In A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order


In A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, diplomat Richard Haass argues that since the end of the Cold War, the world has become more disordered. Haass believes the United States should renew its commitment to security and stability.

World order in the modern era has been based on the balance of power between strong sovereign states that agree not to interfere in the affairs of other states. This pact of stability can be undermined by the Thucydides Trap, a term coined by political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe the hostility and instability that result when a rising power threatens an established power. The name refers to the leadup to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which was chronicled by the historian Thucydides. In early twentieth-century Europe, the rise of Germany and Italy resulted in a massive failure of order that led to two devastating world wars.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a Cold War. Nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction prevented outright armed hostility between the two superpowers. Diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union played an important role in maintaining stability. The two nations maintained high-level contacts, trade, and negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Meanwhile, international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank provided some structure for global cooperation.

Following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, many world leaders and people around the globe hoped for a new world order. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States led a coalition of nations to restore the original borders. It seemed like the beginning of a more unified world in which global norms would be justly and swiftly enforced by the United States and a broad coalition of other nations.

However, the hopefulness following the Cold War faded. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to unrest in areas formerly within its sphere of influence, especially Yugoslavia. Without the structure of Cold War relations, the United States struggled to arrive at a principle to guide interventions in the name of order or justice. At times, it failed to intervene to prevent a genocide, such as in Rwanda in 1994. In other cases, it claimed a genocide was imminent, and then used this as pretext for a regime change, such as in Libya in 2011.

Diplomacy has been complicated by the rise of non-state agents, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. A system based around state sovereignty is hard-pressed to confront the problems that arise when states fail or fracture as Syria did in 2011.

Given challenges including nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change, the notion of sovereign authority is no longer sufficient. A new international order is vital to avoid crisis and disorder. The sooner the United States and other nations start to build that order, the better.

The international community must move towards a concept of sovereign obligation to create a “World Order 2.0” that will ensure stability. Sovereign obligation means that sovereign states have obligations not only to their own citizens, but to the world community. For example, governments should have an obligation to reduce carbon emissions, which threaten the entire planet. More robust diplomacy and international institutions need to be put into place to make states accountable for their sovereign obligations.

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