It’s a no-brainer to suggest that we live in an increasingly polarised world. Geopolitics are polarised, so are societies. Polarisation marks the transition from a unipolar world dominated by the United States to a bipolar world with China, or more likely a tripolar world that includes India, in which middle powers assert themselves more forcibly.
The polarisation is fuelled by populism and civilizationalism, led by men with little regard for international law or rules of the game that would limit their freedom of action. To be fair, adherents of the rule of law also ignore international law when convenient. The result is a breakdown in conflict prevention mechanisms; the US toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, despite foreseeable disastrous consequences; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and rising racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and distrust and hostility towards the other as it manifests itself in anti-migrant sentiment.
Polarisation is also driven by a clash between liberal and conservative values in which both sides attempt to impose their definitions of all kinds of rights. Jason Pack, a Middle East expert focused on Libya, argues the coherent management of the world order has been replaced by what he calls the Global Enduring Disorder. Jason, who is a senior analyst for emerging challenges at the NATO college in Rome, and the author of ‘Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder’ published in 2021 by Oxford University Press, suggests that conventional geopolitical theories fail to explain a world in which many states no longer rationally pursue their long-term interests. Excerpts from the conversation with Jason Pack.
JD: Define for us what you mean with a global enduring disorder. The implication is that great power rivalry is not about creating a new world order, but about permanent disorder and unbridled competition. Is that what you envision?
Jason Pack: Not exactly, but you hit on some important points. If I could push back against some traditional views that you might’ve referenced, I do not think that we’re moving from an American-led hegemony to a bipolar struggle or cold war with China. Nor do I think we’re moving towards multipolarity with Europe regulating its area and the Indians trying to have a sphere of influence. Those are all things that are envisioned classical IR theory. I see us moving into a different kind of world which is not envisioned by classical international relations theory at all. What I see is major world powers no longer trying to order the globe nor competing with other powers for spheres of influence. Rather, if you look at the US under Trump, Brexit-oriented Britain, Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, a Bolsonaro Brazil, or a post-Bolsonaro, Brazil, Orban’s Hungary, you see many different leaders who are not concerned at maximising their interests nor concerned in ordering the globe or even their near abroad.
I think it’s important to make a contrast between the conflict with the Soviets and the conflict with Putin. So, when we in the West had a conflict with the Soviets, Stalin, or Khrushchev, they had a fully formed ideological and economic system. They want to export it to Cuba. They’d like to win in some conflicts in Africa and export their system, and it has an economic logic. It has books and texts like Lenin and Marx, and then commentaries on them. That’s a struggle between two different camps who want to order the world in different ways. A Western capitalist, hegemonic, neoliberal, American-led world order and a Soviet Marxist authoritarian one, and you can read the books and subscribe to their economic system. Right now, there are no books about a Putin-led world order. He doesn’t want to win in Ukraine to give them a certain economic vision or that they’re going to read Tolstoy and go back to an ordered czarist empire.
He’s exporting disorder. It’s not a system, and I think that that’s critical. Putin wins by destabilising our elections and destabilising our societies and stirring up racial tension by problematizing Black Lives Matter or having vaccine conspiracies. He’s not exporting a world vision or world order. And I see Trump quite similarly and many other actors, some such as international corporations. Facebook wins by selling ads and YouTube and Twitter polarise us. They’re not exporting a world order, and this Global Enduring Disorder concept gets at the fact that this may be a novel way of looking at global affairs, of many nodes who are not competing for order, they’re competing to disorder the world.
JD: In effect, you’re describing a world without global leadership. The question is how much of this is also a world encountering the limitations of the nation-state in confronting global challenges and that at the same time is challenged by leaders who think in civilizational rather than national terms.
Jason Pack: I think that’s a part of it. The nation-state was able to handle most problems that arose until the pre-World War I era because you didn’t have massive financial flows and the world was on the gold standard. We didn’t have to have international monetary policy and there was no such thing as tax havens. Really, the line of change, of course was in the distant future. So, today’s problems are all global. The Chinese emit a lot of pollution, and it affects someone in Iceland, and Russian oligarchs take money out of their own country and they put it in the Cayman Islands, and then the corruption creates jobs in the city of London and influences British politics. We live in a global world where the tech algorithms and the flows of money cannot be solved by the nation-state, and that is 100% a part of the global enduring disorder.
JD: And to what degree is the global disorder or the enduring disorder fuelled by the lack of attractive governance models? Democracy is in crisis. Western powers are hampered by hypocrisy and double standards and marred by efforts to impose their values. China is faltering and is primarily an economic and trade partner, and Putin’s Russia has few, if any, saving graces.
Jason Pack: That’s a key part of why western democratic popular votes go for what I call anti-politics. People didn’t really want what Trump was offering. They just weren’t angry and wanted to vote against someone they perceived as the global elite. A lot of Brexit voters didn’t actually think that Brexit would make Britain richer or better, but they were like, screw the Tories, screw David Cameron. So yes, anti-politics is the product of the fact that we in the western liberal democratic elites have not made a great case for how our visions are going to help everyone, and I think that we should take responsibility for that, and we need better communicators.
What is quite tragic is that Obama as great a communicator as he was, as appealing as he was to populations in the global south and in the Muslim world, he didn’t actually succeed at making the lives of African-Americans or the underclass in America any better, and he didn’t assuage the fissures between the West and the non-West. So, we had a chance for a great communicator, and he achieved very little. So yes, there is a kind of idea deficit for how to connect to people. Why would you want to make a sacrifice to help spread democracy? I don’t think that many voters in America and Britain really know why they would want that. (IPA Service)
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