Analysis

Libya’s Chaos Is a Warning to the World

Ten years after Qaddafi’s death, Libya is a harbinger of the enduring global disorder to come.

By , the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder.
Libyans inspect the site of a car bomb attack.
Libyans inspect the site of a car bomb attack that targeted service members during the funeral of an ex-army commander in Benghazi, Libya, on July 11, 2019. ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images

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Ten years ago last week, many Libyan citizens and certain international politicians rejoiced in the toppling of strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. Some mistakenly think they will soon be rejoicing again after United Nations-mediated elections slated for Dec. 24 bring Libya’s first post-Qaddafi non-interim government to power. There are many reasons to question such optimism, however. Developments in both the international system and in Libya over the last decade suggest that the forces promoting disorder and nationalist competition may trump those promoting order and international coordination.

A lot has changed in 10 years—and even more over the last 70 years. The independent and sovereign Libyan state was created by the United Nations from former Italian colonial possessions on Dec. 24, 1951. It was the culmination of a process whereby Anglo-American leaders coordinated a compromise solution that gradually received buy-in from rival powers.

Even the Soviet Union, Egypt, France, nascent African polities, and Italy—all of whom initially had different ambitions for Libya’s then-three provinces—embraced a unitary sovereign Libya, helping the young country get off to a fresh start. All of these actors calculated they would gain from a successful Libya. During the Cold War, rival powers sought to extend their spheres of influence to new territories; they did not seek to deliberately bring disorder to the world system.

Ten years ago last week, many Libyan citizens and certain international politicians rejoiced in the toppling of strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. Some mistakenly think they will soon be rejoicing again after United Nations-mediated elections slated for Dec. 24 bring Libya’s first post-Qaddafi non-interim government to power. There are many reasons to question such optimism, however. Developments in both the international system and in Libya over the last decade suggest that the forces promoting disorder and nationalist competition may trump those promoting order and international coordination.

A lot has changed in 10 years—and even more over the last 70 years. The independent and sovereign Libyan state was created by the United Nations from former Italian colonial possessions on Dec. 24, 1951. It was the culmination of a process whereby Anglo-American leaders coordinated a compromise solution that gradually received buy-in from rival powers.

Even the Soviet Union, Egypt, France, nascent African polities, and Italy—all of whom initially had different ambitions for Libya’s then-three provinces—embraced a unitary sovereign Libya, helping the young country get off to a fresh start. All of these actors calculated they would gain from a successful Libya. During the Cold War, rival powers sought to extend their spheres of influence to new territories; they did not seek to deliberately bring disorder to the world system.

Today, the situation is starkly different. Even if contemporary Libya successfully stages free and fair elections in a couple of months, they will likely create more confusion than they alleviate. Even the elections’ boosters do not claim they will produce an uncontested, sovereign, and constitutionally legitimate Libyan government. U.S. and U.K. attempts to cajole recalcitrant actors (Russia, Turkey, and various Gulf states) to coordinate their previously destabilizing interventions in Libya have been half-hearted, all carrot and no stick affairs.

During the Cold War, rival powers sought to extend their spheres of influence to new territories; they did not seek to deliberately bring disorder to the world system.

The U.N. mediation process also lacks the power to punish spoilers, and as such, has been hijacked by status quo-oriented power players like Speaker of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh and the extended families of interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Gen. Khalifa Haftar—all of whom have extensive ties to former regime power networks. Simultaneously, self-serving international bureaucrats, many beholden to the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France, are happy to go along for the ride, looking the other way when international law is violated.

Tragically, all the major players still stand to gain from a successful Libya that is able to spend billions of dollars on upgrading its pipelines, employing migrants, policing its borders, paying off its international creditors, and providing a better standard of living to the Libyan people. Yet international coordination failures continue to lead to less than optimal policy outcomes.

Ten years ago, Qaddafi’s ouster was accomplished by a well-coordinated international coalition of both Arab and NATO countries responding to the calls of the Libyan people. It was an example of a win-win collective action, where multiple actors worked together and made slight compromises on their particular goals in an attempt to achieve a shared, mutually beneficial outcome.

That feeling of boundless hope for a better Libyan and global future prevailed for the next year or so as oil production rebounded, free and fair elections were scheduled and held, and certain stalled infrastructure projects restarted.

But as 2012 turned to 2013, beneath the surface of superficial progress, forces of disorder were emerging. Western nations stood on the sidelines as the country fractured into two competing authorities. Arms and jihadis were trafficked into the country, and groups who lost power suffered violent retribution. Rather than all those countries that stood to gain from possible colossal Libyan economic growth rallying together to protect their collective charge, they bickered over who would benefit most from the spoils.

Many of these dynamics can be traced to the end of U.S. global hegemony and the rise of neo-populist actors who see a disordered world that produces mass migration, trade wars, mercantile economic competition, and terrorism as preferable for their electoral chances. Sustained analysis of Libya presents a unique vantage point to demonstrate why the contemporary international system fails to solve collective action problems, and many major actors choose to promote disorder rather than make small compromises for the common good.


Although they worked together to enforce the NATO no-fly zone immediately after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, major Western players were tugging in different directions—suspicious of one another’s motives, clients, and actions in Libya.

A power vacuum inherently sucks in external actors; this is especially true if the country is resource rich and geostrategically located. Libya is both. Soon, the Turks, Qataris, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Russians were all deeply entrenched, occupying niches previously held by Western nations. Had a Western-backed uprising overthrown Qaddafi during the Cold War, the ensuing government would have, without question, been supported by a Western-backed coalition with the United States at the helm, boxing out destabilizing, non-Western foreign actors. Back then, it would have been unthinkable that if civil war ensued, core European NATO states like Italy and France would be supporting opposite sides. But in the current era, that is exactly what happened.

In today’s world, NATO members are willing to undermine the actions of their allies without even consulting them. This further eroded trust and promoted more coordination failures. For a very recent example, think of the so-called AUKUS deal. Precedent now suggests the French will be less likely to collaborate on win-win climate change and trade initiatives with the United States and Britain.

The balance between trust and mistrust, optimal and suboptimal outcomes, is a very delicate one. Tip the scales a little bit one way, and the previous equilibrium is destroyed, replaced by a negative feedback loop. Hence, once a situation deteriorates, it is very likely to spiral out of control.

The spiraling effects of lost trust among the core Western allies were already evident immediately in the wake of Qaddafi’s fall. Back in 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, a key advisor to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton whose emails were released by the Clinton email probe, suspected the British and French of trying to undermine U.S. objectives in Libya to promote their own business interests. As a result, he advocated that the United States not coordinate its own reconstruction objectives with its two closest U.N. Security Council allies but rather pursue them unilaterally. This was a recipe for disaster.

As international actors feuded and Libya descended into chaos, Western nations acted out the ancient Bedouin proverb: “Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my brother, my cousin, and I against the outsider.” This proverb evokes the structure of an archetypal eastern Libyan tribe composed of equivalent and mutually opposed segments. Ironically, today, this famous proverb has come to apply to ineffective Western efforts at foreign-policy coordination. It also encapsulates the post-2016 political tribalization of many Western societies and factions’ inability to put aside feuds to focus on shared interests until forced to do so by existential threats.

Although it seems peripheral, events in Libya contributed to both the 2016 election of Donald Trump and Brexit. Indeed, partisan rancor surrounding Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s death in Benghazi, Libya, and the fear of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea were key tropes favoring a neo-populist outcome in both the 2016 U.S. election and Brexit referendum.

Furthermore, the Libyan power vacuum escalated feuds between rival powers in the region: Qatar/UAE, France/Italy, Turkey/Egypt, and Russia/the United States, which in turn led to further disorder in Libya and the world. Ironically, all of these feuding actors (and the Libyan people) would have benefited from a consensus outcome in Libya, but the nature of the current global system made necessary coalition-building and compromises unlikely.


Ten years since Qaddafi’s death, Libya lacks a constitution, a state with a monopoly on force, and economic institutions able to rationally order the economy. It is awash in competing power nodes: militias, tribes, rival aspirants to power, semi-sovereign economic institutions, and foreign mercenaries. To sort out this mess in Libya, as with climate change or tax havens, there is more of a need for global governance than ever before—and ironically less effective global governance than at any time in modern history.

Yet Libya also shows that global governance institutions tasked with coordinating the international community’s response to a crisis, like the United Nations, are currently thoroughly penetrated by those newly emboldened states that desire disorder (like Russia and China) so as to be nearly entirely ineffective.

Seen in this light, the ongoing struggle for Libya’s future provides a privileged lens into a wholly new period of international relations. In fact, examining Libya’s ongoing struggle for post-Qaddafi succession demonstrates that the current world system is not following the traditional playbook when a hegemon’s power wanes, ushering in a period of multipolar competition for spheres of influence.

The ongoing struggle for Libya’s future provides a lens into a new period of international relations: There is a free for all among a wide range of actors who do not necessarily seek to promote order.

Instead, major and regional powers today are not seeking to impose their system of order onto strategically located arenas of disorder. Rather, there is a free for all among a wide range of actors who do not necessarily seek to promote order or expand their own rules-based spheres of influence: from legacy colonial powers to rising regional powers to transnational nonstate actors like multinational corporations or the Islamic State.

This situation has been widely theorized as being multipolar, but in reality, it’s nonpolar, as none of these actors necessarily intend to foster a comprehensive world order or even a coherent regional order within their sphere of influence. This is in stark contrast to the Cold War period, in which no location was unimportant enough for the United States or Soviet Union to cede ground by letting its opponent export its system of order there unrivaled.

Today, major powers are unwilling to invest sufficient political capital to bring about stability—in Libya or globally—in the short or medium term. The world’s most rapidly rising power, China, is largely absent as an alternative provider of order in geopolitical hotspots. In this new global system, instead of using their power to foster order, neo-populist leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have deliberately promoted disorder.

Libya was the first theater in which major features of this new international relations era played out. Syria and Ukraine followed in its wake. A new era of global disorder has begun—and it will likely endure.

Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder. He was previously the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association.

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