What's So New About the New World Order?

A feminist perspective

By Sandra Whitworth | 1991-05-01 12:00:00

A Feminist Perspective

By Sandra Whitworth

FEMINISTS share a conviction that international relations are as much about population control policies as they are about nuclear deterrence; as much about sex trade workers serving foreign military bases as about the arms trade; as much about foreign domestic servants as about international crisis management; and as much about sex-specific international labour legislation as about the foreign policies of "great" powers.[1] In short, feminists claim that international relations are about what affects the lives of women throughout the world, which, because of the primacy given to "high politics," go largely unnoticed.

The "'New World Order" has been ushered in as a re-statement of the centrality and expediency of military violence in resolving international conflicts. As riveting as the Cold War may have been, even superpower posturing did not capture our imagination like the real thing, and Desert Storm gave us precisely that. Real wars are exciting, frightening, and for some, even beautiful. One U.S. fighter pilot described Baghdad on the first night of that aerial bombardment as "lit up like a Christmas tree." We can be impressed by the logic of the strategic game and horrified by the deaths of hundreds of innocent lives, all in one thirty minute news broadcast.

Wars are important. Only in war do we see clearly the tools of violence available to the state. Desert Storm illustrated what a 'monopoly of force' really means. Of course, the marginalized, the dissenters, the minorities have long understood this. But the violence used to silence these groups is exercised quietly and covertly. During the Gulf War, by contrast, the overwhelming power of the state showed itself in our living rooms every evening.

It is the power and violence of the Gulf War that has created this "new" world order. The ability of international organizations to promote peace, if not altogether discredited, has been severely disabled. The new world order arrives with phrases like precision bombing, Patriot missiles, collateral damage, offensive military capability, and pre-emptive strike. It comes with a whole ensemble of expert analysts who use these words with ease, as they do the entire world view associated with them, that of realism or realpolitik

The language and form of analysis associated with realism suits the drama of war well. Its simple precepts-that states seek to enhance their power in the anarchic international system

permit us to develop expectations about how state leaders will and should act in situations of conflict. Realists never doubted that the U.N. was unable to promote peace and cooperation in any lasting sense; the anarchic nature of the system precluded that. And while realists may disagree amongst themselves about different phases of the conflict, basic principles of realism were confirmed by the events of August 2nd to February 27th-for realism is never more salient and more compelling than during war.

All of the ways in which feminist concerns have been rendered invisible in the past thus remain unchallenged. The Gulf War, and the analyses made of it, re-tell a familiar story: the most important elements of international relations revolve around the activities of states, diplomats and generals. By this view, international relations are gender neutral. It is this attitude which may make feminist struggle even more problematic in the new world order. Realists never claimed intentionally to promote the sexism which is inherent in their analysis. Rather, we are told, they seek to describe the world "as it really is." It is not the categories. of realism that are sexist, but the world they seek to describe.[2] It is not that relations of domination between women and men do not exist, but that they do not exist in the relations between states. The new world order embodies these myths as much as the old, and having been created out of the ultimate confirmation of realist precepts, these myths will be all the more difficult to shake.

This setback affects all of us. The feminist project is not simply to add our questions to international relations discourse, but by doing so to transform its agenda. The realist disposition toward international relations always justifies the resort to force witnessed in the Gulf War and other conflicts like it. By this view, states will, and must, seek to preserve themselves in the anarchy of international relations. As such, international relations will always be prone to the violence from which our "new" world order has been created. For realists, one need only look at the world as it "really is" to acknowledge the accuracy, and perhaps tragedy, of these claims.

But as feminists argue, nothing is natural-everything has been created and must be maintained.[3] This is as true of the vision of international relations handed to us by realists as it is of relations of inequality between women and men. Only when we understand that international relations is about much more than states, power and anarchy might we break out of this vicious circle. Only when legitimacy is ac-corded to the issues raised by feminists and other critics, may the resort to force finally become illegitimate.

Sandra Whitworth is with the Dept. of Political Science at York University.


1 For an excellent and very readable feminist analysis of international relations, see Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, (London. Pandora Press, 1989). See also Sandra Whitworth, Gender in the IPPF and the ILO: A Feminist Analysis of International Relations, Ph.D Dissertation, Carelton University, Ottawa, Ontario, June 1991. It should be obvious that the issues raised here are as much concerned with racism as sexism. Indeed, feminists are part of a larger project including many groups critical to the mainstream of international relations.

2. See also Cynthia Enloe :"Tie a yellow ribbon 'Round the New World Order," Village Voice Feb. 19, 1991, p 37.

3 Thom Workman, "The Dilemmas of war: Iraqi Aggression and the International Response, "Middle East Focus, 13(i), Spring 1991.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1991, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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