One of the points I was trying to make in my CFR working paper on global economic governance is that the system, while far from perfect, did in fact prevent the worst from happening. That might sound like lowered expectations, but anyone who knows anything about the history of global governance would appreciate that this would represent a significant upgrading from past centuries.
I bring this up because of this maddeningly-short-on-detail New York Times front-pager by Eric Shmitt and David Sanger on what went down when the Syrian government inched closer to using its chemical weapons stockpile:
In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria's increasingly desperate president, Bashar Al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action.
The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
Now if you read the whole thing, it's entirely unclear exactly who communicated to whom and whether these messages were planned and coordinated in advance -- though it reads like it was.
But this episode, again, seems like an example of the great powers making sure that the worst-case scenario -- for them, at least -- did not transpire. Now this might seem like small beer compared to the appalling loss of life in Syria and the discomfiting tolerance the Obama admiinistration has with the status quo. Still, compared to, say, the interwar period of 1919-1939, or the Cold War deadlock from 1945-1990, it's not nothing either. Clearly, the great powers do seem pretty invested in the idea of keeping the Syrian civil war limited to Syria and not allowing it to consume the entire region.
In no way should this be taken as a shining moment for global governance, but it does suggest that there is some governing and policing going on, no matter how suboptimal the level. In much of the social sciences, there's a focus on constrained optimization and maximization. What's going on in global governance right now highlights the "constrained" part of that equation more than anything else. Still, compared to some who argue that we operate in a world where no one is powerful enough, perhaps it would be more accurate to phrase it differently. Formal and informal global governance structures still perform some important tasks at preventing worst-case scenarios from metastasizing, be it in security or economics. Call it "'good enough' global governance" -- it's not a new world order or anything, but it's also not as chaotic or dysfunctional as many pundits proclaim.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.