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August 2, 1990– A day the world changed

Twenty-years ago– on August 2, 1990– Iraq invaded Kuwait.  Undoubtedly, Saddam Hussein expected nothing more than a desultory, toothless response from the international community– especially the United Nations. Such had been the case since the founding of the Organization in 1945. With the exception of its response to North Korean’s invasion of the South in 1950, the United Nations had been powerless to counter the many overt acts of aggression that had occurred since the end of World War II. But this time would be different. With the Cold War over, the constellation of power was very different in the international system.  And so, on the 2nd of August, the Security Council adopted Resolution 660 condemning the invasion and demanding that “Iraq withdraw immediately and unconditionally” from Kuwait. A few days later, on August 6, the Council adopted Resolution 661, imposing sweeping diplomatic and economic sanctions on Iraq. As tensions increased throughout the Summer and Fall, the United States played a remarkable role in creating a true international coalition against Iraq.

James Baker (center) and Thomas Pickering (right) at the UN in November, 1990

Baker (center) and Pickering (right) at the UN

In one of the most brilliant examples of multilateral diplomacy– led by President George Herbert Walker Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, and UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering– the United States worked through the United Nations to secure the adoption of Resolution 678, which authorized the use of military force if Iraq were not out of Kuwait by January 15, 1991.

Those were heady times. Iraq was quickly ejected from Kuwait, and with a successful Gulf War under its belt, the United Nations seemed reborn. Finally, it would be able to fulfill the mission of its founders. People began to speak of the emergence of a “New World Order”– a more peaceful, orderly, and just international system in which multilateral diplomacy would be the order of the day.

Of course, we know what came next: Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica. And before too long– the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq War. Today, the hope of a New World Order seems but a distant memory.

But in the days following August 2nd, 1990, for a brief moment in time, the world seemed different. And so it was.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.