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Is this what a leaderless world looks like? That was the reaction of many to the scene this week in Geneva, where most of the world's powers gathered to try, and almost certainly fail, to bring an end to the awful civil war in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad's people were there, as were the leaders of several factions of the rebels. Russia, the increasingly skeptical backer of Mr. Assad, was there. The United States, which is quietly backing some of the rebels but trying to avoid an Islamist-led Syria, was there. The United Nations envoy was there. Iran, the strongest backer of the staunchly secular but undemocratic Mr. Assad, was not there, but President Hassan Rouhani contributed influence and rhetoric. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are providing weapons to rebels (including those controlled by al-Qaeda) were there. NATO member Turkey, which is trying to support the less radically Islamist rebels, was there.

If this was the "international order," it was about as disorderly as you could imagine. The three-year-old war has produced more than 100,000 deaths, almost two million refugees, and atrocities on a historic scale (as this week's photos of some 10,000 prisoners starved and tortured to death by Mr. Assad revealed). Yet no international body or country has been able to intervene in any decisive way. Neither Russia nor the United States have had the will or resources to produce a military victory on either side (though both were able to come together, sort of, to prevent more chemical-weapons attacks) The United Nations Security Council has been paralyzed with division; NATO is not going to step in. We're left with a backward set of perverse influences that seem to be fanning the flames, with the U.S. and its allies supporting Islamist militias and Iran backing a secular former U.S. ally out of pure self-interest.

Is this the new world order? Some people see it that way. In one increasingly popular view, the Syria cacophony is emblematic of a post-superpower, post-Cold War world that has been drained of the old certainties.

That is the view of the Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer, who vividly describes the spectre of a "G-Zero world" (that is, devoid of powerful anchors such as the G8 and the G20) in essays and his book Every Nation For Itself. His big concern is the loss of influential superpower nations and alliances. We are now living in a world, he writes, "in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage – or the will – to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage."

This week Stewart Patrick of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations chimed in, with an equally interesting essay, detailing his own vision: The "G-X" world. His focus is on the collapse of the "UN mega-conference" and other such coalition-building forces. Big treaties and world bodies have declined, he says, as "the United States and other states rely more on regional organizations, 'minilateral' co-operation among relevant states, codes of conduct, and partnerships with nongovernmental actors. … A hallmark of this 'G-X' world is the temporary coalition of strange bedfellows."

That certainly sounds like today's Syria situation. Both scholars very accurately describe the chaotic, ad hoc nature of today's world order. The question, though, is whether this really is a new world order.

The superpower era was marked by such conflicts as the Soviet-Afghan war, during which the United States paid Islamist fighters (including people who happily fought alongside Osama bin Laden) and no country or body was able to secure a stable resolution. Or the Iran-Iraq war, in which the U.S. paid Saddam Hussein to attack Iran, and later armed Iran in order to fund a South American guerrilla war. The "temporary coalition of strange bedfellows" was the rule rather than the exception.

And the two decades that followed? In almost none of the big conflicts did the UN, the G7/8 or superpowers exercise "leadership." In Bosnia and Kosovo, ad hoc coalitions of European parties eventually persuaded the United States, the UN peacekeepers and NATO to join struggles to protect largely Muslim populations against destruction. The awful Sierra Leone civil war ended after a decade when Britain pulled together a few other nations and dragged the UN back in. Afghanistan, a UN-mandated NATO war, was the exception that proved the rule – and its outcome can't be called "leadership." The 2011 UN-NATO Libyan intervention, paradoxically, is the closest thing one can imagine to the "old" world order these folks describe.

Ad hoc, chaotic, paradoxical, ineffective, contradictory: That is not a description of the new world order. It describes the past half-century of ugly, but thankfully less frequent, conflict.