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In Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder (Oxford University Press, 2022), Libya expert and businessman Jason Pack argues that the era of post-Cold War American hegemony is being replaced by a system in which persistent global coordination failures perpetuate civil wars. In this system, major international players, rather than rushing to fill the vacuum left by the retreating United States, eschew America’s avowed role as a global stabilizer. The major states in the European Union have to struggle with their own internal divisions, while Russia and China assert their own power through tactics such as disinformation campaigns or the invasion of other countries, which are deliberately destabilizing. 

Pack uses the conflict in Libya as a microcosm for understanding global disorder, but asserts that the conflicts in Venezuela, Yemen, Syria, and eastern Ukraine could provide additional examples for his general argument. The danger of global disorder, according to Pack, includes more than festering civil wars; even more threatening is a growing global inability to respond proactively, through global governance, to face such global threats as climate change, terrorism, and cybercrime.

For Pack, this “Global Enduring Disorder” is self-reinforcing because the chaos it creates makes it more difficult for order to be restored. 

Pack’s views depart from those of Council on Foreign Relations President and former advisor to President George H. W. Bush Richard Haass, who also writes of “a world in disarray” but believes the United States must live up to its role as “the country with the greatest capacity and potential” to bring the international system back on course. 

Pack, by contrast, foresees no return to order and envisions this depressing situation as likely to continue into the medium term. 

Pack is in some ways an unconventional academic. After completing a Master’s at St. Antony’s College at Oxford and a Fulbright Scholarship in Syria, he interrupted his history PhD at Cambridge to assist Western businesses in re-entering Libya as the country emerged from decades of “pariah” status. Pack has since used his Libya expertise to advise both private and government clients and publish in various forums. His ideas about the “Global Enduring Disorder” are drawn from these experiences.

The book is a compilation of excerpts from Pack’s previous think-tank scholarship, organized into a discussion of five “dynamics.” These include a chapter each on the rise of autonomous militias; the rise of extremist movements such as ISIS in ungoverned spaces; the role of disinformation campaigns; and two chapters on the Libyan economy. Pack investigates each subject in the Libyan context, then draws lessons for application elsewhere. 

The book’s unique angle on Libya’s woes adds a great deal to the limited scholarship on that notoriously byzantine country and its travails since the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi in 2011. 

At the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given fresh evidence that Pack is right about the growing danger of global disorder. In the immediate weeks following Russia’s push toward Kyiv, Western countries were forced to choose between imposing sanctions that would hurt their own economies and letting Russia’s actions continue unimpeded. Meanwhile, Russia’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council prevented the body, which is mandated to respond to international violence, from taking action. Although the UN General Assembly in early March overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Russia’s actions and calling for it to withdraw, in subsequent votes it showed much less unity. In April only 93 members voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, with 24 voting against and 58 abstaining. 

Beyond the impotence of the UN, the war has raised frightening possibilities about what lies ahead. Some have invoked fascism—an oft-used term left largely undefined, but to which scholars generally ascribe a set of ideas based on using murderous violence to cleanse and restore a past age of imperial greatness. Others point to the rapid return of a nuclear arms race in the wake of the United States’s withdrawal from most of the arms control treaties negotiated between them and Russia. As Russia now threatens to unleash its nuclear might, other powers including China, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are rearming themselves against their respective enemies. Experts may debate the likelihood of an actual nuclear attack, whether in Ukraine or against Taiwan or South Korea, but this almost anarchic situation is exactly the type of scenario Pack warns of.

The war in Ukraine is not the only evidence of global disorder. Like that war, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the inability of nation-states to cooperate against global threats. Meanwhile, conflicts in places like Syria look no closer to being resolved (fortunately, the truce reached in April between warring parties in Yemen continues—precariously—to hold). 

As Pack makes clear, the presidency of Donald Trump was merely a symptom of the deep-rooted and systemic dynamics he describes, and its replacement by the Biden administration is doing little to reverse these trends. The chaos created by the United States’s retreat from Afghanistan in summer 2021 also serves as evidence that the decline of American hegemony is linked to a rise in global disorder.

Despite its length, Pack’s book leaves certain questions about the “Global Enduring Disorder” unexplored. 

For example, Pack directly takes on realist international relations (IR) theorists by asserting that the global system will not automatically rebalance itself in the wake of America’s retreat. Although Pack does not directly discuss liberal IR theories, he places partial blame on the roles played by the post-war institutions meant to preserve global stability—the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the UN—as well as other institutions claiming to promote multilateralism and cooperation such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU. 

Pack suggests that such institutions are unable to respond to crises like the one in Libya because of member states’ conflicting interests. He even demonstrates how the adoption of Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, based on the notion of “Responsibility to Protect” and authorizing sanctions, an arms embargo, and a no-fly zone to protect civilians against Qadhafi’s forces in 2011, far from acting as a triumph of multilateralism, launched a series of coordination failures among various actors and helped lay the ground for chaos in Libya. 

Pack is not alone in his critique of these institutions, nor in his insistence that the international system is at present incapable of dealing with non-state, transnational challenges. 

Liberal theorists such as John Ikenberry, Miles Kahler, and Martha Finnemore with Duncan B. Hollis have examined the proliferation of cross-border challenges such as cybersecurity, climate change, international finance, as well as the rise of nationalist-populist movements, and concluded that multilateral coordination is in higher demand than ever before. For these scholars, the multiplicity of actors and contexts involved in today’s global problems are being met with a multitude of responses—new technologies, new legal and non-legal (“soft law” or international norms) frameworks, and potentially other means yet to be discovered.

Pack’s own conclusion is no more reassuring: 

The disorder looks set to endure. Unless of course humans do what they have done periodically in the past: surprise everyone with radically new ideas and organizational principles. . .

As wild as it may sound, global governance might become a rallying cry of the people and mainstream politicians, rather than the curse word of right-wing conspiratorialists. To deal with global warming, a global demos might demand a curtailing of individual freedoms to enforce demographic and consumptive limits set by international institutions. Or slightly more probable, the leaderships of certain major Northern hemisphere states could simply enter into a new form of strategic alliance—this time not constructed against a rival political bloc like NATO was but against various problems of the commons such as climate change, deepfakes, ungoverned space, genetic engineering, demographic challenges, monopolistic corporate giants, and cyber criminals.

Although Pack presents his views as a challenge to existing IR theories, it is not clear what his ideas mean for what lies ahead. Is what Pack describes as “enduring” and “self-perpetuating” a truly novel perspective on how international relations work? Or is the world merely undergoing a painful period of transition from one international order to another, most likely one based on an essentially liberal vision of global cooperation and interdependence? 

Pack also rejects the “China rising” thesis, arguing that Beijing is “largely absent from coordinating consensus solutions for nearly all the most important questions that cry out for global collective action.” He sees Beijing’s stymying of the World Health Organization’s investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic as evidence that China may even be seeking to deepen disorder in the West, in order to build “an ordered East Asian region, surrounded by various forms of global disorder from which they can benefit.” 

But does China really benefit from global instability, as Pack proposes? Pack does not mention the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s main channel for spreading influence. Does the BRI really gain from instability in Mali and the Central African Republic or even fragmentation among EU member states or within individual European democracies? Alternative propositions by other experts, such as that China is increasingly driving an international model of national self-sufficiency or an ethno-nationalist conception of national interests, seem a somewhat better fit with the current facts.

These questions aside, Libya and the Enduring Global Disorder adds to the growing chorus of informed voices warning of the need for some kind of corrective action at the global level— whether new American leadership, reformed international institutions, or something else.

Dr. Sabina Henneberg is a professional lecturer at the School of International Service at American University and the author of Managing Transition: The First Post-Uprising Phase in Tunisia and Libya (Cambridge University Press).