Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 September 2023


The Rules-Based International Order Is Quietly Disintegrating

It hasn’t been this threatened since the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead

Sept. 25, 2023 6:06 pm ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sept. 23. PHOTO: PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA/ZUMA PRESS

The most important fact in world politics is that 19 months after Vladimir Putin challenged the so-called rules-based international order head-on by invading Ukraine, the defense of that order is not going well. The world is less stable today than in February 2022, the enemies of the order hammer away, the institutional foundations of the order look increasingly shaky, and Western leaders don’t yet seem to grasp the immensity of the task before them.

This isn’t just about the military threats to the international system in such places as Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait. Even as the global geopolitical crisis becomes more acute, the core institutions and initiatives of the American-led world order and the governments that back them are growing progressively weaker and less relevant.

The United Nations was supposed to be the crown jewel of the rules-based order, but lately the power and prestige of this perennial underperformer has sunk to new lows. Among the leaders of the five permanent members of the Security Council, only Joe Biden bothered to show up for the General Assembly last week. Emmanuel Macron was too busy welcoming King Charles III on an entirely ceremonial state visit to Paris. Apparently neither the British king nor the French president thought the U.N. important enough to affect his plans. U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blew off a letter from the heads of more than 100 international-development nongovernmental organizations urging him to attend, the first prime minister in a decade to skip the annual meeting.

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Mr. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping also ditched the U.N. meeting, but they weren’t staying at home and washing their hair. Both ostentatiously demonstrated their contempt for Western norms by inviting international pariahs for high-profile visits. Just before the U.N. meeting, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un headed to a Russian space-launch site, where Mr. Putin courted him and both leaders bragged about their deepening relations. And during the General Assembly, Mr. Xi welcomed Syria’s beleaguered Bashar al-Assad to Hangzhou.

There was a time when people would have cared what the U.N. had to say about international crises ranging from the string of coups across Africa and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict to the alleged Indian involvement in the assassination of a Khalistan activist in Canada. Nobody today thinks that the deadlocked Security Council or the farcical General Assembly has a constructive role to play in these matters.

It isn’t only the United Nations. Messrs. Xi and Putin also ditched this month’s Group of 20 summit in New Delhi. Meantime, China was busy demonstrating its utter contempt for the World Court ruling against its “Nine-Dash line” territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing continues to develop military facilities on Mischief Reef, part of the internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone belonging to the Philippines, and increasingly polices its claimed maritime boundaries in defiance of Western protests.

The World Trade Organization is a shadow of its former self. As protectionist sentiment intensifies around the world, the WTO is largely toothless and voiceless. The Doha Round of trade talks collapsed years ago, and there is no prospect of a revival of the free-trade agenda that was an integral element of the rules-based order from the Bretton Woods negotiations during World War II on.

Arms-control and disarmament negotiations, another pillar of the rules-based order, are off the agenda. China has launched a massive nuclear buildup. Russia seems more interested in threatening the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine than in disarmament. As Iran nears the nuclear threshold, the early signs of a proliferation cascade are visible in the Middle East. Mr. Kim’s trip to Russia signals the final collapse of U.S. attempts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear program through U.N. sanctions. South Korea, where a majority of voters favor developing nuclear weapons, is paying attention. The development of hypersonic missiles, cyber attacks and biological weapons persists, with no meaningful attempt to address these problems through multilateral institutions, arms talks or anything else this side of the law of the jungle.

States are imploding and the rule of law is disappearing across large parts of the world. In Latin America, narco-trafficking crime organizations have infiltrated or supplanted weak states. Something similar is happening in the Sahel, with jihadist groups and bandits openly defying the authority of shambolic governments. Russia, China and Iran are happily fishing in these troubled waters, with few signs of effective Western responses to a growing security threat. The ignominious collapse of French power across Africa has been more dramatic, but the palsied incompetence of American responses to the erosion of civil order among our own neighbors is at least equally disgraceful, and equally grave.

Threatened by powerful and relentless adversaries from without, undermined by political decadence and institutional decay from within, the rules-based international order has not been this imperiled since the 1930s.

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