22 February 2024
When powerful nations don’t play by the rules

When powerful nations don’t play by the rules

For decades nations of the world abided by some basic international rules. What happens when this international order breaks down?

There used to be agreed upon rules on how nations cooperate and compete.

But now, Western countries and close friends like Japan, South Korea and Singapore are worried that actions by the United States and China, as well as wars happening in Ukraine and Gaza, undermine what’s known as the “rules-based liberal international order” — one based on the notions of national sovereignty and respect for human rights.

On 7 February 2024, United Nations General Secretary António Guterres warned the UN General Assembly of a deep and dangerous dysfunction in international relations. “In today’s multipolar world, such mechanisms are missing,” Guterres said. “And so our world is entering an age of chaos.”

A rules-based order is worth salvaging. It is because of these rules that the world has experienced an unprecedented prosperity and relative peace in the almost eight decades since the end of World War Two.

But looking ahead, the world seems to be heading towards international anarchy.

From intervention to isolation

We are seeing the results: a dangerous and unpredictable free-for-all with total impunity.

Trump’s America withdrew from the World Health Organisation, Trans-Pacific Partnership and Iran nuclear deal. His administration undermined NATO and the World Trade Organisation, insulted key allies and cosied up to opponents of the rules-based liberal international order such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, the United States under Trump renounced its traditional international leadership role.

While President Joe Biden’s administration has done much to rehabilitate the role of the United States as leader of the rules-based liberal international order, he has not been able to roll back all of Trump’s actions. And the spectre of a possible return of Trump hangs over the international order.

Even before a possible Trump victory, there are already signs that the U.S. Congress is losing interest in supporting Ukraine in the current war, thereby offering a gift to Putin’s Russia.

There is a real risk of the United States moving in an isolationist direction.

Conflicts between countries

Much of world history has been plagued by virtually never-ending conflict and rivalry between empires, states and city states.

The world would have to await the end of World War Two to see the most serious attempt to build a rules-based liberal international order.

Led by the United States, this “hegemonic and hierarchical order” is based on multilateral organisations like the European Union, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, GATT (now the World Trade Organisation) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It also includes security alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Australia and Israel.

And while the United States has officially recognized China’s right to Taiwan, known as the “one-China policy”, it is insistent that unification take place peacefully, without force. So, the United States provides Taiwan with arms and financial support through the “Taiwan Relations Act” designed to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself.

A warming of relations after the Cold War

As this U.S.-led international order was established in opposition to communism during the Cold War, it had limited participation of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries that made up what was known as the Communist Bloc.

But as the Cold War came to an end, many former communist countries joined the liberal international order, as did numerous emerging economies that benefited from economic globalisation.

The United States fostered the credibility and legitimacy of the order by accepting most of the obligations of membership of these international organisations. But this credibility and legitimacy was never watertight.

The United States has been unwilling, for example, to submit itself to the authority of the International Court of Justice. And although the United States signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has never ratified it, something which compromises the credibility of its opposition to China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Participation in regime change in countries such as Chile, Iran and Indonesia as well as its involvement in wars in Southeast Asia, brought discredit to the United States.

That’s a far cry from the United States that sought to rehabilitate Germany and Japan following their unconditional surrender at the end of World War Two, which resulted in the transformation of formerly fascist governments into democratic allies.

A place for emerging powers

The 21st century has seen further erosion of the rules-based international order by the United States through its unsanctioned invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the excesses of its 20-year “War on Terror”.

The 2008/09 global financial crisis also brought discredit to the U.S. system of democratic capitalism, in which a democratic political system allows the market to run the economy in contrast to an authoritarian government which more tightly controls the economy.

In part, the loss of credibility of the international order is a result of the failure of the established powers, such as the United States and Europe, to give emerging powers space in that order.

In this way, the established powers have resisted the new power realities of the world economy.

China, for example, now accounts for about 18% of the global economy, and yet it has only been granted a little over 6% of the voting share in the International Monetary Fund.

France and the United Kingdom hang onto permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, that they arguably no longer deserve, while denying nations, such as India, Brazil, Japan and Germany such seats.

Changing the rules of the game

In an extraordinary case of political petulance, the United States refused to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), created by China to fund development projects throughout Asia, because it sees the AIIB as a competitor to the Washington-based World Bank. The United States also fears that the AIIB will be an instrument for Chinese influence in global governance.

Most other countries believe that China should be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to take such initiatives in light of its growing weight in the world economy. In other words, we must learn to live with China.

During the early years of its own modern economic renaissance, China was a great beneficiary of the rules-based liberal international order. Many hoped it would become a more open and pluralist country, and a responsible stakeholder.

That didn’t happen. Instead, China has been contesting the international order, notably by occupying the South China Sea in defiance of the United Nations, its lack of transparency concerning the origins of Covid-19, its failure to meet its international trade commitments and attempts to coerce or force Taiwan’s unification with China.

Overall, there is a concern that China is pushing international politics in an illiberal direction, or in a direction where countries must follow the dictates of China.

Indeed, China has also made moves to establish its own order, notably through the Belt and Road Initiative, which Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a decade ago to spread China’s influence by investing in infrastructure projects around the world.

Constructing alliances

Some fear that China is using infrastructure financing to subjugate and entrap poor countries, whose leaders are often seduced through bribes to accept such financing. Other countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea are joining China in contesting the rules-based order, while much of the Global South has not been supportive of Western assistance to Ukraine.

A well-functioning international order is necessary to enable a collective response to the enormous challenges of these times: climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence and economic protectionism. But the responses to these challenges have been totally inadequate.

Are either the United States or China, the world’s leading countries, capable of salvaging the rules-based liberal international order?

At this point, neither country seems willing or able to demonstrate the necessary global leadership to ensure the continued functioning of the international order. Looking ahead, the most likely scenario is one of growing global disorder and anarchy, rather than political order.

To return to international order requires one of two things: first all countries must be willing to follow the previously agreed rules of the game. But countries like China believe the old order to be driven by the United States and thus no longer legitimate.

If you accept this point, this means that the world’s leading countries should renegotiate a new international order.

But that is something the United States and most Western countries are unlikely to accept. It seems that any attempt to negotiate a new international order would result in a stalemate. For now at least, the differences between China/Russia and the West are too great.


This article by John West was first published by the News Decoder on 22 February 2024
Tags: asia

Social share