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Can a Rule of Law-Based International Order be More than Just Rhetoric?

03 Jul 2024
By William Winberg and Professor Stephen Nagy
Secretary Antony J. Blinken meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Prague, Czechia, May 31, 2024. Source: Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy /

The merits of the international order based on rule-of-law extend to more than just the US. Middle powers have a role to play, and can influence great powers when collective pressure can be brought to bear. 

With Eastern Europe experiencing the largest military conflict on the continent since WWII, the logic of promoting and strengthening an international order based on the rule-of-law has become crystal clear. However, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war is far from the only threat to the established system of international politics that most countries and political entities (such as Taiwan) have prospered from in the post-WWII period.

The rule-based international order phraseology has been politicised by revisionist states to suggest that the current order that has brought prosperity, peace, and stability is an order that reflects Western ideas, values, and priorities. This does not reflect the reality, with countries such as China, Russia, and India contributing to the current international order.

An international order based on rule-of-law, in contrast, emphasises that our international order is negotiable, but its basis must be legally fixed. It is also the currency that an increasing number of states are employing, such as Japan, to counter attempts to paint our current international order as Western centric.

At the 2022 Shangri-la Dialogue, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio stressed that “today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia.” The Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. echoed Kishida’s concerns at the 2024 Shangri-la Dialogue stressing that “illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions continue to violate our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdictions (by China)” and that “attempts to apply domestic laws and [regulations] beyond one’s territory and jurisdiction violate international law, exacerbate tensions, and undermine regional peace and security.”

Unilateral challenges to the political status quo by China stand out as significant threats to the rule-of-law in the Indo-Pacific region, with implications that may indeed include a regional conflict. This includes the territorial disputes with its neighbors, such as the harassment of Japan in the East China Sea and the militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, threats of unilateral reintegration of Taiwan, and its dismantling of political freedom in Hong Kong in violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Himalayan plateau and China’s territorial ambitions there have also witnessed numerous small border clashes with India that have the potential to cascade into a regional conflict between two nuclear powers, and would be better settled by dialogue instead of risking larger conflict.

Part of China’s efforts include what the Decoding China Team of the China Media Project, Heidelberg University, and the Swedish Center for China Studies (SCCS) explain as “advocating a “democratisation” of the UN system, which means a bigger say for countries from the Global South, though it also entails equal acceptance of authoritarian forms of governance and values.” In short, it is an effort by Beijing to say our current international order does not reflect Chinese or other developing countries’ values.

Shifting from the current international order based on rule-of-law to what Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine call an order based on the collective animosity of “The Axis of Upheaval” (China, Russia, North Korea and Iran), correctly identifies the challenges medium to small states increasingly face. A reversion to a “might is right”  approach to the international politics of the past will have direct economic and political implications. According to Kendall-Taylor and Fountain, these revisionist states are working together to “enhance one another’s military capabilities; dilute the efficacy of U.S. foreign policy tools, including sanctions; and hinder the ability of Washington and its partners to enforce global rules. Their collective aim is to create an alternative to the current order, which they consider to be dominated by the United States.”

China frames this alternative order as a UN-centered order wedded to China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence—mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

Beijing’s partners similarly repudiate the current rules-based order as it limits their ability to use their size and growing power to shape international order in such a way that makes it safe for their illiberal systems.

Whither the Rules-based system?

Recently in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman wrote that the rules-based order may not be worth upholding, noting that no one seemingly cares about it, including, increasingly, the United States. One example is the failure to signonto the covenants of the International Criminal Court; another, the seeming indiscriminate use of tariffs to limit Chinese exports of electrical vehicles.

Whether trade tariffs and the ICC equate to an international order based on the rule-of-law is up for debate. It would be a better world indeed if all states lived up to their agreements all the time. The UN system, and associated international legal bodies, however, are norm-creating institutions. This means their processes are slow, often frustrating, and susceptible to shifts in great power relations. This does not mean that the international community should abandon any attempt at ensuring that there is stability and predictability in the world.

An international order based on the rule-of-law does not necessarily translate to this so-called rules-based order. Although it may come off as an exercise of semantics, there is a key difference. Instead of the rules that guide international politics being set in stone and seemingly unmovable, disagreements ought to be dealt with through negotiation, dialogue, and the establishment of new or revised laws rather than a complete disregard for international law and a Machiavellian, might-is-right approach to resolving disputes.

In other words, the best way to change the international system is by going through it, rather than simply abandoning it.

Rachman is correct in one thing, the rules-based order is more than merely the sum of US actions (or inaction), despite it being one of the most important proponents of it. For most nations, it is in their best interest to strengthen the international order based on rule-of-law.  This would ensure that influential countries like the US refrain from “breaking global rules,” as Rachman puts it.

For middle-power countries like Germany, Japan, or Canada, who project significant economic, political, and normative power, but pale in the shadow of great powers like the US and China, the merits of upholding an international order based on the rule-of-law is key to securing not only economic prosperity but also political stability.

The US’s  adoption of the middle power approach in working towards upholding a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is a case in point. There is more to foreign affairs than what is decided in Washington D.C. Much like an order based on the rule-of-law, it requires the involvement of many, and in the end is more than the sum of its parts.

These middle power countries are many in number and, together, can sufficiently pressure offending states to adjust their behaviour.

The merits of an international order based on the rule-of-law far outweigh the volatile alternative; a return to the pre-war years of unrestrained Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalins.

The kind of international order we have matters for middle and small powers from Australia to South Korea. It is a world at large, where an international order based on rule-of law checks the power of states and leaders of much larger states from coercing small and medium sized states.

William Winberg is PhD Candidate at the International Christian University and intern for the Yokosuka Council of Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS)

Stephen Nagy is a Professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the International Christian University. Concurrently, he is a senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI), a fellow the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI); a senior fellow with the East Asia Security Centre (EASC); & a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.