From Cold War to New World Order
At the end of the Cold War, US President George H.W. Bush began speaking openly about his desire to create a “New World Order”. Shortly thereafter, Francis Fukuyama published his infamous book The End of History. The book presented a positive twist on a prototypical apocalyptic narrative in which the author postulated that after centuries of global ideological confrontations, the neo-liberal American system had ‘beaten’ all others. As such Fukuyama invoked a temporal version of the millenarian narrative in thinking that the entire world would soon become a kind of ideological “greater America”.
But while George H.W. Bush and Francis Fukuyama spoke about a New World Order in a self-defined positive context, in reality it meant that nations in the world whose cultural and political historic characteristics were different to that of the United States would either be coerced into Americanising or otherwise forced to do so at gun point. The logical result of this policy was more bluntly defined by Bush’s son, George W. Bush who in 2001 said to the world “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”. Such language is similar to that which was quoted by the Hellenic historian Thucydides who recalled Athenian ambassadors making a similar ultimatum to the rules of the island of Milos. There, Alcibiades the Athenian told the Melians to either surrender to Athenian rule or be destroyed by the superior Athenian armed forces. Thucydides summed up the encounter with the immortal phrase “the strong do as they will and the weak submit as they must”.
It was this attitude of neo-Athenian militarism that came to define America’s post-Cold War New World Order. Thus, while Americans, much as Athenians did in the 5th century spoke a great deal about democracy and freedom, both societies became embroiled in money draining struggles of conquest, something which is neither free nor democratic by any stretch of the imagination.
Americans reject their nation’s New World Order and return to America First
Overtime, many Americans came to reject the concept of the New World Order, even though many of them saw conspiratorial overtones to what in reality is just a purposefully melodramatic name for American geopolitical hegemony. For Americans who saw their country increase its current account deficit while living standards at home began to stagnate, something new was required. Many such Americans ended up voting for Donald Trump, a candidate who during the 2016 election spoke much about opposing the liberal-imperial New World Order of the Bush, Clinton and Obama era and instead revived a pre-Cold War slogan “America First”.
Automatically the rhetoric signalled a profound shift in the thinking of an American President. For Trump, deceptive Athenian language about spreading freedom and democracy under the guise of neo-imperialism gave way to an attitude where he told his people that America deserves the best without having to justify why this is the case. Whether this is achieved through peace or war was inconsequential according to this mentality. In the America First mentality, the ends would justify the means. In this sense, Trump’s attitude is refreshingly honest compared to that of his most recent predecessors.
To Trump’s personal credit, he has actually made good on his promise to gradually extricate the United States from the New World Order that its post-Cold War leadership created. While Trump’s embrace of peace measures on certain fronts (the DPRK, Russia to a small extend) is counter-balanced by a bellicose attitude to countries like Iran, China and now Turkey, when taken as a whole, Trump’s version of America First seeks to restore industrial self-sufficiency to his large nation and in so doing he does not care how many foreign partners he must antagonise, how many rivals he must provoke and how many trade dependant American businesses he will necessarily jeopardise.
In this sense, the US is exiting the New World Order and is doing so in as bombastic a fashion as anyone could have reasonably expected.
A Post-New World Order
As a result of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the global order it established, developing nations continue to look for global leadership as has been the case throughout history. However, the kind of leadership on offer from the Chinese and Russian superpowers is very different from that which the US offered during the New World Order era.
Perhaps ironically, the Sino-Russian world order is one based on the implementation of geopolitical libertarianism as opposed to the geopolitical interventionism of the Bush/Clinton/Obama New World Order. The reason this is ironic to some is because while domestically the libertarian ideal is more popular in the US than in China or Russia, when it comes to geopolitics, the “live and let live” attitude which largely defines libertarianism is very much the ethos of Russia and China.
For Chinese and Russian diplomats, geopolitical relations are conducted neither on the basis of coercion, military violence nor ideology. Instead they are conducted in a traditional businesslike manner of bilateralism where the question “what can I do for you and what can you do for me” has replaced the more rhetorically embellished lexicon of liberal-imperialist Americanism. Against this background countries throughout the developing world are seeking freer trading relationships with each other and with China and Russia. As the US continues to use punitive sanctions and tariffs as a means of withdrawing itself from not just the military structures of the post-Cold War New World Order but also from mechanisms of global trade, it is now China in particular that represents a global bastion of free trade.
Crucially though, while China is opening its markets while peacefully encouraging others to do so, China is also interested in helping developing nations to build their own internal markets who will one day become the wealthier consumers of China’s increasingly high quality and cutting edge goods. China is doing so on a win-win model which itself is transactional rather than ideological or coercive. Furthermore, China does not require any changes to a partner country’s domestic governance, its military alignment or its domestic culture in order to begin transacting business with them. This stands in sharp contrast to the American interventionist approach which tends to demand radical changes to a partner nation’s domestic governance, military alignment and cultural characteristics.
A triumph for libertarianism
While China would ideally like free trading arrangements with as many nations as possible, the case study of India shows that China has no desire to force such agreements on anyone. India remains stubbornly convinced that its economic fortunes are better served by maintaining a hostile closed door to China and its One Belt–One Road global trading initiative. But far from calling for “regime change” in India or marching to the UN to condemn India’s objectively dubious human rights records when it comes to the treatment of confessional and ethnic minority groups, China’s response to India is very different than the de rigueur US attitude of the last decades. China has repeatedly stressed that its door to peaceful economic cooperation with India remains open and that dialogue rather than violence is always the preferred method to solve any disputes. This attitude itself is demonstrative of the libertarian attitude towards problem solving. It is one which renounces conquest and aggression while embracing both the possibility and reality of dialogue, openness and free trade.
While the word libertarian remains part of the US lexicon rather than part of a wider international lexicon, in many respects when Chinese and Russian officials publicly vow to bolster a “just and equitable” world order, readers more familiar with American political terminology should translate this to a Sino-Russia commitment to embrace a business and peace minded geopolitical libertarianism. In this sense, while Trump’s protectionism goes against the free trading principles of the American libertarian movement, for the wider world, Trump is ushering in an era where China and Russia are now the de-facto stewards of a libertarian world order which is far more laissez faire than the interventionist and authoritarian New World Order of pre-Donald Trump/post-Cold War America.