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Can international ‘rules-based order’ survive?

What does America’s ignominious defeat in Afghanistan mean for the international “rules-based order”, which derives its legitimacy from American power? Saad Rasool, a senior lawyer, analyzes the future of international law.

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The truth is that the ‘new year’ has no astronomical significance attached to it. None. It merely marks and celebrates an arbitrary point on the Earth’s elliptical journey around the Sun; a journey that neither started on January 1, nor experiences a revival on the said date.

But despite its astronomical insignificance, humanity uses the ‘new year’ as an opportunity to reflect on the developments of the past 12 months, and plan for a fresh start for the coming orbit of Earth around the Sun.

The most significant development of 2021, by a large margin, was the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, and the end of American occupation in Afghanistan. But that’s just a statement of the immediate and the transitory. As we get past the immediate pulse of this development, a far more significant question will need to be answered: what does America’s ignominious defeat in Afghanistan mean for the international “rules-based order”, which derives its legitimacy from American power?

Read more: Pakistan’s broken system: How can we fix it?

The United Nations defines the international ‘rules-based order’ as “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements.” Notwithstanding the soft and inclusive language of this definition, in essence, the international rules-based order requires all countries to abide by a set of rules created by the United States and her select partners.

And any country that does not tow the American line—like Cuba, Iraq, Iran, or Syria—is slapped with economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and (eventual) military action. In effect, the international rules-based order is America’s stick and carrot mechanism for governing the world.

While this system is ostensible packaged in the language of human rights and global collaborations, at its core, the enforceability of the international ‘rules-based order’ is based on a series of coercive assumptions, that include: 1) countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above any bilateral relations that such countries may wish to have inter se; 2) violation of this system will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions—including pressure from international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and FATF, etc.; 3) the sanctions imposed, by the United States and international institutions, for violating this system, will be enough to coerce a party into abiding by the rules-based order; 4) participants of the international rules-based order will be willing to employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g. UNSC and NATO), to enforce the system; and 5) the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required.

Read more: Should the world brace itself for a new regional war?

Without these assumptions, the international rules-based order would be a mere catchphrase; with no real persuasion, potency or legitimacy.

Consequently, as we welcome the new year, and look past the defeat of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, it is pertinent to assess whether the international rules-based order can continue to serve as the currency of power. Or whether, in 2022 and beyond, the assumptions that lend legitimacy to this system no longer hold.

First—that individual countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above bilateral interests. Well, this core assumption is already dwindling. As America retreats from the global stage, defeated, we are already beginning to see that certain countries are preferring bilateral relations over international commitments. China has reportedly committed some $400 billion to Iran, despite the threat of sanctions. Europe (after Brexit) is dealing with Russia and China on their own terms, as opposed to American dictates.

President Macron has already announced that Europe should have policies independent of NATO and the United States. All the sanctions in the world did not prevent the Taliban from transacting with the international community, in the lead-up to America’s withdrawal. Syria, despite American pressure, continues to have a fruitful relationship with Russia and Europe. Lebanon, despite all the sanctions, continues to work with France, Iran and China. Pakistan, despite the threat of more international sanctions, is going full speed ahead with CPEC. So, the assumption that countries will prefer multilateral rules over bilateral interests, is eroding fast.

Read more: The reclaiming of Kabul by the Taliban

Second and third—that violation of the ‘rules-based system’ will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions, which will be enough to coerce countries to abide by the international rules-based order. This assumption has also been weakened in recent years. India, for a long time, courted Iran, through Chabahar and other projects, despite threat of US sanctions. India is still willing to buy the Russian S-400 system, at the peril of facing US sanctions.

Just this year, the United States waived its threat of sanctions for Germany, in case it built an oil pipeline with Russia. No sanctions were placed on Israel for violating human rights. No sanctions have stopped Iran from growing its influence across the Shia crescent. No sanctions have stopped Cuba from continuing to exist and be functional. And all this was before the United States lost to the Taliban. As the world comes to terms with the new reality of post-American hegemony, the threat of sanctions, imposed indiscriminately against anyone who violates the rules-based order, is likely to further dwindle.

Fourth—that participant of the international rules-based order will employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g., UNSC and NATO), to enforce the system. This assumption has almost entirely collapsed. The international military machine, led by the United States, has failed in delivering on its promise. NATO never actually ‘fought’ the Soviet Union. NATO forces lost the war in Afghanistan. They did not win the war in Iraq. They could not enter Lebanon.

They did not come to defend Crimea. Some NATO partners find themselves on opposite ends of the war in Armenia and Libya. NATO’s sister organisation in the Pacific, the QUAD, did not come to the aid of Hong Kong. And neither QUAD, nor the AUKUS, will be able to hold on to Taiwan, if the matter descends into a military battle. As such, there is no reason for individual countries or groups to fear international military collaborations. The past thirty years are a testament to the fact that international rules-based order will not be enforced, through military battle, by the international fighting machine.

Read more: China shows India nightmares in the Indo-Pacific region

Fifth—that the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required. This assumption, weak to begin with, has been proven wrong, time and again, across the Middle East and Central Asia. Can the United States fight a unilateral war against some of the weaker countries across the globe? Yes. Is it likely that it will do so, anytime in the near future? No. Even if it does, is it likely that the United States will win such a war? No. Since the Second World War, has the United States ever won a unilateral war? No. The United States could not win the war against North Korea in the 1950s. It was defeated in Vietnam during the 1970s.

Victory in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, was not won by the United States military. It could not remove Saddam Hussain in the first Gulf War. When it finally did remove Saddam, during the second Gulf War, it was unable to bring any measure of stability to Iraq. The United States, unilaterally, was unable to remove Bashar-ul-Assad—despite President Obama signing an executive order for this purpose. And the United States has been comprehensively defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So, who will enforce the international rules-based order? And if no one can really enforce it, is there any reason to believe that, there still exists such a system?

Read more: Remembering the APS Peshawar attack

2022 will likely welcome a new global reset; a period when the unipolar world (led by the United States) and its corresponding (rules-based) order, starts to fade away. And in its place, a new world, with new pressure centres, new alliances, and new trade routes, takes form. A world that transacts with a fresh set of principles, which are still unwritten; principles based on national and regional interest, instead of international coercion. This new world, in 2022, needs to be met with a new Pakistani foreign relations doctrine. One that is not United States centric, and instead focuses on national interests and regional alliances.

Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared in The Nation under the title, “Future of the international ‘rules-based order’” and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.