The Collapse of the Rules-based International Order

International Order, united nations

This article was last updated on April 27, 2023

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The Collapse of the Rules-based International Order

Let’s open this posting with a definition from the United Kingdom’s government:


The rules-based international system (RBIS) is founded on relationships between states and through international institutions and frameworks, with shared rules and agreements on behaviour.  It works for UK interests in multiple ways: promoting peace and prosperity through security and economic integration; encouraging predictable behaviour by states; and supporting peaceful settlement of disputes. It also encourages states, and a wide range of non-state actors, to create the conditions for open markets, the rule of law, democratic participation and accountability.


The rules-based order is a shared commitment among states to conduct their affairs in accordance with an existing set of rules that are underpinned by a system of global government that has evolved since the end of the Second World War.  The United Nations is generally considered to be at the core of this “order”.


Here is an additional summary of rules-based order noting that there are no specific rules:


1.) RBO seems to be a broader term than international law which is defined as legally binding rules that are based on, and require the consent of each individual State.

2.) It seems to include both traditional international law rules, and what is usually referred to as “soft law” – legally non-binding political commitments.

3.) The term “rules-based order” blurs the distinction between binding and non-binding rules, giving the impression that all States and international actors are subject to this order, irrespective of whether or not they have consented to these rules.

4.) While international law is general and universal, the “rules-based order” seems to allow for special rules in special cases.


With that in mind, let’s look at some excerpts from recent comments made by Russia’s Foreign Minister (and consummate diplomat) Sergei Lavrov at the United Nation’s Security Council’s open debates “Effective multilateralism through the Defense of the Principles of the UN Charter” with my bolds throughout:


For a little less than 80 years of its existence, the UN has been carrying out the important mission entrusted to it by its founders. For several decades, a basic understanding by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as regards the supremacy of the charter’s goals and principles guaranteed global security. By doing this, it created the conditions for truly multilateral cooperation that was regulated by the universally recognized standards of international law.


Today, our UN-centric system is going through a deep crisis. The main reason is a striving by some UN members to replace international law and the UN Charter with a certain “rules-based” order. Nobody has seen these rules. They have not been discussed in transparent international talks. They are being invented and used to counter the natural process of the forming of new independent development centres that objectively embody multilateralism. Attempts are made to curb them through illegal unilateral measures – by denying them access to modern technology and financial services, excluding them from supply chains, seizing their property, destroying their critical infrastructure and manipulating universally accepted norms and procedures. This leads to the fragmentation of global trade, a collapse of market mechanisms, paralysis of the WTO and the final – now open – conversion of the IMF into an instrument for reaching the goals of the US and its allies, including military goals.


In a desperate attempt to assert its dominance by way of punishing the disobedient, the United States has gone as far as destroying globalisation which it has for many years touted as a great benefit for humankind serving the needs of the global economy’s multilateral system. Washington and the rest of the obeisant West is using these rules as needed to justify illegitimate steps against the countries that build their policies in accordance with international law and refuse to follow the “golden billion’s” self-serving interests. Those who disagree are blacklisted based on the precept that “he who is not with us is against us….


By imposing a rules-based order, the quarters behind it arrogantly reject the UN Charter’s key principle which is the sovereign equality of states. The “proud” statement by the head of EU diplomacy Josep Borrell to the effect that Europe is a “garden” and the rest of the world is a “jungle” said it all about their world of exceptionality. I would also like to quote the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation of January 10 which runs as follows: The United West “will further mobilise the combined set of instruments at our disposal, be they political, economic or military, to pursue our common objectives to the benefit of our one billion citizens.”


The collective West has set out to reshape the processes of multilateralism at the regional level to suit its needs. Recently, the United States called for reviving the Monroe Doctrine and wanted the Latin American countries to cut down on their ties with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China….


Since World War II, Washington has pulled off dozens of reckless criminal military operations without even trying to secure multilateral legitimacy. Why bother, with their set of arbitrary “rules?


And, Russia is not just pointing the finger at Washington:


The Anglo-Saxons (i.e. the United Kingdom) who are at the helm of the West not only justify these lawless adventures, but flaunt them in their policy for “promoting democracy,” while doing so according to their own set of rules as well, where they recognised Kosovo’s independence without a referendum, but refused to recognise Crimea’s independence even though a referendum was held there; according to British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, the Falklands/Malvinas are not an issue, because there was a referendum there. That’s amusing.”


Here’s Russia’s solution to the dilemma:


In order to avoid double standards, we call on everyone to follow the consensus agreements that were reached as part of the 1970 UN Declaration on Principles of International Law which remains in force. It clearly declares the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states that conduct “themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory.” 


I would strongly suggest that you take the time to read Lavrov’s entire commentary which you can find here


There is little doubt that the international order which was established by the victorious allies after the end of the Second World War is under threat.  Here is a quote from a paper entitled “Challenges to the Rules-Based International Order” which appears on the Chatham House website, again with my bolds:


The framework of liberal political and economic rules, embodied in a network of international organizations and regulations, and shaped and enforced by the most powerful nations, both fixed the problems that had caused the war and proved resilient enough to guide the world into an entirely new era.


But given its antique origins, it is not surprising that this order now seems increasingly under pressure. Challenges are coming from rising or revanchist states; from unhappy and distrustful electorates; from rapid and widespread technological change; and indeed from the economic and fiscal turmoil generated by the liberal international economic order itself.


In general these challenges seem serious rather than catastrophic. There is little coherence or common interest among the challengers, except for discontent with aspects of the current order, and therefore little coordination. There is no sign of any integrated international opposition movement which might unite the discontented and advocate an alternative system, leading to the sort of ideological struggle that marked the last century. And, despite continuing conflicts around the world, war remains an exceptional and disreputable activity rather than, as in much of the past, a proper and attractive tool of international dispute resolution.


These are small mercies. The danger to the current order comes not from a single deathblow from a rival system, but from its gradual weakening in the face of widespread dissatisfaction among those it needs to serve. If the system is to survive, its weaknesses must be recognized and resolved, and it must adapt better and faster to the changing international situation.


Three interconnected problems must be resolved. The first is the problem of legitimacy. For a system based on rules to have effect, these rules must be visibly observed by their principal and most powerful advocates.


If you want a prime example of a breach of the rules-based international order, you need look no further than Washington’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, America’s use of torture during the War on Terror, the use of presidential authority to carry out drone strikes and America’s widespread use of surveillance technology which was pointed out by Edward Snowden.


The world is on the cusp of change.  Unless the ruling class in Washington and the West in general adapts quickly to the new global reality, it will be left behind as the new world moves ahead under the leadership of the BRICS nations and those who attach themselves to the growing influence of this group of nations who have been left out in the cold during the era of the rules-based international order.

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