We commonly talk about the management of order in international relations. In the Cold War era this was a natural phenomenon due to the degree of stability and rules imposed by East/West bipolarity. The US’s (surprisingly short) moment of uni-polarity reinforced the impression that a command and control system was in place. In the early part of the 21st century, however, it is the management of messiness that needs to be the paramount concern and mode of operation.
To be sure, important actors still seek order to be privileged. At the global level, the G20 and the BRICS reveal the preference by both members of the old establishment and the new emergent states to join in key efforts of collective action. And many countries — acting on classic realist assumptions — have shown a desire to put what they see as stability before change in their bilateral/regional dealings: the US hung onto its alliance with President Mubarak; Russia continues to support the Assad regime; and the BRICS as a whole (and China in particular) have tended to favor the status quo — whether in resource development agreements in Africa or in dealing with the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi.
We see this traditional preference for order over messiness in even major “soft power” activities where the tendency has been to equate well-managed major symbolic events (the 2008 Beijing Olympics comes readily to mind) as being the model that can and should be emulated.
Across the board, nonetheless, it is messiness that is on the rise. Richard Haass highlighted this trajectory with his expression messy multilateralism, a framework that has been much in evidence not only at the G20 summits but in other forums ranging from the Summit of the Americas, ASEAN and the African Union.
But messy multilateralism is only one aspect of what is happening on the ground in the global arena. We are also seeing messiness as the template for activity in a wide range of sites and operations ranging from the process of messy regime change (as witnessed most dramatically in the Arab world), to messy Olympics (with numerous glitches of security and management flaws as we look to the London games as the antithesis of the Beijing model).
Conceptually we have to get over our privileging of the management of order over messiness. In many ways messiness may actually be preferable — especially when judged in retrospect — than order. Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world were not part of a benign system. And even the Beijing Olympics can be seen as having flaws — from the white elephant Beijing National “Bird’s Nest” stadium to the change of status of Ai Weiwei from acclaimed consultant to a targeted critic of the Chinese government.
From a wider perspective, messiness offers considerable richness in the study and application of global governance. It allows other alternative and competitive designs about what we understand as global governance to be brought in. And it opens the door for alternative albeit irregular and jagged settings, rules and actors.