WASHINGTON — President Bush heralded it as the shape of things to come. Soviet leaders have adopted it. Think tanks and academics on six continents are churning out papers about it.
And worldwide, the phrase has raised expectations that behind the uncertainty and disorder produced by an astonishing pace of global change are a vision and a set of principles directing its course.
But almost a year after it became a catch phrase to describe the post-Cold War era, the "new world order" is adrift.
Since the denouement in the Persian Gulf, the urgency has fizzled. The Bush Administration has retreated from pronouncing guidelines comparable to the 1947 Truman Doctrine that shaped four decades of Cold War--or even referring to the "new world order" in major foreign policy speeches.
"I told you more than I know about it," joked National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in an interview at the White House. Scowcroft crafted the phrase during an afternoon of fishing with Bush in the opening weeks of the Gulf crisis.
He then added seriously: "I think you're putting too much specificity into it. It is not a specific road map with intersections and left turns and right turns and ups and downs and so on.
"It is the notion of a new opportunity that's opening up with the ending of the East-West confrontation and how . . . the United States and its allies and friends can take advantage of it to improve the way the international order works.
"We've a chance to implement some of our ideals that we didn't before. But it's a general kind of thing . . . not specific rules. . . . (It's) a descriptive phrase of what might be possible in dealing with crises, absent the East-West confrontation, which has frozen for 40 years the way crises have to be dealt with."
Yet, on issues of collective security, democracy, arms proliferation and self-determination, the formulation of the new order's ground rules is largely reactive to unfolding events--and crises--rather than proactive in shaping their direction, foreign policy analysts and even U.S. allies contend.
"In general, one can only be impressed negatively by the grand vision that was displayed in assembling the coalition and immobilizing Iraqi aggression when it is compared with the lack of vision that has been demonstrated in the post-crisis period," said Augustus Richard Norton, a fellow at New York's International Peace Academy.
"What's lacking now precisely is a vision or the big horizon," Norton added. "We're caught in an incremental game. We're involved with textual questions instead of big principles."
The lack of coordinated strategic planning--by the United States, its allies or even its former enemies--means the new order may emerge by accident rather than design.
"I think these people (in the Bush Administration) are doing a very bad job," reflected Paul H. Nitze, the octogenarian foreign-affairs guru who was an architect of the Truman Doctrine. "They don't have a sense of strategy. They can't go beyond the phrase. . . . There is going to be a new world order, whether we do anything about it or not."
The concept has even generated tension within the Administration. "We never used 'new world order' at the State Department. It's a buzzword for nothing," said a miffed U.S. official involved in strategic planning. "I don't feel a necessity to explain it. I don't know what it is."
Administration officials point to Bush's address to the U.N. General Assembly last October as the definitive outline of his new world order. He described its cornerstone as "a new partnership of nations . . . based on consultation, cooperation, and collective action . . . supported by an equitable sharing of both cost and commitment."
Yet, since the Gulf War ended, the partnership has been acknowledged only after the fact--or ignored.
When 200,000 Kurds fled northern Iraq, U.S. forces unilaterally launched Operation Provide Comfort with encouragement from European members of the larger Gulf coalition. A month later, the United Nations was brought in--and asked to take over.
On subsequent Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the Administration has proposed that the United Nations have only a single observer at talks despite Arab requests for full U.N. sponsorship.
And in Ethiopia, U.S. envoys unilaterally mediated a formal end to the 30-year civil war, Africa's longest conflict, and, with Israel, the exodus from Addis Ababa of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews, sometimes called Falashas.
"Had we taken it to the U.N. Security Council, had we had a debate, had we sent out a fact-finding mission and so on, the Falashas may or may not have gotten out, there may or may not have been a civil war over Addis and so on," Scowcroft said.
That stance means, however, that using the partnership is "selective," a senior Administration official conceded. "It depends on the issue."