And just like that, an internationally recognised country, member of the United Nations, has been overrun by Russia, in complete disregard of the international rules-based order, without much more than a peep from the Western defenders of this order.
As we get past the immediate pulse of this development, a far more significant question will need to be answered: what does Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, at the heels of America’s ignominious defeat in Afghanistan, mean for the international “rules-based order”, which derives its legitimacy from American power?
The United Nations defines the international ‘rules-based order’ as “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements.”
Notwithstanding the soft and inclusive language of this definition, in essence, the international rules-based order requires all countries to abide by a set of rules created by the United States and her select partners. And any country that does not toe the American line—like Cuba, Iraq, Iran, or Syria—is slapped with economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and (eventual) military action. In effect, the international rules-based order is America’s stick and carrot mechanism for governing the world.
While this system is ostensible packaged in the language of human rights and global collaborations, at its core, the enforceability of the international ‘rules-based order’ is based on a series of coercive assumptions, that include: 1) countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above any bilateral issues that such countries may have inter se; 2) violation of this system will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions—including pressure from international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and FATF, etc.; 3) the sanctions imposed by the United States and international institutions, for violating this system, will be enough to coerce a party into abiding by the rules-based order; 4) participants of the international rules-based order will be willing to employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g. UNSC and NATO), to enforce the system; and 5) the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required.
Without these assumptions, the international rules-based order would be a mere catchphrase; with no real persuasion, potency or legitimacy.
In the aftermath of America’s defeat in Afghanistan, and Western buckling in Ukraine, it is pertinent to assess whether these assumptions, and the underlying international rules-based order can continue to serve as the currency of power.
First—that individual countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above bilateral interests. Well, this core assumption has fallen flat in the rubble of Russian assault on Ukraine. Just as it did in Afghanistan. As America retreats from the global stage, defeated, we are already beginning to see that certain countries are preferring bilateral relations over international commitments. China has reportedly committed some $400 billion to Iran, despite the threat of sanctions. Europe (after Brexit) is dealing with Russia and China on their own terms, as opposed to American dictates.
President Macron has already announced that Europe should have policies independent of NATO and the United States. All the sanctions in the world will not prevent Putin, or the Taliban, from transacting with the international community. Syria, despite American pressure, continues to have a fruitful relationship with Russia and Europe. Lebanon, despite all the sanctions, continues to work with France, Iran and China. Pakistan, despite the threat of more international sanctions, is going full speed ahead with CPEC. So, the assumption that countries will prefer multilateral rules over bilateral interests, is eroding fast.
Second and third—that violation of the ‘rules-based system’ will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions, which will be enough to coerce countries to abide by the international rules-based order. This assumption has also been weakened recently in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even away from Europe, India tried to court Iran, through Chabahar and other projects, despite the threat of US sanctions. India also placed the order for the Russian S-400 system, at the peril of facing US sanctions. No sanctions were placed on Israel for violating human rights. No sanctions have stopped Iran from growing its influence across the Shia-crescent. No sanctions have stopped Cuba from continuing to exist and be functional. And as the world comes to terms with the new reality of post-American hegemony, the threat of sanctions, imposed indiscriminately against anyone who violates the rules-based order, is likely to further dwindle.
Fourth—that participant of the international rules-based order will employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g., UNSC and NATO), to enforce the system. This assumption has almost entirely collapsed. The international military machine, led by the United States, has failed in delivering on its promise. NATO never actually ‘fought’ the Soviet Union, in Ukraine or elsewhere.
NATO forces lost the war in Afghanistan. They did not win the war in Iraq. They could not enter Lebanon. They did not come to defend Crimea. Some NATO partners find themselves on opposite ends of the war in Armenia and Libya. NATO’s sister organisation in the Pacific, the QUAD, did not come to the aid of Hong Kong. And neither QUAD, nor the AUKUS, will be able to hold on to Taiwan, if the matter descends into a military battle. As such, there is no reason for individual countries or groups to fear international military collaborations. The past thirty years are a testament to the fact that international rules-based order will not be enforced, through military battle, by the international fighting machine.
Fifth—that the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required. This assumption, weak to begin with, has been proven wrong, time and again, across the Middle East and Central Asia. Can the United States fight a unilateral war against some of the weaker countries across the globe? Yes. Is it likely that it will do so, anytime in the near future? No. Does the United States have the stomach to militarily confront bigger rivals, e.g. Russia and China? No. Since the Second World War, has the United States ever won a unilateral war? No.
The United States could not win the war against North Korea in the 1950s. It was defeated in Vietnam during the 1970s. Victory in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, was not won by the United States military. It could not remove Saddam Hussain in the first Gulf War. When it finally did remove Saddam, during the second Gulf War, it was unable to bring any measure of stability to Iraq. The United States, unilaterally, was unable to remove Bashar-ul-Assad—despite President Obama signing an executive order for this purpose. The United States was comprehensively defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And it could not defend, even for a moment, its Ukrainian ally.
So, who will enforce the international rules-based order? And if no one can really enforce it, is there any reason to believe that there still exists such a system?
This ‘old world order’, which existed in America’s unipolar world, is now dead and buried. And in its place, a new world, with new pressure centres, new alliances, and new trade routes, takes form. A world that transacts with a fresh set of principles, which are still unwritten; principles based on national and regional interest, instead of international coercion. This new world needs to be met with a new Pakistani foreign relations doctrine. One that is not United States centric, and instead focuses on national interests and regional alliances.