In his classical work “Histories,” the ancient Greek thinker Polybius explains that as of the second century BC, singular histories focused on specific territories will no longer suffice to understand what, following the Roman conquest of the entire Mediterranean basin, has become an interconnected world. Jason Pack begins his new book “Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder” with the following quote from Polybius: “The affairs of Italy and Libya are involved with those of Asia and Greece, and the tendency of all is to unity.”
It is a fitting quote for a book of Polybian ambition and scope. Where Polybius sought to explain the rise of the Roman Republic, Pack instead seeks to elucidate the decline of the American one. Polybius showed how the Mediterranean World had gone from multipolar, to bipolar, to finally a unipolar world with one Roman hegemon calling the shots. In his book, Pack traces the progression from bipolarity during the Cold War, to unipolarity during the post-Cold War era, to the new state of non-polarity during the Enduring Disorder.
The international system has exited the era of global order under American hegemony and entered a new phase of global Enduring Disorder.
The author reveals exactly how and why the international system has exited the era of global order under American hegemony and entered a new phase of global Enduring Disorder, where mutually beneficial collective action among different power centers is no longer coherently practiced. Instead, the world entered a negative spiral of self-reinforcing incentives that push towards chaos and conflict. Polybius and Pack both show how in an increasingly interconnected world, any analysis of its constitutive parts needs to be broad and sweeping in scope and creative and immersive in vision.
The premise of Pack’s book is that the fragmentation of Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi (also spelled Gaddafi) cannot be properly understood without placing it within the context of the larger global story, the Enduring Disorder. In fact, Pack argues that Libya is the ideal prism through which to see the fundamental features of this global disorder.
Throughout its five chapters, Pack’s book presents five different dynamics of contemporary Libya that also serve to illustrate key aspects of the current state of disorder: starting with how and why Western reconstruction efforts in Libya have failed; to how jihadism arises from prior state failure; to the connection between ungoverned cyberspace and neo-populism; to explaining in detail how the brokenness of the Libyan economy mirrors the dysfunctionalities of global institutions; to finally illustrating why certain multinational corporations no longer promote free markets.
Interdisciplinary is an academic term that is rarely used accurately. However, “Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder” is truly interdisciplinary. It draws on and contributes to international relations (IR) theory, history, political science, economics, and psychology. Pack takes the accepted common-sense view within each field and shows how it needs correcting and, in some cases, scrapping altogether.
“Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder” is truly interdisciplinary.
In many ways, the concept of the Enduring Disorder is a reformulation of classical realist theory in international relations. Realism holds that the international realm is defined by anarchy, thus cooperation is highly contingent and states are prone to conflict and competition. Realists see the relative stability of the international system following World War II as a consequence of American dominance. Yet, as American hegemony declines, so intrinsically does the global community’s ability for collective action.
Pack departs from realism not so much because he believes that there is no new hegemon waiting around the bend (as many realists would agree), but because he understands that the international system is not the only explanatory variable in fostering instability.
Unlike realists, Pack also considers the importance of national dynamics, political systems, media, and emerging technologies, as well as psychological factors when diagnosing the present state of disorder. Pack suggests that in this peculiar age, the sharp distinction that realists make between domestic and international factors can no longer be maintained.
The most novel contribution of this impressive work is the concept of “incumbent psychology.” Pack introduces this concept to explain the tendency of those in power to avoid free market competition and inhibit commercial innovation to their privileged market niches by blocking new entrants. According to Pack, this has become the overriding logic of certain contemporary global players, whether corporations, individuals, or “quasi-state” institutions.
The most novel contribution of this impressive work is the concept of “incumbent psychology.”
Previously competitive global markets have been replaced by what Pack terms “neo-mercantilism” – the search for monopolies and rents through preferential market access. Rather than forming the basis of a new illiberal order as other commentators have argued, Pack contends that the dominance of neo-mercantilism augurs no order at all. The ties that bind have been undone by the corrupting and incoherent logic of incumbency.
While the concept of incumbent psychology is innovative and genuinely analytically useful, there is some confusion over what drives it. At times, Pack presents the rise of neo-mercantilism as an inevitable outcome of the declining competitiveness of American and other Western firms that now wish to insulate themselves from fresh competition. Pack often claims this is due to American companies mirroring the rent-seeking behavior of former statist economies they frequently interact with.
Furthermore, the concept of incumbent psychology itself suggests that it is primarily the individual power-players (CEOs, presidents, corrupt bureaucrats) that set the rules. Whatever the deeper causes, Pack concludes that functional free markets do not arise spontaneously ex-nihilo by some invisible hand, but require effective regulations, inter-state cooperation, and above all, trust, each of which is in short supply in today’s world. Without these factors, the invisible hand is not simply imperceptible, but absent altogether.
Like Polybius, Pack is no armchair scholar. Polybius himself led armies and governed states. Similarly, Pack, besides his academic background at Oxford and Cambridge, has practical experience from a wide array of fields, including as an entrepreneur, leading companies on trade missions, and advising diplomats on all matters relating to Libya.
The book provides invaluable insights not only into the specificity of Libya, but also larger trends across the MENA region.
This hands-on experience not only lends a tone of authority to his work but also allows for the narrative to be interspersed with many personal anecdotes and unexpected insights making for very exciting reading. In some ways, the book takes the form of a bildungsroman. The reader is treated to a process of discovery, a falling away of youthful myths, as Pack comes to deconstruct his own deeply held convictions, arriving finally at a more mature understanding of how the world works.
For those interested in the Arab World, the book provides invaluable insights not only into the specificity of Libya, but also larger trends across the MENA region. Pack’s approach, to give equal space and weight to both global and domestic (Libyan) dynamics, is something that scholarship on the Arab World would do well to learn from. Pack is clear on how the actions of Western policymakers have exacerbated the breakdown of the Libyan state, yet he does not let Libyan leaders off the hook. He shows how this failure was not inevitable, but the result of choices of both Libyan and Western actors.
The book is not only interested in diagnosing the problems of Libya and the Enduring Disorder, but also seeks to provide directions for the path forward. Like Polybius, Pack’s counsel is to learn from past and current follies. If Libya is the symptom of a broken global disorder, it is perhaps the best place to begin fixing it.