VICE Special Report: A World in Disarray

A World in Disarray, a VICE special report, draws on Richard Haass's eponymous book and explores the disorder in today’s international landscape using four regional case studies: Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea, and North Korea.

November 1, 2017

Teaching Notes

More on:

United States

Syrian Civil War

Ukraine

South China Sea

North Korean Nuclear Program

Summary

A World in Disarray, a VICE special report, is a feature-length documentary that draws on the book of the same name by CFR President Richard N. Haass. The film explores the disorder in today’s international landscape, how it arose, and how it plays out in four areas of conflict and tension: Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea, and North Korea.

Through interviews with Haass and other policymakers and scholars, the opening section traces the trajectory of international affairs since the end of the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “new world order” following the Soviet Union’s collapse, along with the victory of a U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War, seemed to herald a cooperative era under U.S. preeminence. For the first time, perhaps, in history, war among major powers was not a reality or even a threat. As Haass explains, though, this proved a high point, not a lasting condition. The September 11 attacks highlighted U.S. vulnerability in an era of globalization. And subsequent U.S. action and inaction in the Middle East eroded American power and propelled the chaos in the region that we see today.

The documentary then features in-depth reports on four regional case studies, beginning with Syria—the exemplar of the fractured Middle East. It goes on to explore the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia first displayed the assertive stance it has also adopted in Syria. The final two segments focus on Asia. The first looks at the South China Sea, where China’s efforts to assert its vast territorial claims are increasing tensions. China is also a central actor in the final case study, North Korea, whose growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and belligerent stance pose a grave threat to the United States and its allies.

Throughout the case studies, the documentary uses on-the-ground footage and firsthand perspectives to illustrate the reality—and the human effects—of a world in disarray. The film travels from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo to the front lines in Ukraine, from disputed islands in the South China Sea to a military base in South Korea. VICE correspondents interview Syrian and Ukrainian opposition figures, refugees, Chinese and Filipino fishers, and a North Korean defector, among many others. Meanwhile, Haass and the other policymakers and scholars featured in the film explain the history and context of each case study, as well as the implications for U.S. influence and international stability. 

As the four case studies show, and as the film’s experts explain, the assumptions of an orderly world underpinned by U.S. leadership no longer hold. There is, in Haass’s words, “a certain loss of respect for the United States.” Other actors increasingly challenge Washington’s authority. The character of American society—what former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls “an open, connected America in an open, connected world”—is in question. Terrorism and other threats from abroad unsettle Americans at home. Ultimately, the documentary drives home the reality that what happens abroad affects the security and prosperity of the United States. The world has an impact on every American.

Discussion and Essay Questions

General Questions

  1. Is the descriptor “disarray” warranted or is there a better word to describe the current state of the world?
  2. Was the current international disorder inevitable or could it have been prevented?
  3. What are the principal lessons and conclusions drawn by speakers in the film about the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003? Do you agree or disagree with their analysis, and why?
  4. Why do some of the speakers in the film argue that the U.S.-China relationship is so central to international relations and world order? What might occur should this relationship evolve positively or negatively?

Questions on Each Case Study

Syria

Segment begins at 12:30

  1. In what ways does the Syrian civil war contribute to, or reflect, the disarray in today’s world?
  2. What views do the film’s speakers express about President Obama’s “red line,” and subsequent policy decisions, regarding the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons? Which views do you find most convincing, and why? Should the United States have done more in an effort to affect events in Syria?
  3. What effects has the Syrian civil war had on the political dynamics of the Middle East, including the rise of the Islamic State group?
  4. How did Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war change the trajectory and nature of this conflict?

Ukraine

Segment begins at 28:30

  1. Why is Russian action in Ukraine significant to world order?
  2. In what ways does the conflict in Ukraine contribute to, or reflect, the disarray in today’s world?
  3. How do the film’s speakers analyze the general motivations of Russian president Vladimir Putin? Do you find this analysis convincing, and why or why not?
  4. Describe the Russian “information war” highlighted by some of the film’s speakers. What does this consist of, and what enables Russia to exert significant influence in this way?

South China Sea

Segment begins at 46:10

  1. In what ways does the situation in the South China Sea contribute to, or reflect, the disarray in today’s world?
  2. How do the film’s speakers describe the outlook and tactics adopted by China to exert its growing influence in today’s world?
  3. What is China’s rationale in advancing its territorial claims in the South China Sea? What kinds of actions has it taken to this end?
  4. What should the United States and others do in response to China’s activities in the South China Sea?

North Korea

Segment begins at 58:15

  1. In what ways does the situation in North Korea contribute to, or reflect, the disarray in today’s world?
  2. What threat does North Korea’s military, including both nuclear and conventional weapons, pose to South Korea, Japan, and the United States?
  3. Why might North Korean leader Kim Jong-un see nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles as valuable?
  4. Why is China an influential actor in dealing with North Korea? In the view of the film’s speakers, what interests and motivations drive China’s approach to this issue?
  5. Why do some South Koreans oppose U.S. military involvement in their country? In your view, should this opposition affect U.S. actions in South Korea?
  6. What options do the United States and the world have in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs?

Further Projects

Note to instructors: Some of these projects require students to conduct additional research.

Debate on the Causes of Global Disarray

Divide students into two groups and assign them opposing positions on one of the following questions:

  1. Was the current international disorder inevitable or could it have been prevented?
  2. Is the descriptor “disarray” warranted or is there a better word to describe the current state of the world?

Each group should marshal evidence for their position, explaining what specific factors they believe back up their assigned view. Then hold a structured debate in which each group argues its side and responds to the other side’s points. If class size permits, you can assign some students to debate while others serve as a critical audience, asking questions and evaluating the merits of each argument.

Essay on U.S. Policy Toward Syria

Ask students to write an essay on U.S. policy toward Syria, guided by the following question:

  • Should the United States have done more in an effort to affect events in Syria?

Essays should review U.S. policy so far, both what the United States has done and what it has not done. They should also weigh the points of view expressed by the speakers in the film, including those who defend President Obama’s approach and those who believe it fell short. Ask students to conclude by giving a concise answer to the guiding question, backed by specific arguments in favor of their chosen view.

Congressional Testimony on Ukraine

Hold a Congressional hearing in which a House or Senate committee invites experts to testify about the conflict in Ukraine and the U.S. response. Divide students into two groups, one comprising experts and the other comprising committee members. Assign the experts to prepare statements that they will read as testimony before the committee. You can assign all the experts to prepare general testimony on the conflict and relevant U.S. policies, or you can assign each expert to tackle a specific element. One, for example, could research the evolution of the conflict, another the U.S. policy position over time, and a third Russia’s role. Students serving as members of the Congressional committee should prepare questions they wish to ask the experts at the hearing. Afterward, the committee members should write their own statements, drawing on the testimony, that outline policy steps they believe the United States should take toward Ukraine today.

Memo on the South China Sea

Ask students to step into the role of advisors to the president. Assign them to write a memo for the president that

  1. outlines the tensions in the South China Sea, including their origin, the reasons behind them, and their current status
  2. describes U.S. interests in the South China Sea and policy steps the United States has taken
  3. recommends actions the United States should take today, along with justification for this position.

If you wish, you can use the memos as the basis for a class discussion in which students explore the situation in more depth and elaborate on their analyses and recommendations. For a more in-depth classroom experience on the South China Sea, including a role-play and memo assignments, please see the Cyber Clash With China case from CFR’s free Model Diplomacy program.

Op-ed on North Korea

Using the documentary’s discussion of North Korea, as well as research on relevant events, ask students to write an op-ed of around 800 words on U.S. policy toward that country today. The op-ed should both outline the military threat posed by North Korea toward the United States and other countries, and recommend policy steps for responding. Justification for the proposed steps should accompany the recommendations.

Supplementary Materials

Syria

October 19, 2017, Zachary Laub, “What to Watch For in Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

June 6, 2017, “Syria: Are There Any Steps Forward,” Event Video, Council on Foreign Relations.

April 28, 2017, Zachary Laub, “Who’s Who in Syria’s Civil War,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

April 14, 2017, Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain, “A Non-Signal to Syria: Why the Strike May Not Shape Assad’s Behavior,” ForeignAffairs.com.

April 7, 2017, Steven A. Cook, “Welcome to Syria, President Trump: Years of Rational Policy Led to This Horror, and There’s No Easy Way Out,” From the Potomac to the Euphrates, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

February 3, 2017. Robert S. Ford, “Why Syria’s War Grinds On,” Interview with Zachary Laub, CFR.org.

August 30, 2016, Elliott Abrams, “The Syria Red Line, Three Years Later,” Pressure Points, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

August 10, 2016, Zachary Laub, “The Islamic State,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

November 24, 2015, Tom Cotton, “Proxy Wars: Russia’s Intervention in Syria and What Washington Should Do,” ForeignAffairs.com.

October 1, 2015, Dmitry Adamsky, “Putin’s Syria Strategy: Russian Airstrikes and What Comes Next,” ForeignAffairs.com.

September 11, 2013, Fiona Hill, “Putin Scores on Syria: How He Got the Upper Hand – And How He Will Use It,” ForeignAffairs.com.

September 10, 2013, Stephen D. Biddle, “Assessing the Case for Striking Syria,” Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security.

September 5, 2013, Richard K. Betts, “Pick Your Poison: America Has Many Options in Syria, None are Good,” ForeignAffairs.com.

Syria’s War: The Descent Into Horror,” Interactive, Council on Foreign Relations.

Ukraine

July 13, 2017, Ilan Berman, “How Russian Rule Has Changed Crimea: Moscow’s Massive Social Engineering Project on the Peninsula,” ForeignAffairs.com.

May 1, 2017, James M. Lindsay, “Russia and the West,” The Water’s Edge, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

May/June 2016, Daniel Treisman, “Why Putin Took Crimea: The Gambler in the Kremlin,” Foreign Affairs.

May 4, 2016, Nikolas Gvosdev, “What Lies Ahead for Ukraine?,” Interview with Noel Konagai, CFR.org.

October 9, 2015, Steven Pifer, “Crisis Over Ukraine: Contingency Planning Memorandum Update,” Center for Preventive Action, Report, Council on Foreign Relations.

April 28, 2015, Stephen Sestanovich, “Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. Policy,” Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services.

March 2, 2015 , “U.S. Policy Options in Ukraine,” Event Video, CFR.org.

February 10, 2015, Alexander J. Motyl, “The West Should Arm Ukraine: Here’s Why – And How,” ForeignAffairs.com.

December 10, 2014, Stephen Sestanovich, “Where Is Putin Leading Russia,” Interview with Bernard Gwertzman, CFR.org.

November/December 2014, Michael McFaul and Stephen Sestanovich and John J. Mearsheimer, “Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis?,” Foreign Affairs.

November 9, 2014, “Who Is at Fault in Ukraine?” ForeignAffairs.com.

September/October 2014, John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs.

September 5, 2014, Mark Galeotti, “Russia Wants ‘Hot Peace,’ Not War,” Interview with Bernard Gwertzman, CFR.org.

South China Sea

August 21, 2017, Joshua Kurlantzick, “The ASEAN-China Breakthrough in the South China Sea That Wasn’t,” World Politics Review.

July/August 2017, Ely Ratner, “Course Correction: How to Stop China’s Maritime Advance,” Foreign Affairs.

July 21, 2017, Lynn Kuok, “Progress in the South China Sea?: A Year After the Hague Ruling,” ForeignAffairs.com.

June 20, 2017, Ely Ratner, “Two Cardinal Sins of U.S. South China Sea Policy,” Asia Unbound, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

May 18, 2017, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Charles Edel, “Adrift in the South China Sea: The High Cost of Stopping Freedom of Navigation Operations,” ForeignAffairs.com. 

August 18, 2016, Euan Graham, “The Hague Tribunal’s South China Sea Ruling: Empty Provocation or Slow-Burning Influence,” Global Memos, CFR.org.

March 2, 2016, Michael S. Fuchs, “Safe Harbor: How to End the South China Sea Crisis,” Foreign Affairs.com.

April 9, 2015, Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Island Builders: The People’s War At Sea,” ForeignAffairs.com.

April 7, 2015, Bonnie S. Glaser, “Conflict in the South China Sea: Contingency Planning Memorandum Update,” Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations.

July 13, 2014, Andrew S. Erickson and Austin Strange, “Pandora’s Sandbox: China’s Island-Building Strategy in the South China Sea,” ForeignAffairs.com.

May 14, 2014, Beina Xu, “South China Sea Tensions,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

September 15, 2013, “China’s Maritime Disputes,” Teaching Notes, Council on Foreign Relations.

China’s Maritime Disputes,” Infoguide, Council on Foreign Relations.

North Korea

September 28, 2017, Scott A. Snyder and Sungtae “Jacky” Park, “Dealing With North Korea’s Ballistic Missiles: A Brief Look,” Asia Unbound, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

September 26, 2017, Eleanor Albert, “What to Know About the Sanctions on North Korea,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

September 15, 2017 , “North Korea and the Bomb,” Anthology, ForeignAffairs.com

September 10, 2017, Scott D. Sagan, “The Korean Missile Crisis,” ForeignAffairs.com.

September 5, 2017, Eleanor Albert, “North Korea’s Military Capabilities,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations.

August 9, 2017, Scott A. Snyder, “What Is Behind the War of Words Between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Asia Unbound, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

July 11, 2017, James M. Lindsay and Robert McMahon and Evans J.R. Revere, “The North Korean Nuclear Threat,” The President’s Inbox, Podcast, Council on Foreign Relations.

June 29, 2017, Scott A. Snyder, “Clouds on the Horizon for the U.S.-Korea Alliance Under Trump and Moon,” Asia Unbound, Blog, Council on Foreign Relations.

June 9, 2017, Jeffrey Lewis, “Kim Jong Un’s Quest for an ICBM,” ForeignAffairs.com.

May/June 2017, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee and Bruce Klingner, “Getting Tough on North Korea,” Foreign Affairs.

March/April 2017, John Delury, “Trump and North Korea,” Foreign Affairs.

March 13, 2017 , “The Rising Threat of a Nuclear North Korea,” Event Video, Council on Foreign Relations. 

January 5, 2017, James M. Lindsay and Robert McMahon and Scott A. Snyder, “The President’s Inbox: North Korea,” The President’s Inbox, Podcast, Council on Foreign Relations.

November 1, 2016, Doug Bandow, “The China Option: Progress in Pyongyang Must Go Through Beijing,” ForeignAffairs.com.

March 31, 2016, Scott A. Snyder, “Will China Change Its North Korea Policy,” Expert Brief, Council on Foreign Relations.

February 18, 2016, Salmaan Khan, “Unbalanced Alliances,” ForeignAffairs.com.

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