Perspectives: ‘Rules-Based’ Order in the Post-Unipolar World

By Rahul Mishra
Senior Lecturer – Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya

The Rules-Based Order is in need of reform, writes University of Malaya analyst Rahul Mishra. But it is first necessary to ensure the rules are grounded in the legitimacy that comes with greater inclusion.

Terms such as ‘rules-based order’ (RBO) and the ‘liberal international order’ became popular during the last decade of the twentieth century. Since the end of the Cold War, these two terms have often been used interchangeably. The collapse of the USSR, America’s rise as the global hegemon — and the romanticisation of that unprecedented phenomenon as an irreversible victory of liberalism, the unipolar moment and the end of history — led to the assumption that there is no alternative to liberalism. Furthermore, it also created a false sense of the universality of ideas and norms that were hitherto prevalent mainly in the so-called ‘free world’ as well as in some of its former colonies.

Clearly, ‘rules’ of the contemporary international order are deeply embedded in Western civilization and the ‘modern’ political philosophical principles the West propagates. These standards are not necessarily impartial, egalitarian, or universal but are still acknowledged as guiding principles of the contemporary international system. Some of the core ideas include: democracy, respect for human rights, free and open trade, responsible government, sovereign equality of nations, rule of law, and universal applicability of international law.

Lack of consensus in seeking a universally-acceptable definition of the RBO is due to the fact that it is often projected as the mirror image of the US-led Western liberal order. Both ideological and power politics equations have shaped this understanding in the non-western world. No western power, for instance, would support a non-western, quasi-liberal, RBO that Russia might aim to establish – with the Central Asian, Caucasus, and the Balkan regions under its ambit. To some, even the Russo-Chinese regional order, being built through the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) is unacceptable and a threat to the RBO. Apart from these so-called revisionist states, ASEAN shows some deviations beyond the western normal. As Amitav Acharya has pointed out, convergence of authoritarian values with commitments to economic development, regime security, and political stability can form the basis of a non-western security community (and regional order). However, these issues are always a matter of debate between non-western and western powers, with the latter using them as a bargaining chip to exercise hegemonic control. In this respect, it is difficult to decipher how western powers choose some authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Thailand over others.

Arguably, a rules-based order hinges on four key pillars. First and foremost is: a set of rules that are acceptable to member countries and applicable to potential members irrespective of their location, politico-economic capacities, and ethnic composition. Second, these rules must be backed by a range of institutions that create enabling economic and politico-security architectures which, in turn, bind the institutions together. Third, there needs to be the promise to deliver a peaceful and disciplined system that minimises the possibility of conflicts (at least among the member states). Fourth, there has to be a legitimacy, without which no order can be sustained for long. The legitimacy issue is one of the challenges China is facing with regard to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s BRI investments often fall short in terms of showcasing its normative agency. Apprehensions regarding lack of transparency, debt-trap diplomacy, environmentally and financially unsustainable investment patterns, and also regarding a China-centric trade, investment and developmental approach, have led to the BRI having a ‘credibility shortfall’.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the constituent ideas of a RBO are not of recent origin. A precursor to the idea of a RBO, for instance, is the fourteen principles set forth by Woodrow Wilson in his speech before the joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. For one, freedom of navigation, nowadays perceived by China as the latest American ploy to contain it, was a key component of the Wilsonian principles.

To be sure, even during the Cold War era, the bipolar order was based on rules and norms. However, neither of the blocs was agreeable to all the rules proposed by the other side. Using whatever limited consensus the two superpowers could achieve, they created a “subdued rules-based system”. This was made operational through a handful of international organisations such as the UNSC (United Nations Security Council), NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty), and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). This system was subdued not just because it had negligible influence in the Communist bloc, but also because more-than-a-hundred NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) countries were not directly a part of this system. Moreover, on issues such as global disarmament, the NAM countries showed stronger adherence to rules and normative principles than either of the super powers. Failure of major international stakeholders to sign the TPNW (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons), UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), SEANWFZ (Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty) are just a few examples showcasing the double standards of major powers with regard to the international rules.

Furthermore, from a non-Western perspective, the post-Cold War ‘rules-based’ order has not been that liberal after all. The non-western world is still deliberately kept out of this order especially when it comes to shaping the rules. “Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the guiding philosophy of the contemporary international order. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the insurrection plotted by supporters of Donald Trump, in their different ways, expose the flaws in the popular narrative. Unsurprisingly, crafty attempts by the Western media to play down the constitutional crisis in the US showcases the loopholes in the Western narrative of ‘rules’ in the ‘rules-based’ order. A similar situation in Indonesia, Ukraine, or Brazil would have led to assiduous diplomatic footwork by major powers – ranging between the issuance of warnings to deploying observers in such countries. Similarly, the lukewarm response to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe — together with the sharp increase in hate crimes, racism, discrimination against minorities and asylum seekers — suggests the same set of rules mean something different to the Western than the non-Western world. Such systemic flaws in the liberal international order, in fact, are leading to its own decline. The failure of the World Health Organisation to give a patient hearing to Taiwan in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and to conduct a free and fair enquiry regarding the origin and spread of the COVID-19 virus, is a tell-tale sign of its apparent defects.

Arguably, the flaws in the Bretton Woods institutions have led to the birth of non-western financial institutions such as AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the NDB (New Development Bank) led by China, India, and Russia. Devoted to capacity-building in non-western countries, AIIB is a clear manifestation of non-western countries standing up to the discriminatory practices of the Bretton Woods institutions. Clearly, the international economic RBO needs to be reformed to achieve a more inclusive and egalitarian outlook. This would not only benefit the non-western world but would also assist the contemporary RBO to ensure longevity. Reforming the UNSC to include emerging non-western powers such as Japan, India, and Brazil would be another important step. The liberal order is still fixated with the power equations prevalent in the post-second World War system. The contemporary international nuclear order — manifested in the NPT (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) — also does not reflect the realities of international nuclear politics, and needs to be reformed.

This imperial bias of the liberal world order is obvious when we see the United Kingdom clinging to membership of the UNSC – despite its abysmal contribution to global security, its inward-looking mercantilist economic policies, and its anti-immigrant sentiments manifested in BREXIT. In fact, BREXIT will go down in history as the UK’s regressive move to part ways with the European Union – considered the epitome of modern liberal international ideals.

A RBO is possible if grounded in universally agreed principles, which are backed by institutions that have the legitimacy and wherewithal to implement those principles and ensure a peaceful and stable environment. The future international/regional orders would require agreed rules – and must be accommodative to conflicting ideologies. Negotiations and compromises are necessary to ensure a functional — if necessarily complicated — international system.

Rahul Mishra is a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia. He can be reached at

Banner image: Sunset in the Sichuan city of Chengdu – a major benefactor of, and new transport hub along, the Belt and Road Initiative. Credit: B.Zhou, Shutterstock.