Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 6, June 2022
William R. Hawkins
President of the Hamilton Center for National Strategy
President Joe Biden has been using the term “inflection point” in his speeches. At the U.S. Naval Academy on May 27 he said, “Class of 2022, you are graduating at an inflection point not only in American history but in world history. And I mean it. The challenge we face and the choices we make are more consequential than ever. Things are changing so rapidly that the next 10 years will be the decisive decade of this century, because they’re going to shape what our world looks like and the values that will guide it not just for the immediate future, but for generations to come.” Yet, he didn’t lay out what those changes would be. He moved directly to a discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “A direct assault on the fundamental tenets of rule-based international order. That’s what you’re graduating into.” He then told them “You’ll learn to crew the most advanced ships in the world, train the most elite combat units, conduct undetected submarine missions, fly the most advanced fighter planes. But the most powerful tool that you’ll wield is our unmatched network of global alliances and the strength of our partnerships.”
This sounded much more like a return to the Old World Order than any New World Order stemming from some transformative “inflection point” that will change the course of world history in some unfamiliar way. Two months earlier, on March 2, Biden said “There’s going to be a new world order out there and we’ve got to lead it.” He used the “inflection point” term and referenced the “liberal order” that had been established at the end of World War II. It sounded like he had dusted off an old speech from thirty years ago when the term New World Order (NOW) was in vogue in the wake of the Cold War. These NWO moments come and go quite rapidly, however. In modern times, they appear after a prolonged era of conflict when it is fashionable to think that humanity has learned its lesson and will not resort to such violent struggles again. The ideas of what will make the world a new kind of place reached maturity in the relatively peaceful decades following the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which had lasted a quarter century. It was the day of the classical liberals who envisioned private economic interests taking over world affairs displacing the primacy of governments.
Thomas Paine argued “war is the system of Government on the old construction…. Man is not the enemy of Man.” He listed among his revolutionary proposals that all warships be converted into merchant vessels. The French economist J.B. Say called for an end to the diplomatic corps, arguing that “it is not necessary to have ambassadors. This is one of the ancient stupidities which time will do away with.” The most dramatic statement came from the British Radical Richard Cobden who proclaimed that commerce was “the grand panacea” and that under its influence “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets would die away.” He added in 1842, “It would be well to engraft our free trade agitation upon the peace movement. They are one and the same cause.” Across the Channel, French economist Frederic Bastiat voiced his agreement, saying “Free trade means harmony of interests and peace between nations” and went on to state that “we place this indirect and social effect a thousand times above the direct or purely economic effect.”
While conservatives try to learn from history, liberals try to escape from history. Yet, there is no escape. Bastiat was writing at the end of the post-Napoleonic Wars period. The peace of Europe had already been shattered in 1848 as revolutions swept across the continent. Many of the uprisings were motivated more by nationalism than radicalism, a side of human nature the classical liberals overlooked. The desire of Hungary for independence was crushed after more than a year of fighting by the intervention of Russian troops while Habsburg Austrian forces crushed revolts in Italy. Napoleon’s nephew seized power in France as Napoleon III.
In less than a decade, British and French troops were fighting in Crimea to reduce Russian threats against the Ottoman Empire by destroying Moscow’s ability to project power in the Black Sea. This was followed by wars revolving around the unifications of Italy and Germany, the latter setting off decades of nationalist, revanchist and imperial ambitions which eventually led from a cold war of dynamic alliances and alignments to the hot war of 1914-1918. Yet, Germany was not alone in advancing its ambitions as every major power (including new ones like Japan) sought territory and markets on a global scale in the decades before The Great War.
Despite the creation of the League of Nations, the awarding of the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize to Norman Angell for his 1910 book The Great Illusion (which had claimed that international economic and financial entanglements made major wars impossible), numerous naval arms control agreements and an attitude of “peace at any price” to avoid a repeat of the First World War, there was a Second World War. The falling out among the victorious Allies did not provide much time for NWO musings before the dis-United Nations slid into the Cold War. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed pent-up visions of a New World Order. It drew heavily on classical economic theory to envision “globalization” where people would interact as if borders (and national loyalties) did not matter. But this post-Cold War period did not last as long as had the post-Napoleonic Era. Indeed, all post-war eras turn into interwar periods. The rise of an ambitious China, Putin’s revanchism, Islamic radicalism (from which al-Qaeda’s terrorism sparked 9/11 but Iran’s theocratic state poses the greater danger) have regenerated the Old World Order environment.
Thus, President Biden’s NWO claim was inappropriate in its timing. He was about to travel to an emergency NATO meeting and then to Poland to show support for Ukraine. Tehran and its proxies were launching new attacks across the Middle East. Linking tensions between the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Putin was recruiting Syrian troops from the Iran-backed regime of Bashar Assad to reinforce his decimated invasion force in Ukraine. Behind these headlines, American diplomats were warning China not to aid Russia’s war effort or plan their own invasion of Taiwan. And North Korea was launching ballistic missiles and threatening to test a nuclear weapon.
Old World Order policies are at the forefront. The most telling sign is where President Biden made his NWO remarks. His platform was the Business Round Table, an organization of corporate CEOs who had been at the forefront of the post-Cold War NWO push. Only ten days before his BRT speech, President Biden announced the U.S. and its allies would revoke Most Favored Nation trade status for Russia. So sacrosanct was MFN to transnational business that during the debate over granting it to China in 2001, the BRT led the campaign to change the term to Normal Trade Relations (NTR) to establish the conduct as commerce on its own terms regardless of any “higher” consequences. The BTR even put out a briefing book detailing how their members were helping China advance its capabilities to promote peace. The BRT lobbied just as hard for NTR with Russia in 2012, which was granted just after President Putin took office for his third term.
President Biden opened his BRT speech with references to economic issues, but then devoted most of his remarks to Russian aggression in Ukraine and related security issues from hypersonic missiles to weapons of mass destruction to cyber warfare. He praised the BRT for their role in economic warfare (anathema to classical theory) stating “you did a hell of a lot to help us impose sanctions” and how it is their “patriotic obligation” to help meet future threats, a concept alien to globalization dogma. President Biden has continued President Donald Trump’s study on how to decouple from commercial entanglements with an emphasis on reviving strategic industries at home and breaking supply chains linked to China.
At the Naval Academy, President Biden talked about the “global economy” but not in terms of “free trade” as in the globalist vision. The U.S. Navy would “make sure the sea lanes remain open and secure” but not for everyone. He moved immediately again to the issue of sanctions and then to his proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework of 13 nations aligned against China’s rise. It is an economic aspect of Great Power competition. The effort on “our supply chains to make them more resilient and well-integrated…. mitigate the effects of disruptions…and ensure access to key raw and processed materials, semiconductors, critical minerals, and clean energy technology” is now a matter of national strategy and diplomacy rather than the invisible hand of the market (which too often turns out to be an enemy’s hand).
The American President told his audience of naval officers that Chinese President Xi Jinping had told him “Democracies cannot be sustained in the 21st century. Autocracies will run the world.” President Biden told the newly commissioned officers in “the greatest fighting force in the history of the world” that President Xi would be proven wrong.
The primary Old World Order response to the revival of Great Power competition is a military buildup. To stand Bastiat on his head, if you believe in invasions, then you vote for rearmament. Congress has already increased defense spending since the Ukraine war started, including a modest boost to Navy shipbuilding aimed at China. House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA), who had hoped to keep military budgets flat as trillions were spent on domestic programs instead, conceded “The Russian invasion has fundamentally altered what our national security posture and national defense posture needs to be.” Though progressives and isolationists will still oppose military spending (even to support Ukraine’s self-defense), it appears a bipartisan majority exists to back the rearmament called for by the return of OWO events; a majority that will likely increase further after the 2022 Congressional elections.
What nostalgia President Biden may feel for the NWO moment of the 1990s is fading. In his statement on the passing of Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State during those supposedly halcyon days, he chose to recall “As the world redefined itself in the wake of the Cold War, we were partners and friends working to welcome newly liberated democracies into NATO and confront the horrors of genocide in the Balkans.” The latter led to NATO military intervention and war crime trials. In his remarks at Albright’s state funeral, Biden added a mention of Plan Columbia, the successful campaign against the narco-insurgents. He followed this eulogy on May 23 by designating Columbia a Major Non-NATO Ally. Today, the Biden administration is confronted with a host of familiar national security problems, making it clear that the Old World Order is not just back, it has never left us.
William R. Hawkins is President of the Hamilton Center for National Strategy. A former economics professor, he has written widely on defense and foreign policy issues for a variety of scholarly and popular publications. He has also served on the staff on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.