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Column: Where’s the New World Order?

James Jay Carafano

It was the other September 11. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush outlined his vision for how the world ought to run after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His proposal didn’t amount to much. Indeed, his call for a “New World Order” fell flat. Nevertheless, the speech stands as a milepost in America’s continuing search for a way to deal with the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era.

The fact that America still hasn’t figured it out is cause for concern — but also a source of comfort. There is still time to get it right. To secure its place in the world, a nation generally pursues a “grand strategy” reflecting a broad consensus of what it ought to do, how and with what. Thus, for example, Athens opposed Sparta for decades … and it didn’t much matter who was in charge. Similarly, when the sun never set on the British Empire, London assiduously sought mastery of the seas. It didn’t matter if Parliament was dominated by Whigs or Tories.

Over the course of history, America has had a handful of grand strategies. They’ve shifted as the nation’s interests and power changed over time. One of the most enduring was the Monroe Doctrine — the commitment to keep America safe by keeping foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere. That goal broadly guided American security policy from 1823 to 1941.

During the Cold War, America’s grand strategy was called containment. The goal was to keep the free parts of the world free from domination by the Kremlin until the Soviet Union collapsed. When the Berlin Wall came down, the question became: What’s next?

Bush proposed to replace the Cold War’s East/West confrontations with a system of voluntary cooperation among the great powers. However, global politics proved as fractious as ever. Bush’s vision didn’t outlast his presidency.

Lack of a grand strategy caused little panic, though. The United States was seen as the world’s sole super power, whose pre-eminence was unchallenged on the global stage. Why worry?

President Clinton proposed a strategy of engagement and enlargement — growing the ranks of the world’s democracies as a means of stage-managing global order. While the number of democracies did expand after the Cold War, it didn’t produce the peaceful “end of history” that some predicted. The United States, for example, was drawn into two violent conflicts in the Balkans. The nickname for these years was the “new world disorder.”

Whatever grand strategy President George W. Bush might have hoped to introduce after his election, it was swept away by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The United States opted for a more muscular foreign policy, with more emphasis on eliminating threats than gaining global consensus on managing world affairs.

By 2008, Americans had already wearied of post-9/11 foreign policy, and President Obama swept into office promising a new course. His formula for putting the world back in balance was to engage with key adversarial powers to find an accommodation that would allow the United States to withdraw from the world stage and rely on existing international organizations to sustain global order.

By November 2016, many Americans felt that Obama’s “reset” diplomacy and “lead from behind” posture just wasn’t working. From transnational terrorism threats to Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, Americans didn’t feel safer than before.

The “New World Order” speech marks the first of four consecutive false starts on adopting a sustainable grand strategy for the modern era. The Trump administration hopes fifth time’s the charm.

Its emerging strategy looks to do something less than Bush’s muscular approach, but something more that Obama’s “speak softly and carry a small stick” stance. Bombast aside, Trump’s policy appears to focus on keeping the U.S. “forward engaged” in key regions like Europe, the Middle East and Asia — but without starting more wars or engaging in nation-building.

The challenges are huge: a rising China, a restive Russia, a reckless North Korea, a melting Middle East, and Trump’s ceaseless tweeting. But there is good news, too. The United States is still a global power to be reckoned with. America still has a strong economy, a large military, and dependable, valuable alliances. It is most definitely NOT a land of inevitable decline.

What America does desperately need is a steady-as-she-goes grand strategy, so that the nation does squander its strength in the trials ahead. Because our margin of error is shrinking as competitors rise up to challenge us.

James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president where he directs research on national security and foreign relations.