After the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi forces on 25 February 1991, former and late US president George H W Bush co-authored a book with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, titled A World Transformed.
The theme of the book was that a new world order was in creation that broke with the Cold War, a world order that would be shaped and governed by the new hyper superpower, the United States, backed by its traditional Western allies and regional partners in various parts of the world.
The Middle East was one of these regions where American might and influence would be greatly felt. Gone were the Cold War days when the former Soviet Union competed for influence in the Middle East with the United States.
The military campaign that emancipated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation was the prelude to almost two decades and a half of American hegemony in the Middle East and elsewhere.
American power was uncontested and the swift liberation of Kuwait was interpreted, some would argue wrongly, as meaning that America’s might had no limits. After all, the Soviet Union had fallen and was dismembered.
Eastern Europe, that had been under Soviet domination before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, became free of communist rule. China, on the other hand, had not reached the power and influence that it currently wields on the world stage.
Not only was American military might unchallenged, but also the capitalist system itself was triumphant everywhere in the world after the collapse of communist rule in Moscow and all other capitals that had been ruled by communist parties in Eastern Europe.
The stage was set for the universal adoption of capitalism as the only viable option for economic prosperity. Add to this mix of unparallelled military power and the lure of capitalism the growing appeal of democracy, Western style, to be copied in authoritarian systems.
The “world transformed” was one of certainties and absolutes.
The Middle East has been one of the geographic regions that most felt the weight of these certainties. There were developments that promised that the new world order would finally work hard to find permanent solutions to intractable historic conflicts like the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem as well.
A case in point was the Madrid Peace Conference of October 1991, convened by Washington and Moscow and attended by a number of Arab states. The Palestinians were also represented in a joint delegation with the Jordanians.
Peace between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis had never appeared to be closer to hand. However, the Arabs had not realised, at the time, that there was a hidden agenda behind the grand affair; namely, the integration of Israel in the Middle Eastern system without linking such integration to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967.
In other words, regional normalisation with Israel prior to Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in June 1967.
Arab trust in American intentions was quite high at the time. This trust was the momentum that kept negotiations running and gave an indirect boost to secret talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis in 1993 that ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House 13 September 1993.
The signing ceremony will always be remembered for the historic handshake between two sworn enemies of the past — chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and late Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin.
One year later, the Jordanians and the Israelis signed a peace treaty in October 1994. Ever since, peace has proven to be elusive as ever. In A World Transformed, peace seemed to be at hand because of the trust the Arab side put in American diplomacy and America’s capacity to bring Israel to negotiate an ultimate peace deal with the Arabs and the Palestinians. However, this new world order was not static.
By the beginning of the third millennia, Russia became more assertive, particularly after Vladimir Putin became its president. China also grew more powerful and more confident as an emerging super power. Both Moscow and Beijing took the American debacle in Iraq of 2003 as a warning.
The two powers began ambitious weapons modernisation programmes, in both conventional and nuclear armaments. Last Thursday, President Putin talked about using nuclear weapons, reminding everyone of the showdown between the United States and the former Soviet Union in the Cuban Crisis in 1962.
He pointed out that Russia has succeeded in developing a supersonic missile with a speed nine times greater than the speed of sound. As for China, its military strength today bears no comparison to its limited military capabilities at the end of last century.
On the other hand, the “new world order” gave rise to non-state actors in the form of transnational terrorist groups that are bent on replacing the nation-state, especially in Arab and Muslim countries and anywhere there is a Muslim majority, by religious entities that do not recognise existing geographic boundaries, nor do they abide by international law.
These groups are challenging the world order like never before. Fragile states in the Third World are not in a position to deal with such existential threats on their own.
A case in point, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from 2013 till today, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only do these groups repudiate the international order, they also question the legitimacy of Arab and Muslim governments.
Their threat to the established order is made more ominous and dangerous by the fact that some international and regional powers use them as an instrument of their foreign policies for the sake of coercing rival and enemy powers.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East. The so-called Islamic State could never have been able to control Syrian and Iraqi territories the size of Great Britain without the help, direct or indirect, of some governments.
If the past new world order held the promise of peace in the Holy Land and in the Middle East for a brief moment, the world today is almost the complete opposite. Prospects of peace are currently non-existent.
Similarly, the chances of implementing the two-state solution, a viable Palestinian state side-by-side a secure Israel, seem a faraway dream. Israel, under successive extreme right governments, has made sure to put the world before a fait accompli of annexing the West Bank. Some observers think it is only a question of when.
Lately, the world has seen the convening of three simultaneous summits and conferences to deal with the explosive situation in the Middle East and North Africa.
In chronological order, the American-sponsored Warsaw Ministerial on the future of security and peace in the Middle East on 13-14 February; the Sochi Summit that brought together Russia, Turkey and Iran on 14 February; and the first Arab-European Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on 24-25 February.
If there is a common denominator among the three, it is undoubtedly the search for peace and security in the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
It is a tall order, but the fact of the matter is that under present conditions it will not be a surprise if peace and security will elude the governments that participated in the three conferences.
The last seven years have formed a demarcation line between the “new world order” of the last decade of the 20th century and a world transformed without certainties today. In these hard times, the international system is looking for moorings.
Alliances have been weakened, loyalties have become blurred, national interests of international and regional powers are hard to define, there is an absence of leadership in the international system, the globalisation process is being questioned, a lack of consensus exists on the shape of the world order that would serve the interests of all nations, and last but not least, the radicalisation of Islam and use as source of legitimacy as well as a political instrument.
The necessary alternative is a world order that would rest on a certain strategic equilibrium among the super powers, an equilibrium that would encourage them to cooperate while respecting the red lines that each one of these powers deems necessary for defending their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
It goes without saying that the Trumpian motto of “Make America Great Again,” while reinventing the quest for American hegemony that was inherent to A World Transformed, comes as a direct challenge to reaching such a strategic equilibrium that would serve international peace and security.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.