The Long-Established Foundation of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order”

by Samantha A. Taylor, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo courtesy of the White House.

Last week, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at the age of 94. He was the last president of the Cold War and the first of the post-Cold War era, and his “New World Order” was the foundation upon which his successors built their foreign policies. Yet, Bush’s worldview was not entirely new. It revived many of Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about a liberal world order that the U.S. had a moral obligation to lead. Embedded in both Wilson and Bush’s international visions were ideas that originated in the Enlightenment and inspired the founders of the U.S. – self-determination, the social contract between citizens and their government, and republicanism. Between 1989 and 1993, Bush attempted to establish a liberal world order that would promote global stability and peace. For much of his presidency, Bush proceeded cautiously and optimistically. However, the chaotic nature of the post-Cold War world regularly threatened his efforts.

Bush entered the presidency with an extensive understanding of U.S. foreign policy and global position built upon his previous experience in federal service. Beginning with his career as a naval aviator during World War II, Bush developed an understanding of the world through his position as a Congressman, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and vice president to Ronald Reagan. As president, Bush drew on those experiences as he crafted his responses to the collapsing Soviet Union, transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe, and the evolution of Cold War-era international institutions to address the issues of the post-Cold War world. As he wrote in his 1990 National Security Strategy:

Today, after four decades, the international landscape is marked by change that is breath-taking in its character, dimension, and pace. The familiar moorings of postwar security policy are being loosened by developments that were barely imagined years or even months ago. Yet our goals and interests remain constant. And, as we look toward—and hope for—a better tomorrow, we must also look to those elements of our past policy that have played a major role in bringing us to where we are today. It is our steadfastness over four decades that has brought us to this moment of historic opportunity. We will not let that opportunity pass, nor will we shrink from the challenges created by new conditions…This Report outlines the direction we will take to protect the legacy of the postwar era while enabling the United States to help shape a new era, one that moves beyond containment and that will take us into the next century.[1]

Although the alleged Communist threat that had given purpose to U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War was gone, the interests that had needed protection during that era did not change. In his strategy, Bush outlined four broad U.S. interests: the survival of the United States as a free and independent nation; a healthy and growing economy; a stable and secure world order that fostered democracy, political freedom, and human rights; and vigorous healthy and cooperative relations with allies and friendly nations. As Bush crafted his new world order, he relied on ideas and values that long had given the U.S. an international mission and determined its interests.[2]

The first significant test of Bush’s new world order occurred in Middle East. As Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi troops into Kuwait, Bush argued that failing to push back Iraqi aggression would establish a precedent for the post-Cold War period indicating that aggression was acceptable in the new era.[3]Although Bush’s collective security solution to the Persian Gulf crisis was at least temporarily successful, he faced difficulties replicating it in response to subsequent crises in Yugoslavia and Somalia. Despite its record of mixed results, Bush introduced the liberal international order to the post-Cold War world, emphasizing collective security, the use of international institutions for conflict resolution, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Liberal internationalism informed the worldviews of Bush’s successors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, just as it had shaped the foreign policy strategies of several of Bush’s predecessors. Although President George H. W. Bush presided over the transition from the Cold War to a new world order, the ideas that influenced his international strategy had been central to America’s understanding of itself and the world since the nation’s founding.

Dr. Samantha A. Taylor received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she was a Dale Center doctoral fellow. She is currently a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College teaching national security and finishing her first book, an examination of American military and diplomatic strategy in the first decade after the Cold War.

[1]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States 1990, Preface, June 10, 2015).

[2]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1990, 2-3. George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1991, 3-4, June 11, 2015).

[3]Memorandum “The New World Order: An analysis and document collection, n.d.” folder Dyke, Nancy Beard Files OAID CF01473-012 “New World Order National Security Council George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
This entry was posted in diplomacy, Foreign policy, George H.W. Bush, international relations, national security strategy, Post-Cold War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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