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Rules-Based Order? Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning the international order

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This commentary was first published on the Asialink website. It is part of a series of commentaries curated by the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, in collaboration with Asialink (University of Melbourne). Anthony Milner, Visiting Professor at AEI, is Co-Chair of the Australian Committee, together with Ric Smith AO.

As rising powers seek a seat at the table, the international rules-based order must reflect the needs and aspirations of all – not just the major powers, write analysts Joel Ng, Sarah Teo, and Benjamin Ho of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The international “Rules-Based Order” (RBO) is an amalgamation of different forces, institutions, and structures – each applying uneven pressure or facing unequal tensions depending on the power distribution, political goals, or historical disagreements of the members that comprise that order. If left to small states, they would overwhelmingly support an impartial, egalitarian, and transparent system with periodic inputs — conducted democratically — to further enhance the system’s effectiveness.

But insofar as major powers have needed to be satisfied with the content of these rules, bargains and exceptions have had to be allowed to secure their buy-in. The most well-known example of such privileging is the way the United Nations (UN) Security Council gives a right of veto to each of the five Permanent Members. Such inequalities certainly permeate other global institutions. These inequalities include weighted voting, differentiated rates of contributions to the budget of the organisations, and variations in who qualifies to be recipients of international aid. At the same time, these inequalities have also been counterbalanced by the sovereign weight of individual nation-states, where small states have always outnumbered the large.

Whose rules, whose order?

Many analyses of the RBO have tried to simplify its complexities in an attempt to explain, justify or normalize certain features – in a way that favours particular methods or ideals. These analyses have benefited from a now passé unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War – a moment that over-emphasised the West’s approach to managing international relations and even claimed universality for the system as it stood in the 1990s.

This liberal order has been challenged both internally in the West — as the rise of populism has shown — and externally by rising powers, exemplified by China’s demand for increased recognition of its status. As a result, the understanding of how the RBO must evolve to manage the new dynamics necessitates reflecting on its past complexity of power distributions, bargains, and the ostensibly “universal” rules that comprise it. Challengers too must appeal to broader interests to gain acceptance, and this may even involve presenting their ideas as “universal”.

As tensions have risen, accusations of rule-breaking have been levelled at rising powers. But it is not sufficient to simply label them “rule-breakers”. It is important to keep in mind that the rising power may not have been sufficiently powerful in the past to have had a seat where the old bargain was made, and that some of the rising power’s alleged “violations” may reflect the incompatibility of the current system with that power’s developing aspirations. The attempts of such rising powers now to drive a new bargain should be treated seriously. The costs and benefits of according greater influence at the table of global governance ought to be more broadly and strategically evaluated, not repeating the mistakes of the rebuff to Germany and Japan when they sought revisions for expanded influence in the 1990s.

In thinking about rule-breaking, it is important to keep in mind that the international order must offer stability, and the actions of any state beyond its borders can impinge on the circumstances of other states. Care must therefore be taken that states with contentions about the system are not backed into a corner, finding it better off going alone. Not only does this present no winners, but the fragmentation harms other states, producing instability and unpredictable consequences, and raises the cost of reordering the system.

Whereas fragmentation in the international economic system — such as multiple trading blocs, financial institutions, and so forth — has not led to insecurity, it has delayed any potential convergence towards a globally-consistent system and produced fractures that will be hard to harmonise. The dangers of fragmentation in the security order pose even greater risks – even though a proliferation of institutions may yet be an essential element in mitigating the discontent with the global system.

An RBO for all?

Established powers need to acknowledge the privileged position they occupied at the time of the writing of ‘the rules’ – ‘rules’ that allowed them to define the terms in ways that suited their interests. They must trust that the system they created — the system that gave the world its most stable half century — will prevail, and that new powers will not supplant the international order, even if they take greater roles and seek greater influence within it. Some adjustments must be made, however, to enhance the global RBO, helping it to re-legitimise itself.

On their part, new powers should take care not to tread on other states even as they legitimately seek to define and establish their new status in international affairs. Showing that they understand the responsibilities that come with status will assist rising actors to counter accusations of merely seeking power. One way they might convey this sense of responsibility is in addressing new, emerging issues that have not yet been dealt with in established structures of global management, or else are covered by norms or rules that urgently require updating for the 21st century. New issues would include health security, environmental management, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence.

As for small states, they need to demonstrate that their approach towards the RBO is more than just being conveniently aligned with major powers. In other words, they should either articulate support for the existing RBO or explain what characteristics need to be introduced in order to create a more equitable RBO. Where differences are difficult to resolve, the guiding principle should involve practical trust-building, with provision for early harvest from multilateral cooperation to incentivize greater and quicker convergence.

Ultimately, the RBO is an adaptive framework that must be (re)negotiated to accommodate the needs of both established and rising powers, as well as small states. With growing discontent to its current structure, reforms may mean concessions from all members of the global community – big or small. As rules are necessarily shaped by power, the key to a 21st century RBO is the commitment of large powers not to over-extend their influence at the expense of small states’ interests. This ideal scenario is certainly easier said than done. Yet the contemporary world cannot function in healthy, peaceful, and secure development without give-and-take, and without trust in a rules-based co-existence.

Joel Ng and Sarah Teo are Research Fellows and Benjamin Ho is Assistant Professor, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
The opinions presented are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of any affiliated institutions.

Last Updated: 23/02/2021