The Changing World Order (1991-2011)

The Changing World Order (1991-2011)

By 1991, the United States was the sole superpower in the world. Brad Kelly provided a brief overview of the bumpy path of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War world for the HTA’s Teaching History magazine.

“Gosh, I miss the Cold War…”

By the end of September 1993, US President Bill Clinton was nine months into his new job as the leader of the free world. He seemed to be getting the hang of it.

On 13 September he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their historic handshake on the White House lawn as the ink dried on the Oslo Accords. On 23 September the US Senate lifted sanctions on South Africa after F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela announced the first post-Apartheid elections in that nation’s history. Four days later, Clinton stood in front of the UN General Assembly to announce a new era of ‘democratic enlargement,’ a US commitment to democracy and security. Clinton was upbeat. He committed the Americans to standing shoulder to shoulder with the United Nations and declared it free of Cold War constraints.

How quickly things change.

On 17 October 1993, Clinton sat down with two reporters from The Washington Post to reflect on American foreign policy near the end of his first year in office.

“Gosh, I miss the Cold War,” Clinton admitted.[1]

A fortnight earlier, 18 US army personnel were murdered in Somalia, after two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in the Battle of Mogadishu. Television footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of the Somalian capital were beamed around the world.

In Europe, Yugoslavia was in meltdown. The Siege of Sarajevo was in full swing and Clinton’s attempts at brokering peace in the Balkans suffered setback after setback. The ‘lift and strike’ policy he took to the election (‘lift’ the UN embargo on arms sales to Bosnian Muslims and ‘strike’ hard against Serb forces with US help) was met with strong opposition at home. Meanwhile, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the political lexicon.

Russia’s transition to liberal democracy was marked by a painful economic ‘shock therapy.’ Yeltsin handed over the job of replacing the Soviet command economy with a free market to the ‘Chicago boys’[2], disciples of Milton Friedman from the University of Chicago. As a result, by the end of 1993 ordinary Russians languished in poverty, state assets were sold off in corrupt privatisation auctions and Clinton was left to defend President Boris Yeltsin’s handling of the constitutional crisis that resulted in 187 deaths and a smoked out Russian parliament.

Gosh indeed. At least the Cold War offered some old certainties.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Only two years earlier, the Soviet Union was dissolved peacefully by the stroke of a pen on Christmas Day 1991, there were no shortages of explanations about what the post-Cold War world would look like. The sudden collapse of communism had left many American commentators upbeat.

US academic Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberal democracy. President George H.W. Bush announced a ‘New World Order’ at his State of the Union address in January 1991. Joseph Nye said that American power would take on a more benign tone in an era of ‘soft power.’ Perhaps many commentators in the United States took it for granted that American values were universal in nature.

But there were more cautious voices. Samuel P. Huntington warned of a clash of civilizations in which future conflict would revolve around eight civilizational blocs. In the high tide of American triumph, the eye-rolling was palpable.[3]

The period that began in 1991 on a note of optimism did not end that way. By 2011, the promise of a post-Cold War international order underpinned by the United Nations commitment to peace, prosperity and universal cooperation would fall way short of its promise.

But it wasn’t just in Europe and Africa where the United States would experience a painful transition to the post-Cold War world. The biggest challenges were to be found in the Middle East.

“… the mother of all battles has begun”

On 7 January 1991, Saddam Hussein took to the crackling airwaves of a Baghdad radio station to announce that “… the mother of all battles has begun.”[4] The hyperbole seemed laughable given that the Iraqi forces were hopelessly outnumbered by the US-led United Nations force facing its first international test in the ‘new world order.’

Five months earlier in August 1990, Iraq forces invaded and annexed their tiny oil-rich neighbour of Kuwait, to whom they also happened to owe $30 billion. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd requested United States military assistance fearing Iraqi aggression in the region and invited the Americans to base their military operations there.


Throughout the rest of 1990, the UN authorised the use of military force and gave Iraq a 15 January deadline to leave Kuwait. When the deadline passed, Operation Desert Storm commenced in the early hours of 17 January. It was followed by a ground invasion in late February and the quick defeat and expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The conflict is memorable for two images; the bombing of the retreating Iraqi military and the black plumes of smoke from oil fires started by those retreating forces. It was significant for a range of other reasons;


  • It was the first major post-Cold War international conflict and signalled the US intent to become more interventionist;
  • It started a decade long cat and mouse game between the US and Iraq over weapons programs and crippling economic sanctions;
  • The conflict sparked ethnic and religious conflict in Iraq, resulting in a brutal crackdown by Saddam of the Kurds (including the use of poison gas) and Shi-ites in the south.

But it was the continued military presence of the United States in Saudi Arabia – home to the holiest pilgrimage sites, Mecca and Medina – which caused controversy among strict fundamentalist Islamic groups, including Saudi national Osama bin Laden. It was this fact that Saddam Hussein’s words, viewed over the next 20 years, could claim to have a ring of prophecy about them. “… the mother of all battles has begun.”

The rise of militant Islam in the Middle East and other parts of the world was a growing worry throughout the 1990s. The Americans were targeted by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network for their Mid-East policies in Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and their support for Israel. He was responsible for a number of high-profile bombings against the United States.

On 7 August 1998, the coordinated bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya resulted in the deaths of over 200 people. On 12 October, al-Qaeda operatives blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole, a US warship stationed in Yemen. On both occasions, bin Laden cited American supported for Israel and its presence in Saudi Arabia as motives for the attack.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals, boarded four airliners at airports across New York. Their targets were high profile and symbolic; the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, probably headed for the White House.

Bin Laden claimed responsibility and so started the War on Terror, a wide ranging conflict in the Middle East that included the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the export of terror to major Western cities including London, Paris and Madrid and civil wars in Iraq and later Syria. It was characterised by extra-judicial acts like the establishment of Guantanamo Bay, orange jumpsuits, tit-for-tat atrocities -including beheadings of Western journalists – and political rhetoric that was reduced to ‘good versus evil.’

Of course, it was more complex than that. One of the most challenging aspects for US foreign policy makers has been understanding the complex cross-section of national, ethnic, tribal and religious loyalties that exist in the Middle East. Add to that the heady mix of dictatorships, undemocratic autocrat, ancient tribal loyalties, Western-imposed colonial borders and fundamentalist religious loyalties that cross borders.

In the aftermath of the Iraq war in March 2003, it was hard to tell who was friend and foe.

American foreign policy in the Middle East took a sharp turn after September 11, when it all but abandoned cooperation with the United Nations. Who can forget the conclusion of UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix that Iraq was not hiding weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq against the US insistence that Saddam was building a weapons program and was behind September 11?

“…the total failure of the human spirit.”  

The Changing World Order can be divided neatly into two periods. The period before September 11 when the thrust of American foreign policy included cooperation with the United Nations in promoting peace and prosperity in the world. After 9/11, it was characterised by a unilateral approach in its prosecution of the war on terror. The ‘Hawks’ instead of the ‘Doves’ seemed to have taken control of American foreign policy and the US seemed determined to take the fight up to its enemies rather than wait. This was the basic premise of The Project for the New American Century – a neoconservative foreign policy plan that must be understood in the context of what it viewed as drifting US foreign policy under Clinton rather than a blueprint for war in the Middle East.

The post-Cold War period promised so much in terms of international cooperation. But American foreign policy has had to deal with war, massacre and atrocities on a scale that equals that of any era before it.

The UK Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk is fond of saying that nearly every major conflict in the world can be traced back to the borders drawn up after World War I. Those borders are more contentious in the Middle East and southern Europe than just about anywhere else. And while politicians are like to paint black and white images of conflict around good versus evil, Fisk was more precise in his summation of the period. He wrote that war, “… represents the total failure of the human spirit.”[5]

Such was the post-Cold War world inherited by the Americans.









[1] ‘Clinton Reexamines a Foreign Policy Under Seige’ in The Washington Post, October 17 1993,

[2] Kelly, B. (2018) The World Order, Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, p.36ff

[3] For a summary of each of the views on American foreign policy in the post-Cold War period go to Kelly, B. (2018) The World Order, Cengage Learning, South Melbourne, p.58-64


[5] Fisk, Robert (2005) The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Collins, London, pg. xix.



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