The Unraveling

How to Respond to a Disordered World

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In his classic The Anarchical Society, the scholar Hedley Bull argued that there was a perennial tension in the world between forces of order and forces of disorder, with the details of the balance between them defining each era’s particular character. Sources of order include actors committed to existing international rules and arrangements and to a process for modifying them; sources of disorder include actors who reject those rules and arrangements in principle and feel free to ignore or undermine them. The balance can also be affected by global trends, to varying degrees beyond the control of governments, that create the context for actors’ choices. These days, the balance between order and disorder is shifting toward the latter. Some of the reasons are structural, but some are the result of bad choices made by important players -- and at least some of those can and should be corrected.

The chief cauldron of contemporary disorder is the Middle East. For all the comparisons that have been made to World War I or the Cold War, what is taking place in the region today most resembles the Thirty Years’ War, three decades of conflict that ravaged much of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. As with Europe back then, in coming years, the Middle East is likely to be filled with mostly weak states unable to police large swaths of their territories, militias and terrorist groups acting with increasing sway, and both civil war and interstate strife. Sectarian and communal identities will be more powerful than national ones. Fueled by vast supplies of natural resources, powerful local actors will continue to meddle in neighboring countries’ internal affairs, and major outside actors will remain unable or unwilling to stabilize the region.

There is also renewed instability on the periphery of Europe. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia appears to have given up on the proposition of significant integration into the current European and global orders and chosen instead to fashion an

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