If not for peace, why does Australia favour rules-based global order?


Flags from all countries outside of the UN building in Manhattan.

In the absence of a foreign policy white paper, at least for the last 13 years, many have argued that Australia’s vision for its place in the world is most clearly found in the white papers from Defence.

Notably, the term “rules-based global order” has come into sudden and striking prominence, appearing 56 times in the Defence White Paper 2016 and now making its way into regular parliamentary vernacular. It’s likely to feature heavily in the upcoming foreign policy white paper as well. So, what does it actually mean?

The term could mean a number of different things, depending on who is asking and the lens through which they view international relations. For example, it might refer to the norms that the United States expects other states to adhere to as they deal with each other, because they have the greatest military power in the world.

It might also refer to the rules of international relations that are established by international organisations such as the United Nations, and decisions made by international courts.

From another perspective, a rules-based global order could be defined from a human rights, political, economic, environmental or other context that governs the behaviour of different states.

The global order

The term global order or international order refers to how international states interact with each other and describes their patterns of behaviour.

These interactions include how states form and manage their diplomatic and trade relationships. It also includes the practices used to resolve differences, including resorting to the use of military force. The global order recognises that different states have different national power and influence relative to each other, which might stem from their diplomatic, information, military or economic power.

What constitutes the new global order is redefined to recognised and accommodate the changes in that power’s pattern of behaviour towards and interactions with other states. The global order changes over time. For example, the global order during the cold war that influenced state decision making is very different from the global order that exists today.

During the cold war, the influence of the Soviet Union and the US dominated the behaviour of states and their decision making.

Today, the US arguably has the greatest balance of military power and the UN has significant influence on the behaviour of states.

The global order is likely to change again in the future with the continuing rise of China, which has an economy that has surpassed the US in a number of aspects but may completely surpass the US in the future.

The power of states and their priorities can have a significant influence in the behaviour of one state towards another.

There are several schools of international relations theory that provides a useful perspective for how these interactions can be defined.

  • Realism seeks to define the landscape of international relations from the perspective of power between states. It is the traditional way to look at how states interact with each other based on their balancing power arrangements and also the human desire for greater power.
  • Liberalism looks at international relations from the perspective of how a state’s policies and preferences shape their strategies and interactions rather than their national power capacity.
  • Institutionalism allows for international institutions to be a determinant in shaping the behaviour of states. Neo-realism and neo-liberalism are branches from classical theories that incorporate some of concepts of institutionalism.
  • Constructivism considers that persuasive ideas, values, culture and social identity shape a state’s behaviours.

An institutionalist approach

The concept of a rules-based global order places importance on the role of international institutions and the rules, judgements, conventions and protocols that they establish. These are intended to significantly influence the decision-making the international behaviours of states.

International norms of current international order have stem from the new order that was established at the conclusion of World War II. This order was marked by the creation of a number of international diplomatic, military and economic organisations intended to influence a state’s behaviour such as the UN, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.

The UN Security Council’s role was established to specifically govern the use of force. This body therefore is central to the concept of what constitutes the present rules-based global order, particularly with respect in its intended authority to restrict or authorise the use of force, and to promulgate the circumstances by which a state can use force in its own defence.

Institutions such as the international courts are formed by international treaties or an authority such as the UN. As these courts provide rulings intended to shape and influence a state’s behaviour, these also form an important component of the rules-based global order.

Defence White Paper 2016 specifically identifies the governance framework underpinning the rules-based global order to include UN, international laws and conventions, and regional security architectures.

An easy mistake to make is believing that a rules-based global order is a world at peace. The world exists somewhat in a continuous state of anarchy — that is, there is no established leader or single governing body that is truly capable of enforcing the rules, nor controlling the actions of another state. Ultimately, states are the sole determinant of their international decisions.

For the most part, states have been willing playing by these rules, however, there have been numerous departures from over the past two decades, where states are not willing to abide by established conventions, or rulings from international courts that are not in their interests.

These departures from the rules of the game create fragility within an institutional rules-based global order because it diminishes the capacity of international organisations to effectively influence the behaviours of states.

Departures from the rules does not necessarily invalidate this institutionalist approach or the concept of a rules-based global order. They simply highlight that the system does not overriding power that is capable of enforcing the rules, and that the system works when most states decided to adhere to the rules. The only form of punishment that can be delivered is through the modification of relationships and behaviours to states that don’t play by the rules.

Erosion of the capacity for international organisations to influence behaviours of states reduces the effectiveness of this approach that for resolution of disputes without the use of force, and to provide a framework for states to interact with each other in a fair and just manner.

This means that for the approach to work, adjustments are necessary over time to keep states on-board and agreeing to play by the rules.

The alternative is a complete breakdown of the rules-based global order, or supplanting the existing order with a new set of rules that will be set by the state by the greatest diplomatic, information, military or economic influence over other states.

What’s in it for Australia: security and stability

The rules-based global order provides an approach to provide for security and stability through the use of international institutions and conventions that are established for the expected behaviour of states.

In order for the approach to be effective, it requires:

  • Maintenance of the authority, relevance and effective influence of international organisations such as the United Nations
  • All states deciding to behave in a manner that is consistent with the decisions, protocols, conventions, and agreements made by those organisations the majority of the time
  • States interacting with each other in a manner that that broadly follow the principals of international conventions

Breaking the rules does not necessarily indicate a complete system failure of the rules-based global order. The degree of influence of international organisations and what states decide to do to each other when rules are broken is what maintains the existing rules-based global order.

The rules of the game will naturally change over time, by states that wield the greatest power, or the principles and policies that resonate with most states.

Vince Chong is undertaking post-graduate strategic studies at ANU.

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