YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

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

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times.

February 24, 1991|Henry A. Kissinger

NEW YORK — 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.

Los Angeles Times Articles