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Libya Process Signals Shifts in Global Order

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pulling back for a second from the debate over whether the U.S. should intervene in Libya, the process by which the actual international response unfolded is cause for optimism. Among the big-puzzle pieces that shifted, I see the following:

- The U.S. as "law-abiding" global actor. President Barack Obama has already taken hits for indecisiveness and worse, but the fact that the administration held firm on multilateral mandates highlights its commitment to a multipartner world.

- France and Britain as European security guarantors in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. It remains to be seen how involved NATO will become in the intervention, but the fact that the driving powers behind the U.N. resolution were France and Britain augurs well for the U.S. reducing its profile as global security provider.

- The Arab League as an enforcer of norms. Obviously there's the disconnect between the response to Libya and the response to Bahrain. I see the contradiction working more against the repressive governments in Manama and Riyadh than vice versa.

- The U.N. as an action forum, not a paralysis forum. The speed with which the successive Libya resolutions were passed is a refreshing contrast to the paralysis that has plagued the council and just about all other multilateral forums in recent years. The fact that there were multiple abstentions but no vetos or opposing votes probably reflects the fact that those opposed have no abiding interests in Libya. But the precedent of opposing on principle while allowing those willing to act to do so is promising.

The big loser here, so far, is the European Union as a global security actor. This could have been an EU operation, in cooperation with willing Arab states, mandated by the Arab League and the U.N., with behind-the-scenes logistical support from the U.S. The fact that it will instead go through either NATO or national assets is a major setback for EU defense.

But all in all, I see the first dress rehearsal for the multipolar/multilateral global order, with multipartner/minilateral coalitions as its enforcement mechanism.