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Adam Boulton: War in the Middle East has turned world order upside down, but there are signs all is not lost

In 1989 many of us thought it was all over, bar the shouting.

The Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall fell.

That summer, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his celebrated essay The End Of History? postulating: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

Israel-Gaza latest: War against Hamas in 'next stage'

With hindsight sharpened by the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October it turns out that the New World Order, "the Unipolar Moment", when the US dominated world politics and economics with no matching challenger was just that, a passing moment of delusion before competing forces and value systems exerted their pull.

President Joe Biden admitted as much last week, telling a campaign fundraiser in Washington DC: "We were in a post-war period for 50 years where it worked pretty damn well, but that's sort of run out of steam... It needs a new - a new world order in a sense, like that was a world order."

'Potential to escalate to a Third World War'

Niall Ferguson, another conservative historian working out of the Californian intellectual powerhouse of Stanford University, where Fukuyama is also now based, is offering a very different and terrifying analysis to his colleague.

"I have warned since January that a war in the Middle East might be the next crisis in a cascade of conflict that has the potential to escalate to a Third World War", he wrote in The Times last week.

That is an awful prospect.

If there was another global conflict, the most immediate issue is would "we" win?

The equally vital second question being asked by many other nations beyond "Western liberal democracy" is whether the system we have established is worth preserving.

Global conflict could develop from three challenges

Ferguson thinks a global conflict could develop from three challenges to the settlement established after the Second World War, and subsequently reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and so-called liberal interventionism.

Firstly, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an imperialistic abnegation of the rights of an independent nation state, particularly one which would like to join Western democratic institutions such as NATO and the European Union.

Secondly, Hamas and its sponsor Iran does not accept the right of Israel, the Jewish state established after the Holocaust, to exist.

They won't even name it, referring instead to "the Zionist entity" or the "Occupation".

Israel's allies are conflicted, urging restraint as the country exercises its "right to defend itself".

Those demanding a "ceasefire", seldom mention the rockets still being fired into Israel from Gaza and, currently to a lesser extent, by Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, envisioned as the global forum for dispute resolution, is in more turmoil than usual.

Israel has called for the resignation of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after he linked his unequivocal condemnation of the Hamas attacks to the observations that "they did not happen in a vacuum" and that "the Palestinian people have been subject to 56 years of suffocating occupation" (a reference to the 1967 six-day war when Israel occupied neighbouring territory after being attacked by a coalition of Arab states).

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A possible invasion of Taiwan by China could be Ferguson's third front triggering a global conflict.

President Xi Jinping has declared the intention of resolving China's territorial claim in this generation.

Russia, China and Iran exploiting fault lines in old world order

Russia and China are both recognised nuclear powers, while Iran, Israel, and North Korea - China's dependency - all possess capability, in spite of international restrictions.

Russia, China and Iran have not yet formed an axis against the West, but they are working together on an ad hoc basis to exploit fault lines in the old world order.

Iran and Russia are supplying China with gas and oil and in turn Iran are providing Russia with drones to use in the Ukraine War.

There are also suggestions that Russia is passing rockets captured in Ukraine on to Iran, who then arms Hezbollah.

Russia is propping up the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria, in the process securing a naval base on the Mediterranean.

New political alliances are being formed to counterbalance the dominance of the old order such as the G7 club of rich, industrialised democratic nations and the UN Security Council where the UK, US, France have permanent seats, along with Russia and China.

Both countries want to expand the BRICS group, ironically based on the initial letters of emerging economic powers first coined by a British banker, also including Brazil and India, but not Lord O'Neill insists, the "S" or struggling South Africa.

Xi and Putin have announced a "friendship without limits" between their own countries and are looking for friends elsewhere.

Putin was the guest of honour at the recent 10th anniversary celebrations of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI), which aims to extend China's influence into 150 countries by providing financing for infrastructure projects.

Other countries, including many with a history of colonisation by European powers, are cautiously exploring new alliances.

India, for example, which receives cheap energy from Russia, has not condemned the attack on Ukraine.

Democratic engine of New World Order in political crisis

Meanwhile, the United States, the democratic engine of the New World Order, is undergoing an existential political crisis.

The continued viability of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is destroying any hope of bipartisan leadership in Congress, let alone in the White House.

If he is re-elected Trump is planning to defund NATO, the bulwark defending Western nations.

The outlook is gloomy.

According to President Biden, "we are at an inflection point in history... decisions we make in the next four or five years are going to determine what the next four or five decades look like".

But, all is not lost yet

There are real signs that all is not yet lost.

It would be a mistake to believe that these global crises will inevitably result in the overthrow of the West.

Given the strong pro-Palestinian feelings of their citizens, Arab leaders across the Middle East from Egypt and Jordan to Saudi Arabia have little alternative but to weigh in verbally against Israel.

They are also wary of Shia, non-Arab Iran exploiting the situation to extend its influence across the Middle East.

But there is no indication that they want to escalate the conflict across the region or join in militarily themselves.

For all its political strife, the US economy is performing well while China's is slowing down.

China is less willing to make loans and, following difficulties over current projects, enthusiasm to take them up is waning.

In 2017, 29 world leaders attended the B&RI forum, 37 in 2019 but only 23 this year.

Russia's failure to conquer Ukraine is not providing inspiration for Xi to invade Taiwan.

Both Russia and China have been reluctant to be drawn politically into the Israel-Hamas conflict, given their multiple economic ties to the region and the hostility of both countries to Islamism.

Biden remains optimistic

In these dark days, many would be surprised by Biden's optimism that there is "a real opportunity to unite the world in a way it hasn't been in a long time".

If the present dangerous inflection point is to turn out positively, the upholders of the old order will need to show sensitivity to others but also self-respect for their own values.

After the fighting, Israel will have to make concessions towards a "two-state solution" with the Palestinians.

Then, according to Biden, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would like to follow gulf neighbours in normalising relations with Israel.

Enlightenment values of democracy, human rights and female emancipation have not yet been fully achieved in much of the world.

They are still the most attractive, otherwise there would not be so much attempted migration to the West.

We are not at the end of history, above all because it is still worth fighting for the old New World Order.