A new world order is emerging – and the world is not ready for it

DUBAI – “Are We Ready for the New World Order?”

The provocative title of the panel that launched the ambitiously named World Government Summit here last week was designed to imply that a new global order is emerging — and that the world is not yet ready for it.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the most murderous Europe to suffer since 1939, much has been written about who will shape the future world order.

The tantalizing conclusion: Should Ukraine survive as an independent, sovereign, and democratic country, US- and European-backed forces will regain momentum against the previously rising Russo-Chinese forces of authoritarianism, oppression, and (at least in Putin’s case) evil to win.

That sounds like good news, but there’s a downside.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and a series of COVID-related closures in China do not appear to have much in common on the surface,” writes Michael Schuman, a member of the Atlantic Council, in The Atlantic (a publication unrelated to the Council has to do). “Yet both are accelerating a shift that is taking the world in a dangerous direction and dividing it into two spheres, one centered on Washington, DC and the other on Beijing.”

My conversations in Dubai – at the World Government Summit and at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum – show little enthusiasm or conviction for this dual vision of the future. Middle East participants have no interest in abandoning ties with China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s main trading partner, or in breaking with Russia, which established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it defeated Syrian President Bashar al -Assad saved by his military intervention in his war.

Moreover, after last year’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, our partners in the Middle East have lost confidence in America’s commitment to, or capability for, global leadership. They’re also experiencing whiplash from a Trump administration that dumped the Iran nuclear deal to a Biden administration that they believe is pursuing it without giving sufficient consideration to Tehran’s regional aggression.

In all my many trips to the Middle East over the years, I have never heard such a level of frustration from Middle Eastern government officials toward American politicians.

Still, they watch Ukraine with fascination, because a Ukrainian victory – with a strong, united West behind it – would force a rethink of US commitment and competence and change the trajectory of diminishing transatlantic influence and importance. Conversely, a Putin victory—even at a huge cost to Russians and Ukrainians alike—would hasten the West’s decline as an effective global player.

My own response to the panel question on our “new world order” readiness was to quote Henry Kissinger (who else?) to challenge the premise. “There has never been a truly ‘global’ world order,” Kissinger wrote in his book World Order.” “What is considered order in our time was worked out in western Europe nearly four centuries ago at a peace conference in the German region of Westphalia, conducted without the participation or even the awareness of most other continents or civilizations.” In the centuries that followed, his spread influence off.

With this in mind, the question is not what the new world order would look like, but whether the US and its allies, through Ukraine, can reverse the erosion of the achievements of the past century as a first step towards establishing the first truly “global” world order.

Former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told me the effort was the fourth attempt at international order in the past century.

The first attempt after the First World War by the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations failed tragically. Instead, the world got European fascism, US isolationism, a global economic crisis, and millions dead from the Holocaust and World War II.

After World War II, the US and its partners were dramatically more successful, building the so-called “liberal international order” through the Marshall Plan and new multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and IMF, NATO, the European Union, and others.

The third attempt came after the West’s triumph in the Cold War. European democracies emerged or were restored, NATO expanded, the European Union expanded, and for a time it seemed that the rules, practices and institutions developed in the West after World War II and during the Cold War era could record and control an extension international order. China benefited from this arrangement and for a time accepted it.

What has been eroding for some years now is the US leadership’s commitment to defending, maintaining and advancing this expanded international order – what Kissinger described as “an inexorably expanding cooperative order of states that adhere to common rules and norms, embrace liberal economic systems, renounce territorial conquests, respect national sovereignty and introduce participatory and democratic systems of government.”

American foreign policy leadership has rarely been consistent, but after World War II and up to the end of the Cold War it was remarkable. Since then, the inconsistencies have grown, underscored by former President Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” and former President Donald Trump’s “America First”.

Both were, in their own way, a retreat from former President Harry Truman and the post-WWII architecture and global US leadership that he established and embraced.

In the Middle East, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which were once our closest allies, are now taking their bets. Iranian disagreements aside, former President Trump’s failure to accept his own election defeat casts doubt among our friends on the durability of the American political system and the consistency of US foreign policy.

Furthermore, our Middle Eastern friends resent the Biden administration’s characterization of emerging global competition as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

“Every attempt at democracy in the Arab world has become ideological or tribal, so I’m not sure we can successfully implement that,” Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the President of the United Arab Emirates, said at the world government summit. He sees the issues between democracy and authoritarianism as governance rather than binary, and the solution is “something in the middle of both.”

President Joe Biden’s decision to release an “unprecedented” 180 million barrels of crude from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve on Thursday was an acknowledgment that America’s traditional oil partners were unwilling to help him. The decision came hours after OPEC ignored calls from Western politicians to pump oil faster – and opposed any suggestion to remove Russia from the organization.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited New Delhi this week to thank India for its refusal to join sanctions against Russia, an approach shared by Brazil, Mexico, Israel and the UAE. Lavrov said: “We will be ready to deliver to India any goods that India wants to buy.”

To shape the future world order, the US and Europe must first reverse the path of Western and democratic decline in Ukraine.

The rest must follow.

Friedrich Kempe is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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