*TC LONDON -- The "new world order" opened literally with a bang a year ago today as U.S. laser-guided missiles struck the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the Persian Gulf war was on.
The words "new world order" -- first uttered publicly by President Bush four months earlier to a joint session of Congress -- unleashed a broad hope that has not been fulfilled.
The idea of a new world order was floated as Mr. Bush was enjoying widespread admiration for his skill in assembling a coalition of 28 states to expel the army of Iraq from Kuwait, which it had invaded Aug. 2, 1990.
It was greeted as something more than just another rhetorical flourish by a politician riding high. The phrase was utopian and Wilsonian. People were ready for it. The moment, in fact, was perfect.
The atmosphere in which it was uttered enhanced its chances. The atmosphere in this case was not that created by the international cooperation in response to Iraq's aggression, but the euphoria that attended the end of the Cold War.
There was more reason for optimism than at any moment since the end of the World War II. It was understood in most capitals that the new world order depended on U.S.-Soviet cooperation, and that is what the two superpowers seemed to be doing about Iraq after more than 40 years of working at cross purposes.
The United Nations was to be the link between the two, kind of an executor of the new world order. It was in the world body's name that the coalition was assembled, and U.N. esteem was at its peak.
Today, "new world order" fails to stir. The world is still a very dangerous place. The Soviet Union has fallen apart; its constituent parts, sovereign now, live uneasily together. The world worries about the disposition of their nuclear weapons and, worse, the possible emigration of Soviet nuclear scientists to ambitious Third World countries.
Ancient ethnic and nationalist rivalries flare again. Civil war has torn Yugoslavia and Georgia. Saddam Hussein is still in power in Iraq. No one seems to be able to do anything about all this.
What went wrong? Was Mr. Bush serious, or were those three words just stimulated by his gulf war high?
"It was undoubtedly true that George Bush was serious when he uttered the phrase 'new world order,' " said Dr. Gerry Segal of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. "But was there a program behind it? No."
"There were attempts to devise a program afterward. There was evidence of that at the G-7 summit [of the world's leading industrialized nations] in July, in the sense there was a coordinated policy toward helping the Soviet Union.
"The real change in attitude came with the failed coup in the Soviet Union in August. During the period between the $l revolutions [in Eastern Europe] in 1989 and August 1991, there was real reason for optimism. The enemy had been defeated. After that, [with the coup] we got the feeling, 'Oh, my God, what has been unleashed?' "
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Moscow-Washington axis upon which a new cooperative system international security was to turn was no longer there.
Moreover, the electoral season in the United States has diverted U.S. interest from international affairs.
To Mark Hoffman, a lecturer in international affairs at the London School of Economics, the new world order "was a nice phrase that for a variety of reasons came to nothing."
He, too, thinks Mr. Bush was serious when he uttered the phrase. But he, too, thinks it was launched without a context or any kind of program in mind.
Afterward, the effort to create a new system for managing world affairs was undermined by a number of developments, Mr. Hoffman said.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union was one. Another was the inconclusive ending to the gulf war and the need for protracted efforts against Saddam Hussein to protect the Kurds. The United States just wasn't up to any sustained commitments.
But paramount was the "degree to which problems of domestic policy forced the United States to become more inward-looking."
To David Calleo, the gulf war "was more of a last hurrah for the old way of looking at the American place in the world rather than the beginning of a new world order."
"The whole tone of the thing was too much as if we were back in 1945, when we hoped to have an 'American Century,' only to discover there was another superpower in the world with different ideas," said Dr. Calleo, Dean Acheson professor and director of European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He was reached in Paris.
It was a mistake, Dr. Calleo said, "to think we can go back to this notion that the U.S. can lead the world to the light. The situation is different today. There is a more plural distribution of power."
The fading of hope for a genuine new world order has not caused any really jarring disillusionment in the world, not because people were not eager to embrace its premise -- they were -- but perhaps the expectations for it were not so great, nothing for instance like the hope invested in the League of Nations, offered amid the carnage of World War I by another American President, Woodrow Wilson, that also came to a whimpering end.
People possibly are more knowing these days and realize that it failed to come about because the whole idea of a flawless system that would protect all states, large and small, ethnic groups and nationalisms, from predators such as Saddam Hussein would take more energy and political incorruptibility than the world was ready to give.
Maybe another reason for the absence of any manifest disillusionment is that any objective assessment of the world must lead to the conclusion it is still a better place than it was when the United States and the Soviet Union were adversaries.
Saddam Hussein's blitzkrieg invasion of Kuwait was a classic of its kind. Maybe George Bush really believed that by marshaling so many nations to reverse it, he would be ushering the world into the vestibule of the future, showing how things could be done in a new way.
This kind of gargantuan optimism also has been seen before. Wilson had it, and many before and after him. It rarely justifies itself. The new world order, whatever it will be like, has yet to reveal itself.