New World [dis]Order

1990s: Nationalism, War, & Genocide 

When the Berlin Wall got ripped down, massive block by massive block, the Cold War came to a crashing end.  With its end sprung the hope of what President George H. W. Bush called “The New World Order.”  The Soviet Union dissolved and Russia began its evolution to democracy and capitalism with glasnost and perestroika. With the end of US/Soviet rivalry, the possibility that the UN may live up to its mission and not be stymied in the Security Council gave hope to a recommitment to the human rights focus of the post WWII era.  No longer would the US have to support repressive regimes just because they were anti-communist. 

There was reason to hope, but that did not last long.  The best example of the resurgence of human rights was the peaceful transition to majority rule in the Republic of South Africa.  Nelson Mandela went from a 27- year prison sentence to democratically elected President in a few short years.  The new spirit of global community brought together a coalition against Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait.  In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the UN supported the American led “Operation Provide Comfort” to protect Iraqi Kurds.  Shortly after this, the new humanitarian purpose that seemed to characterize the hope of “The New World Order” found expression in “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia.  When the mission changed from insuring the delivery of food to mitigate the starvation to going after the warlord responsible for the instability and chaos, the mission turned into a debacle.  The tragedy had immediate, violent consequences for US troops who were killed.  However, the Somalia disaster had long term consequences as well on the willingness of Western powers to engage in looming humanitarian crises, especially in Bosnia and Rwanda.  The mantra of avoiding “another Vietnam” rapidly switched to avoiding another debacle such as the one experienced in Somalia.

Visual of Unit I

This unit begins with the ephemeral hope of “The New World Order” by examining the concept of human rights and the protection of these rights.  Although the 1990s witness a miraculous transition in South Africa, the decade is primarily understood through the disorder fostered by the paradigm shift at the end of the Cold War.  Unfortunately there are too many conflicts to investigate them all in one unit, so those that will be examined are those that most exemplify the themes of resurgent nationalism, violence, and genocide.  Extreme nationalism led to a four-year war in the former Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims while the US, the UN, and NATO seemed unable or unwilling to intervene.  Finally, the US led the way on the peace process and NATO was pressed into action in 1999 when Milosevic attempted a replay of Bosnia in Kosovo.  Simultaneously, genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of nearly a million Tutsis in about 100 days.  Again, there was no international response.  Atrocities elsewhere, such as the brutal civil war that employed child soldiers in Sierra Leone, raise questions about the nature of the global response to horrors occurring within the borders of independent countries.  First person accounts such as Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone and Peter Maass’s Honor Thy Neighbor speak not only to the themes of horror but also to those of survival. 

The central question of this unit is how and when is it appropriate to intervene in humanitarian crises such as these.  In that spirit the unit ends with a modification of the CHOICES option discussions included in Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy, The U.S. Role in a Changing World, & The United Nations: Challenges and Change.

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