Decay in the international rules-based order


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: UNSC

Mains level: Paper 2- Global rules based order


The unexpected Russian military intervention in Ukraine is merely the latest symptom of an underlying cause of decay in the international ‘rules-based’ order.

Background of the idea of international rules-based order and sovereignty

  • It was the Diet of Westphalia (in the then Holy Roman Empire) in 1648 that first set out what our post-World War II global institutional framework established as the principle of ‘sovereignty’.
  • Sovereignty was for a long time the singular bedrock, the very founding principle that the UN Charter sought to firmly establish, in order to make wars of aggression (as opposed to self-defense) illegal under international law, and liable to be punished by the international community via the UN Security Council and its right to use coercive force.

What is a state?

  • State is a community that feels as one, accepts a set of common guiding principles and is constituted by member states who are willing to operate according to rules / norms of behaviour.
  • There has always been a theoretical debate in the discipline, drawing on elements of philosophy, psychology and even economics, on whether or not we actually live in an international society of states or whether it is still merely a system of states.
  • System of states: A system of states is a very complex landscape consisting of individual actors who possess coercive power to varying degrees, have zero-sum ambitions to varying degrees, adhere to global ‘rules’ to the extent that they are convenient or exigent at a moment, while being willing to covertly and overtly bend and even break those rules, when core national interests are involved.
  • In the second interpretation, states are engaged in game-theoretic, rational-utilitarian cooperation, competition and even conflict, depending on the specificities of each situation.
  • In a nutshell, it is a highly complicated theoretical and practical situation wherein simplistic, moralising explanations and narratives about events are typically wrong and often misleading or counterproductive.

UN and the issue of enforcement

  • Forces like the internet and social media, combined with the cultural dominance of the West, portended a gradual spread of democratic values.
  • The biggest challenge to this kind of perspective usually came from the ‘realist’ camp of International Relations researchers who argue that argue that in the absence of effective enforcement of rules, the notion of such rules was an empty idea.
  • Enforcement was theoretically meant to happen by way of the Security Council.
  • However, this plan was stillborn due to the fundamental unwillingness of the five permanent members to countenance a possibility of global action against themselves and the consequent injection of the notion of a ‘veto’ in the world’s highest security-focused body.
  • This has meant that for the entirety of the UN’s existence, true Security Council intervention in an international crisis has only been possible in the rarest of rare exceptions when all five permanent members happened to agree.

Threat to rule-based order

  • The foregoing analysis allows us to conclude that far from being an isolated incident that for the first time since the UN Charter was drafted has violated our rules-based order, the Russian intervention in Ukraine is a significant further erosion in the believability of anyone’s claims that such a thing actually exists.
  • All states have shown their willingness to conduct foreign policy at the cost of others.
  • Most states in the last few decades have provided international rules with a lot of ‘lip-service’ while using clandestine methods to achieve their aims.

Nuclear weapons as a source of stability

  • The notion of ‘mutually assured destruction’ created a tension that seemed to preclude even conventional warfare between two nuclear-armed rivals.
  •  Most interestingly, with the separation of seven decades between Hiroshima / Nagasaki and the present, a gradual shift in the calculus of defence planners seems to have occurred.
  •  From the sense that a mere conventional conflict would be sufficient trigger for a power to exercise a nuclear option, planners seem to have gained a new comfort with nuclear weapons in existence.
  • They no longer seem to believe they will be used short of an existential threat.
  • Russia equally feels confident that merely asserting its core security interests in Ukraine will not draw a nuclear response from NATO.
  • Waning American dominance combined with a retreat of global norms and a lessening nuclear deterrent to armed conflict and the rise of new power centres in Asia are a potent mix of new dynamics in our world.


Never since the establishment of our post-war global system has it been under such significant threat. India must take stock and with extreme vigilance approach its entire gamut of cooperative, competitive and adversarial options while navigating this wholly new world out there.

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