Another New World Order? Multilateralism in the Aftermath of September 11. (World in Review)

By Rahman, Sabeel | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Another New World Order? Multilateralism in the Aftermath of September 11. (World in Review)


Rahman, Sabeel, Harvard International Review


It was on a crisp, brilliant September morning that the United States experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history. Onlookers watched in disbelief as two hijacked passenger jets slammed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. As audiences across the world watched the collapse of the structures that were synonymous with New York and the financial might of the United States, one thought stood out: the world would never be the same.

Melodramatic as that thought might have seemed at the time, it is now clear that the terrorist attacks were a critical turning point for both the United States and the international community. September 11 not only altered the New York City skyline forever, but also fundamentally changed the nature of international relations and US foreign policy as well.

The immediate manifestation of that change is the sudden emergence of what the United States has termed a "coalition against terror." Not since George Bush senior's ambitious attempt to build support against Iraq in the Gulf War has the United States thrown its full diplomatic, financial, and military muscle behind such a task. But George W Bush faces an entirely different challenge from the one his father did in 1991: fighting terrorism is very different from waging war on a specific state. Indeed, the very nature of this campaign-from its vague, undefined enemy to its basic need for broad international support-ensures that it will be a protracted effort whose effects will reverberate for years, even if the coalition itself fails to last.

The terrorist attacks have forced the Bush administration to adopt a foreign policy of active international engagement, which some see as a complete about-face from Bush's initially unilateralist and isolationist foreign-policy directives. But this new activist foreign policy threatens to polarize the international community, as the United States attempts to classify countries as allies or terrorist-aiding enemies. At the same time, the fledgling coalition carries a tantalizing hint of how multilateral cooperation might work to resolve broad global crises. We are at a crossroads in the development of yet another new world order-defined by either the realization of a new multilateralism, or its rejection in favor of a more unilateralist US interventionism following the mold of the Cold War.

A Uni-Multipolar World

In many ways, the new world order that is emerging in the aftermath of September 11 will resolve the contradictions inherent in the nature of post-Cold War international relations.

The end of the Cold War represented not only a political victory for the United States and its allies but also the ideological triumph of Western-style democracy and capitalism embodied in the American way of life. The United States enjoyed a tremendous increase in international prestige and influence, not just politically but culturally and economically as well. During this period, the world seemed to be headed toward a unipolar system in which the United States would dominate the international scene, supported by the international community.

But this new world of US-led capitalist democracies never materialized. Instead, this initial triumphalism quickly evaporated with the fall of the Soviet Union, revealing previously hidden fault lines. Without an opposing force to provide legitimacy, post-Cold War US primacy became increasingly viewed as self-serving unilateralism rather than altruistic globalism. Governments from Western Europe to Asia and Africa openly criticized the United States for deliberately undermining its allies to ensure US supremacy. Susan Stranage, a British international political economist, encapsulated the grievances of many US allies when she accused the United States in 1995 of exercising a "hegemonic, do-nothing veto on better global governance" as a result of the "natural but destructive unilateralist tendency in the US political system. …

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