The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘rules-based international order’ doesn’t constrain Russia — or the United States

American pundits say Putin is undermining the international order. But the ability of great powers to ignore the rules is a lamentable part of the system.

Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia, president of the U.N. Security Council for February and permanent representative of the Russian Federation, at the U.N. headquarters on Feb. 28. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s breach of the peace in invading Ukraine is scandalous. But rather than illustrating the importance of a “rules-based international order” that only despots violate and populists threaten — as many pundits and administration officials are now suggesting — the invasion is another reminder of the need to build a better order. As much as any individual or nation is to blame for specific instances of international violence, the existing system reflects a hypocritical commitment to allow a great power war while claiming to prohibit it.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945, its charter made most uses of force illegal, aside from those authorized by the body’s Security Council “to maintain or restore international peace and security” and those undertaken in self-defense. The “suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace” was proclaimed as one of the organization’s founding purposes. Such rhetoric made sense to the survivors of two world wars.

The rub was that the charter was fatally inconsistent in its antiwar stance: It granted to the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, the Soviet Union (later succeeded by Russia), China, France and Britain — a veto over any resolution identifying an aggressor, or authorizing coercive (including military) responses. The veto meant from the start that some of the most powerful states, including Russia, could never bear the scarlet letter of aggressor in the international system.

Of course, had Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin not agreed at Yalta that their states could veto anything they didn’t like, there might have been no U.N. Charter in the first place. But it’s inevitable that states with a veto will use it to protect themselves and their allies from consequences. And this has been borne out in practice. There have been more than more than 250 great power vetoes since. They should be seen as not a bug but a feature of our international order.

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The meaning and value of “rules-based orders” — whether in the domestic context or the international — always depend on who gets to decide when the rules apply. We like to think the purpose of our rules-based order at home — the “rule of law” is the usual phrase for it — is domestic peace and security. It sometimes works: Laws prohibit much grievous harm, the police keep people safe, and the criminal justice system tries the accused and punishes the convicted. But we also know that the powerful have ways out of trouble and that application of the rules leads to the mass incarceration of the weak or unprivileged. Our aspiration to safety masks a reality of impunity for some and subjugation for others — typically across lines of race and wealth.

The situation is even worse on the international stage. We might not tolerate a criminal law that openly provided the most powerful members of society a get-out-of-jail-free card. Yet through their veto on the Security Council, certain states have a stack of never-get-indicted cards — and they can never run out. When Russia played one last Friday, in response to the Security Council condemnation organized by the U.S. government, it was certainly not the first time it made use of the charter’s rules to help it break the most basic rules in the international order with impunity.

“You cannot veto the Ukrainian people, you cannot veto the U.N. Charter, and you will not veto accountability,” thundered Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. representative to the United States, in response to Russia’s veto. But the point is that it is precisely the U.N. Charter that allows Russia to make the precious international rule prohibiting war inapplicable to its conduct.

The United States also seeks exceptions for itself. Critics of the United States have not tired over the years of warning that we would have no standing to indict others’ aggressive acts, given our own actions. When Putin, in his irate harangue days before the Ukraine invasion, pointed to American hypocrisy about the use of force, he was being cynical but not untruthful. The military operation against Yugoslav forces in 1999, to protect civilians in Kosovo, was not approved by the United Nations, Putin noted. “Some Western colleagues do not like to remember those events,” he said, referring to the months of bombing of Belgrade. Nor was the Iraq War, nor the American intervention in Syria.

Putin was also not wrong to say that, during such conflicts, U.S. officials sometimes shift attention from the rules of the international order “to the circumstances that they interpret as they see fit.” In doing so, the United States has modeled how to offer up flimsy pretenses of adhering to a peaceful world order, secure in our knowledge that it won’t matter much if the rest of the world disagrees. Unsurprisingly, in defense of his aggressive war, Putin has offered a grab bag of excuses — including humanitarian intervention — on which the United States has also relied.

Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right: America’s flouting of U.N. rules in no way justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But two wrongs do make a pattern. That these militarily powerful nations find it so easy to do an end-run around U.N. prohibitions on aggressive war should cause some reflection.

Too often, outrage at great power war-making is directed at political leaders, as if the conflicts were an outgrowth of the ethics of particular politicians. In the American case, dissenters from hawkish policies also criticize the Beltway “blob” of foreign-policy experts. That kind of response is a substitute for systemic reform of the United Nations and other international institutions. The reason for rules in the first place is that there will always be bad actors and that everyone is likely to excuse their own crass misdeeds while finding those of others infuriating. The problem is when the rules themselves allow powerful states assurance that the rules won’t matter if they break them.

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Changing this will not be easy. But doing so is incumbent on all those who have spoken of liberal internationalism for years and who resisted — for example — President Donald Trump’s scorn for rules and norms. Surely those who have engaged in such rhetoric don’t mean to endorse a system that prohibits war in principle but lets a select few powerful nations ignore the prohibition in practice?

The best outlet for action and anger in the long term is reforming the international system. Proposals for Security Council revision, especially, are not lacking. Eliminating the veto would make the biggest difference so that a majority of states could identify even a great power as an aggressor state, without fear of obstruction. Expanding the membership of the council has also been proposed, or transferring its authority to the General Assembly (which represents all states but, at present, largely lacks power).

These kinds of revisions would also make it possible to indict great power aggressors, like Russia today or China tomorrow, for illegal acts. They would certainly lessen American power, as well, and expose the United States to the risk of condemnation. But this would be a price worth paying, since it would require American administrations to take greater care before engaging in intervention abroad. Given how many American wars have gone wrong in our lifetimes, that could be a salutary constraint. And if a war comes we feel we truly need to fight, new rules would simply mean Americans would have to do better than they have done lately in convincing the rest of the world that military intervention is necessary and just.

Putin’s rationales for war are hypocritical — but so is idealizing a peaceful world order while accepting a system that permits the states most in need of limits to ignore international law at will.