Washington, D.C. (Special to Informed Comment) – According to some analyses, the ongoing war in Ukraine appears to have finally put to rest the illusion of global governance. Instead, it illustrates the emergence of what Libya expert Jason Pack calls the Enduring Global Disorder. In Pack’s view, irrespective of Russian victory, the international response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has deepened an international system in which an absence of a global hegemon and an inability of nation states to coordinate responses to global crises are the defining features.
The parallels between Ukraine and Libya are worth consideration. In Libya and the Enduring Global Disorder (Hurst 2021), Pack argues that Libya is a microcosm of the global system that is replacing that of American hegemony that followed the end of the Cold War.
In this system, global coordination failures perpetuate today’s international threats: climate change, cybersecurity, global pandemics, etc. Institutions such as the United Nations, which are premised on the assumption that nation states can and will work together to monitor, contain, and overcome these problems, break down when member states have conflicting interests. For example, countries have failed to work together against the international jihadist threat because states like Putin’s Russia benefit from such threats, which give license to strongmen to rule with an iron fist. Their engagement in places like Libya has created the conditions for extremism to thrive.
The conflict taking place in Libya since the uprisings in 2011, which overthrew the 42-year-dictatorship of Muammar Qadhafi, has fueled and been fueled by these global coordination failures. At the start of the uprisings, Western and Arab nations sought to work together to intervene on behalf of the Qadhafi’s opponents but fell victim to competing agendas. This left the rebels unable to overcome the legacies of Qadhafi even after he was removed. Since then, foreign companies have engaged in major building and reconstruction contracts with the Libyan government often without being paid and created a situation in which Libya’s massive indebtedness only further sucks its creditors into the country’s internal chaos. Western actors, including the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, have also spent years pouring donor money into Libya – already wealthy — with minimal results in restoring order.
According to Pack, Russia thrives on conflicts such as the one in Libya. Moscow sees such chaos as the best way to further its interests. Russian activity in Libya, where it has supported strongman Khalifa Haftar and sowed divisions by helping Qadhafi’s son mount an election campaign, have helped prevent a smooth transition to a new government. Putin’s goal is not to support one side in Libya’s conflict over the other, but to promote disorder so that his international adversaries expend resources while he can stay in power.
In Ukraine, Russia is using force to bring the country under its control. Russia has couched its aggression in the language of international law though outside of Russia most world leaders see its actions as a violation of international law. The United Nations – the mechanism through which international law is codified and theoretically enforced – has shown itself powerless to stop the current violence. The UN Security Council, which is normally mandated to respond to violence, cannot act because Russia holds a veto-wielding permanent seat. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on 2 March calling for Russia to withdraw, but this only underscores what Russia has achieved: reducing the capabilities of the predominant mechanism for global security to nothing more than shaming.
The international economic response to Russian action in Ukraine also illustrates Pack’s Enduring Global Disorder at work. Designing international sanctions requires weighing benefits (punishment or threat of a rogue country) against costs (harm to one’s own abilities to import and operate in the global financial system). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced countries in the West to choose between bearing the costs of isolating Russia and allowing it to continue acting in Ukraine relatively unimpeded. The fact that the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has imposed heavy economic costs not only in Russia but around the globe highlights the glaring absence of an effective international coordination mechanism for preventing and containing such destabilizing attacks.
Restrictions on NATO members in the Ukraine war and in Libya also stem from the enduring disorder. NATO – once meant to contain aggression and reduce the risk of war among allied countries – appears to no longer be fit for purpose. Were it not for Russia threatening to unleash its nuclear power, NATO countries would have most likely tried to coordinate a military response to the invasion. NATO’s decline in power has also been on display in Libya where, for example, tensions arose among NATO members over how to respond to Libya’s internal divisions that began in 2014 and over rights to exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean off Libya’s coast.
Finally, Pack argues that countries such as Russia benefit from instability in Libya because it exacerbates migration flows into Europe, which in turn drive right-wing movements into power. This has been the case in Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Poland, and helped bring about the Brexit vote in the UK. Similarly in Ukraine, irrespective of a Russian military victory, the massive migration flows its invasion has sparked mean that Moscow has already scored points. In addition to the resources these flows will cost the West in the short term, they will likely continue to destabilize European politics internally for some time.
The Enduring Global Disorder, in which competition and conflict among state and non-state actors fill the void left by a retreating United States, has perpetuated the conflict in Libya and has helped create the crisis in Ukraine. By revealing the limits of the UN to uphold global governance, wreaking havoc in the international economy, and triggering a migration crisis, Russia has managed to deepen this disorder, and it will benefit regardless of the military outcome in Ukraine and the struggle for a unified Libya.