The "Rules-Based International Order," explained
Brazilian diplomat Bertha Lutz signs the UN Charter at the San Francisco Conference, 26 June 1945 (photo via United Nations)
The term “rules-based international order” has become commonplace in government statements and joint communiqué. For many, the corresponding message is that it is necessary to reinforce that order to preserve the conditions needed for peace and prosperity. Others argue that the rules-based international order is nothing more than a tool for a select group of countries to advance their own hegemonic or exploitative ambitions. The one commonality between the two sides that present those arguments is that neither tends to define what the rules-based international order really is or why it matters.
For those seeking to manage conflict, to advance relations between nations, or simply to understand the state of global affairs, the definition of the rules-based international order is important. It is neither some nebulous concept without practical effects nor is it some oligarchical construct meant to impose “rules for thee but not for me.” The rules-based international order as we know it today is predicated on a system of laws, rules, and norms, and it has underpinned international interactions since its formal establishment in 1945. Whether its overall influence is positive or negative continues to be predicated on the actions of the members of the international community, but one cannot influence what one does not fully understand.
Understanding the global ecosystem
Fundamentally, there is a global ecosystem that binds together individual nation-states. What happens in one corner of the world can have significant and unanticipated impacts that reach the ends of the earth. That was not always the case, but globalization has changed this, particularly in the realms of economy and security.
Take for example an iPhone. Between the parts, design, technology, manufacturing, and logistics, it requires a total of forty-three countries to produce a single phone. What that means is that what happens in one of those countries will have at least a modicum of effect in the other forty-two, and that does not even consider the retailers or consumers of that product across the globe.
In terms of security, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers a clear demonstration of how one country’s aggression can have global effects. In addition to the materiel and financial costs countries have accepted to bolster Ukraine’s survival, the international community has faced the specter of nuclear disaster, an impending food security crisis, disruptions to supply chains, rising costs for gas and oil, impacts to market values of goods, and inflation across multiple continents. All those impacts stemmed from a single government’s decision to initiate hostilities against its neighbor.
There is also no shortage of economic crises to illustrate the world’s interconnectedness. The international community endured the 1970s oil shocks and collapse of the so-called “petrodollar.” The Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s had impacts across the globe, as did the Lehman Shock of 2008. With the state of global trade, financial markets, and logistics, the international community is in it together, for better or worse.
Recognition of the need for a rules-based order to preserve international stability is not new. While there are historical examples like the Treaty of Westphalia, in the context of the modern era, governments across the globe recognized it in the 1910s as the Great War spanned from the trenches of Europe to the waters of the Pacific. When the shooting stopped, members of the international community sought to create a new order through the establishment of the League of Nations.
However, the League of Nations failed, and the world plunged once again into world war. While the fighting raged on, diplomats worked simultaneously to design a new international system. This time, the goal remained grounded in the complex reality of international politics, focusing on just a few core principles such as collective security, fair access to the global commons, and universal human rights. As Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld once stated, the goal was not to “take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” The product of this effort was the United Nations, and it came into being once World War II ended.
What underpins the rules based international order?
There is no shortage of international laws, rules, and norms, as well as organizations that oversee them, but since 1945, it has all centered on the United Nations and its charter. 193 countries have acceded to the UN Charter as member states, declaring their wish to be part of the community of nations. As part of the deal, they are obliged to follow the fundamental principles and provisions that extend from that charter.
While there are many different things that inform international laws, rules, and norms—particularly by functional area—the core of it may be broken down into the following:
International conventions (e.g., the Geneva conventions)
Treaties (e.g., the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty)
International agreements (non-treaty level ceasefire agreements, framework agreements, joint declarations, etc.)
International court or tribunal rulings (e.g., the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling)
This list is not exhaustive, which in part contributes to some confusion over the rules-based international order; after all, there is no single tome that one can reference that clearly lays out every law, rule, and norm. Complicating matters is that each of the things listed above have varying levels of binding influence or effect.
Because there is no overarching enforcement authority, it is incumbent upon the members of the international community themselves to work together in establishing the rules and upholding them. This is why so many governments talk about reinforcing the rules-based international order: it is their responsibility to mitigate threats to the global ecosystem that can negatively impact countries across the world.
The utility of the rules-based international order
Given its inherent shortcomings, what then is the utility of the rules-based international order? Fundamentally, it comes down to four core points:
It offers a system for interstate interaction. The system that is predicated on international laws, rules, and norms is both informative and instructive in how the people of the world engage one another. History has demonstrated that its absence creates space for conflict and chaos until people realize once again that there must be boundaries for interactions. This was a lesson twice learned through world wars.
This system establishes rulesets. Rules have been a fundamental feature of human existence since time immemorial, be in commandments, laws, or codes. The challenge has always been applying rules to bigger and more diverse groups. The international system as it exists today seeks to present universal rules applicable to all members of the global community, and it ranges from things as broad as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to something as specific as protocols for responding to distress signals at sea. This is important not only for guiding behaviors, but for setting expectations that help mitigate the risk of accidental incidents, misinterpretation, or miscalculation.
The rules-based international order presents mechanisms for updating and amending rulesets. As the world constantly evolves, so does the rules-based international order, and that is by design. The UN Charter specifically provides for the international community to address changing requirements, which may be codified through new or amended treaties, conventions, statutes, resolutions, or other instruments. What this means is that the international community has a means for addressing potential sources of conflict or environmental, social, or economic problems before they manifest into something worse.
The rules-based international order offers mechanisms for addressing violations of the rulesets. Despite its limitations, the rules-based international order does offer options for responding to violations of the rulesets. There have been collective security mandates provided by the UN Security Council in response to unilateral aggression (such as in Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1991), and UN resolutions and rulings from associated organizations have provided the basis for other punitive measures such as sanctions. Ultimately, the rules-based international order is a “pay-to-play system,” meaning that member-states violate the rules at risk of losing the benefits that come with being part of the global community.
As with any system, the rules-based international order is imperfect. There is no law that has gone unchallenged, rule that has gone unbroken, or norm that has been unobserved. There is no overarching enforcement authority to oversee the implementation of these laws, rules, and norms. And yet, there is still utility, for in an otherwise anarchic world, the system established in 1945 anchors the international community against the chaos of war, disaster, violence, and crime. That is why it exists and why it matters.