integration of the Soviets into the international system, and changes in economic and military polarity received greater attention. The new security structure arising from superpower cooperation seemed to indicate to observers that the new world order would be based on the principle of self-determination and non-intervention.

On March 6, 1991, President Bush addressed the US Congress. Therein he cited the Bush Administration’s principal policy statement on the new world order in the Middle East following the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The Gulf crisis was seen as a reminder that the US must continue to lead and that military strength does matter but that the resulting new world order should make military force less important in future. In fact, the deeper realisation of the new world order was the US’ emergence as the single greatest power in a multipolar world. The US authority over the Soviets was displayed in the unification of Germany, withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and almost open appeal to Washington for aid in managing the Soviet transition to democracy.5

However, statesman Strobe Talbott wrote of the new world order that it emerged only in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. The United Nations took steps toward re-defining its role to take account of the inter-state events. He asserted that it was only as an unintended postscript to Desert Storm that Bush gave meaning to the ‘new world order’ slogan. But by the end of the year, Bush stopped talking about the ‘new world order’. As an antidote to the uncertainties of the world he wanted to stress the varieties of territorial integrity, national sovereignty and international stability across the globe.6

To find a liberal case for making war against Islamic terrorists one should probably start with Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism written as a rebuttal of the many liberal critiques of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy choices. Although he makes a good case for the need of liberal democracies to stand firmly against the enemy of modernity, he manages at times to undermine his own case through a failure to understand the complexities that exist on both sides—modernist and Islamist.

In addition to ignoring the variety of perspectives in the West, Berman also tends to lump Islamism into too cohesive a group with too little diversity. Not all Islamists seeking a more theocratic society also advocate the use of violence and terrorism to achieve it—and not all Islamists who seek a greater integration of Muslim values into the political system trans-form into theocracy. This is not to say that there is no connection between European Fascism and Islamic Fundamentalism but the connections are counter-balanced by important differences.

World Order in Globalised Social Matrix

To explain the world order in the matrix of globalisation is not an easy task as the process is multi-layered and can be seen to affect different social and cultural groups in different ways. Sociologists conceptualise it as a qualita-tively different mode of social development. The institutional changes that are viewed as political foundations of globalisation can be witnessed in the aftermath of the Second World War with the creation of supra-national bodies such as the United Nations.7 Sociological explanations of the objective or structural developments are in general agreement that the process of globali-sation has relied heavily on the development and expansion of the capitalist system and hence in industrialisation and modernity there is the development and proliferation of high-speed communication technologies such as the telephone, television and internet.

There has been a considerable amount of research and theorising on globalisation and its consequences over the past decade. This aims to address Anthony Gidden’s views on globalisation and its consequences on culture and identity focusing on the rise of risk consciousness and de-traditionalisation which undermine the institution of family and religion.8 These institutions are no longer able to offer us clearly defined norms and values that tell us how one should act in society. This situation has far- reaching consequences on how individuals experience daily life and how they go about constructing their identities. The title of Giddens’ accessible modern classic, Runaway World, suggests to the reader that he perceives the world order as an unpredictable destabilising process. One aspect of globalisation’s influence on the world order is the emergence of ‘manufactured risks’ which are man-made having arisen as a result of new technologies developed through advances in scientific knowledge. Many of these new technologies, such as nuclear and bio-technologies, bring about risks which are truly global in scope. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, for example, resulted in nuclear fallout spreading over thousand miles to several countries while the burning of fossil fuels in the USA may lead to flooding in Bangladesh. These new technologies could have catastrophic consequences for humanity. Yet we do not know all the consequences associated with them. The debate over whether Britain should build more nuclear power stations or whether or not we should support genetically modified crops is still going on. Many of the above problems require international action as well as coordi-nated local action and in this context nation- states appear ill-equipped to deal with global problems.

Tradition gives stability and the ability to construct a self-identity against a stable back-ground. Globalisation brings this to an end as local cultures and traditions are exposed to new cultures and ideas, which often means that traditional ways of acting come to be questioned. As a result of the global order, societies and culture go through a process of de-traditionali-sation where day-to-day life becomes less and less informed by tradition.

Modern relationships, including marriages, no longer come with clear norms and values, duties and responsibilities; instead these have to be negotiated. Similarly, for those who are religious, the meanings of being Christian and being Muslim are much more open to debate than ever before. The individual is faced today with a situation in which modern institutions no longer simply tell the individual ‘how to act’ or ‘how to be’; they no longer act like stabilised forces that anchor the individual to society in clearly defined ways. Of course, de-traditionali-sation opens up the possibility of a radical democratisation of daily life; but it also points to two major problems. The first is the increase in addiction in modern society. Today, people can develop addictions to sex, food, gambling, and shopping. This increase in addiction is being linked to de-traditionalisation. In the pre-globalisation stable traditions provided the individual with a link to the past. That has now gone. The second negative consequence of de-traditionalisation is the rise of fundamentalism that is based on a blinkered commitment to ideologies and beliefs and resistance to engaging in dialogue about these views.

The positive side of de-traditionalisation is the spread of what Giddens refers to as cosmopolitanism where the individual has much more freedom to reflect on the already existing cultural practices such as those associated with marriage, religion and politics and to choose which aspects of these cultural practices suit him or her. As a result, culture becomes some-thing that is more fluid, more open to debate by the individuals than ever before in human history. Culture, according to Giddens, becomes more democratic as more people have more of a say on how culture will inform their lives. He says where tradition lapses and lifestyle choices prevail, self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before.

Economic Matrix of World Order

The emphasis on the economic basis of the world order, known as world system theory, is not surprisingly accepted by social scientists of the Marxist tradition. In a sociological expansion of the international political economy, the world system theory has been advocated by thinkers such as Wallerstein. Sklair views the expansion of global capital as fundamentally linked to the growth of media technologies with worldwide media systems merely viewed as the instrument of the transnational capitalist class to inculcate an ideological representation of consumerism as the only system of economic and social existence.9

Other socio-structural explanations of the world order offer the view that the world is being standardised by a rational application of the Western-bureaucratic methods. The McDonalisation of society pretends that the world is becoming socially uniform through the widespread application of the common methods of productive organisation. The global nature of transnational corporations is hard to deny. Thinkers in the Marxist and Weberian tradition mentioned above have a limited explanation to offer as to the cultural nature of globalisation as they assume that the communication system is lacking in reciprocity.10

Different cultures due to travel and tourism are increasingly brought into contact with one another, and the time-space compression allows for the creation of new global identities which previously would have been constrained by geographical limitation.11 The view of the world becoming culturally compressed or squeezed together is echoed by Robertson.12 The importance of this approach is in the way the process
of globalisation is not seen to be simply the creation of world political institutions or imposition of a dominant class interest but an ever-changing interaction of millions of conscious individuals. Media technology and population flow have given rise to a sense of consciousness and identity that can be argued to be entirely new so that people increasingly view themselves as members of the world order. This is viewed in the inter-connected nature of new media technologies and the growth specifically of a world consciousness.

The formative stages of this view can be seen in Marshall McCluhan’s vision of the world becoming a ‘Global Village’. The idea of a global village is useful as it views the world as essentially becoming smaller due to electronic technologies. But the movement towards the world order does not imply cultural or economic homogenisation. Chomsky stands for the libertarian ideal, subjecting the modern capitalist order to scathing critique.13 For the past five hundred years, the elite of the First World have been creating a political and economic order that would engulf the entire world. The so-called Cold War did not qualitatively change the behaviour of the West’s elite. Because the same elite remain in control of the post Cold-War era, there is no reason to expect any dramatic change in their behaviour.

Chomsky’s analysis resists the hard and fast rhetoric about ‘free market’ and ‘big government’ being libertarian. He argues that these are not the watchwords of enlightenment. The classical libertarians did voice their opposition to big government. But they opposed British mercantilism. Chomsky argues that the rich had created these policies for their benefit at the expense of everyone else. He co-authored with Edward Herman Manufacturing Consent. This book provides the model for explaining how the media functions in an advanced capitalist society.14

Concluding Observation

The moment of euphoria at the end of the Cold War generated an illusion of harmony which soon revealed to be exactly that. The world became different in the early 1990s but not necessarily more peaceful. Change is inevitable but progress is not. Commenting on the US and NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, Chomsky writes that the aim of these assaults is to establish the role of the major imperialist power, the US, as the unchallengeable arbiter of world affairs. Following the emergence of Boris Yelstin, decline of Gorbachev and the rise of Clinton over Bush the term ‘new world order’ fell from common usage. It was replaced by competing similar concepts such as the ‘unipolar moment’, ‘clash of civilisations’ and ‘end of history’. We have to rethink the world order in this context.


1. Slaughter, A. M. (2004), A New World Order, Princeton University Press.
2. Anderson, B. (1991), The Nation as Imagined Community, London: Verso.
3. Slaughter, A. M. (2004), A New World Order, Princeton University Press.
4. Cabot, H., ‘The Bloodhound of History’, The Economist, April 10,1998.
5. Bush, G., ‘With Moscow Crippled: US Emerges as a Top Power’, La Times, September 12, 1990.
6. Talbott, Strobe, ‘Post-Victory Blues’, Foreign Affairs, December 1991-January 1992.
7. Marshall, G. (1998), Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, second ed., Oxford University Press.
8. Giddens, Anthony (1999), Summary of Runaway World, Polity Press.
9. Sklair, L. (2002), ‘Sociology of Global System’ in Lechhe, F. L. and Boli, J. (eds.) (2004), The Globalization Reader, Oxford, Blackwell.
10. Cohen, R. and Kennedy (2000), Global Sociology, London: MacMillan.
11. Harvey, D. (1989), The Condition of Post-Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell.
12. Robertson, R. (1992), Globalisation: Social Theory and Global Culture, London: Sage.
13. Chomsky, Noam (1991), ‘Deterring Democracy’, New York: Verso.
14. Chomsky, N. and Edward Herman (1988), Manufacturing Consent, New York: Panthern.

The author, a Ph.D from the Jawarharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is a political commentator.

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