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On Libya, the Contours of the Emerging International Semi-Order

Three weeks ago, my friend and colleague Salman Shaikh wrote a perceptive piece on Foreign Policy.com outlining the test that Libya constituted for the “new international disorder.” Actually, Libya wasn’t the first such test. Since the global financial crisis revealed the extent of the influence of the rising powers, there have been three “first tests” of the evolving international order: the financial crisis itself; the push for tough sanctions on Iran; and Libya. The actions of the UN and the Arab League to date on Libya tell us a lot about the shape of the emerging international semi-order – and what still needs to be done.

By any credible historical standard, the international system’s actions to date on Libya have been swift and encompassing. On 26 February the Security Council adopted Resolution 1970 imposing an arms embargo and wide-ranging sanctions and referring Libya to the International Criminal Court. This happened with unprecedented speed. That being said, anything less would have been limp; after all, this is Qaddafi we’re talking about, a loathed leader whose psychotic actions alienated more people than his oil money bought. More impressive was the fact that the UN Security Council invoked the principle of the responsibility to protect. Since that controversial principal was introduced, it has been endorsed in general and hesitant terms; Libya was the first time it’s been forcefully invoked in respect of a specific crisis. At the same time, the international humanitarian system has put in place a substantial operation to respond to the mounting plight of refugees and displaced persons, particularly in the east.

The singular event of the last three weeks, though, was not the UN’s, it was the Arab League’s vote to call for the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Critics like Les Gelb have dissed the Arab League vote, pointing out that asking for someone else to act is relatively easy, especially for an organization whose members have ample military capacity to enforce a no-fly zone themselves. This rather fundamentally misses the political point. In a region still scarred by US military action in Iraq, for this most recalcitrant of institutions to call for UN military action – knowing full well that means US military action – is a reflection of the deep changes underway in the region. Credit where credit is due: Amre Moussa, the Arab League’s long-time Secretary-General, was present at the creation of the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept and his organization's vote was vital to bringing it to fruition in Libya.

The Arab League vote did two things: it removed an excuse from those who didn’t want to act; and it eased the administration’s valid concerns that U.S.-led or western action in Libya would taint the politics of the broader Arab uprising, complicating an already enormous challenge in the region. (Elsewhere, I make the case that the administration made roughly the right set of calculations over Libya.) Six days have passed since the Arab League vote – a blink of an eye in international diplomatic terms, a near catastrophic delay on the ground. That delay was less a function of international reluctance, though, than it was of U.S. doubts. And to Max Boot, whose otherwise good piece in the Wall Street Journal over-argued the case that U.S. indecision would cause “incalculable long-term harm” to U.S. power and prestige: the U.S. dithered for two years while roughly 100,000 people were killed in Bosnia, and as disastrous as that was, it didn’t dull U.S. power.

Once the U.S. swung towards backing military action, action in the UNSC quickly followed. The vote was revealing. First, it shows – doubters aside – that U.S. presidential preferences still matter a great deal. Once President Obama made his decision, U.S. diplomacy swung into high gear and the hard press. That moved Russia and China from “no” to “abstain” – a world of diplomatic and legal difference. Second, the vote shows the mixed character of interests and identity in contemporary international politics. In the lead up to the vote, commentators focused on the unwillingness of the illiberal powers – Russia and China – to back action. As with previous crises, other commentators focused on the question of whether the aspiring powers were prepared for prime time. The vote shows a more complex reality. Voting in favor was Lebanon; indeed, they co-authored the resolution. That is, the Hezbollah-influenced, pseudo-democratic, largely anti-US government of Lebanon. Two of the aspiring powers club at the UNSC, Brazil and India, abstained; a third, South Africa, voted in favor. Also abstaining was U.S.-allied, democratic Germany. All this was reminiscent of the moment last year when the commentariat was obsessed by the prospects of a U.S.-China currency war, and the impossibility of cooperation with the illiberal powers – not noting that at the same time the U.S. and China were strongly aligned (also with Brazil), against America’s three closest allies, the UK, Australia and Germany, over the question of stimulus versus debt reduction. This is not going to be an order characterized by clean divides: it’s a semi-order of shifting coalitions of interest. Welcome to the new terrain of complex global diplomacy.

Oh, and this last point. I’ve been a critic of the fact that this administration, despite its fulsome rhetoric about shaping a new international architecture, has not really engaged on the central question of UN Security Council reform. No one vote should count as a “litmus test” of the emerging powers’ suitability for prime time. They have their own interests and a legitimate right to pursue alternative courses of action to the U.S. if those are genuinely aimed at managing a problem. I was critical of the speed with which the administration dismissed Turkey and Brazil’s effort to see whether a negotiated solution with Iran was still possible. But on Qaddafi?? President Roussef’s meeting with President Obama next week is going to be a little chillier than planned. India’s vote was disappointing. And who even knows where to start on Germany’s explanation of its position.

The divided vote at the Security Council underscored this point: we need a genuine discussion about the nature of leadership in the emerging international order. Across the board: in the global financial arena; on the principles that do or don’t govern external involvement in internal affairs; on the use of force. What are the key functions of international leadership, what principles undergird them, and who’s prepared to shoulder what burdens at what cost. The semi-order has muddled through on Libya, and muddling through is a damn sight better than what we might have expected. That won’t be enough to manage deeper challenges – challenges that are coming fast on the heels of Libya.