The Ukraine war shows that the “rules-based international order” is a myth

The Biden administration has been vocal in defending what it calls the “rules-based international order,” but there is no such thing. There is no global security space governed by global rules or a few key powers, as the war in Ukraine should remind us. There is also no “global threat” to which all states are equally exposed, but regional revisionist powers that threaten neighboring states. Temporary regional balances with their own power dynamics are driven by local historical competitions. They are unstable and prone to wars. They require constant attention and management.

Over the past three decades, these regional orders – in Europe, the Middle East and Asia – have been relatively stable and local competition has been muted. The impression of a world order emerged. Liberals saw this global stability as the product of international rules, a growing number of democracies, and greater international trade – a “rules-based order” strengthened by democracies and trade peace. Realists saw a world order ensured by a rough balance between the great powers – the US, Russia and China – with nuclear weapons as an effective counterbalance to pacification.

Both visions of world order place too much emphasis on the global nature of this stability. If we look at the world through the lens of regional orders, the picture is more worrying.

Russia’s wars in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014, as well as Iran’s actions in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, and China’s military expansion in Asia have all been signs of growing local volatility. But so far these have been cautious advances, carried out by hesitant revisionist powers and held up by American power. Russia’s war in Ukraine is the first full-fledged military offensive aimed at drastically changing the local balance of power. Russia aspires to be the dominant power in Europe, and for that it needs to dominate Ukraine.

Regional orders are fragile for two reasons. First, military force is more likely to be used in local disputes than in disputes between distant rivals. The stakes are high for local parties, and the perceived risks are limited. A revisionist power is more likely to pursue its goals, such as conquering territory or controlling the political life of a neighboring state, through war than through negotiations. And the targets of revisionist power will not accept a hostile takeover without a fight. Ultimately, both sides are less concerned with preventing war than using war for their own purposes. War is an ongoing regional reality.

The US tends to see stability as a general goal of its grand strategy. As President Biden said, the goal is to “prevent” World War III. But regional revisionists in Eurasia are not afraid to push their own borders to expand their influence. The states they threaten will also choose war over submission, regional disorder over lost independence. The US will have to figure out how to deal with, and even embrace, instability and war in regions important to its national interests.

The second reason for the instability of regional orders is that local competitions are geographically limited but last a long time. Local conflicts are based on or justified by historical claims. Alleged or actual crimes committed in the past arouse a desire for revenge; the pursuit of greatness spurs territorial claims; and national self-awareness motivates a stubborn hostility toward aggressive neighbors. If the roots of a political action lie in national claims to greatness, a diplomatic compromise becomes difficult. Protracted conflicts seem preferable to a negotiated solution. It is more legitimate to dig trenches than to sit at negotiating tables.

Local antagonists are willing to bear heavy costs in both attack (like Russia) and defense (like Ukraine). The expectation is that the high risk will be rewarded with a high payoff: the attacker expects more influence or territory, while the defender expects independence and more security.

For a distant power like the US, the persistence of regional conflicts in Eurasia is a political challenge. Dealing with such conflicts requires consistent commitment and constant presence. But the US approach is to engage in regional geopolitical dynamics only when necessary to restore balance, and then move to another region. There is talk of “unifying” Europe and “pivoting” to Asia.

It is historically rare for a local competition to come to a permanent end – usually only when a devastating war redraws the map in blood. The Franco-German conflict of the 19th and early 20th centuries only turned into friendship after two cruel world wars. The end result was good for Europe, but the journey to get there was tragic and something to be avoided.

The current war between Russia and Ukraine will eventually end, but the competition between the two nations will not. The best one can hope for is a delicate local balance that requires constant maintenance by Western economic and military support to Ukraine.

If Ukraine survives Russian aggression as an independent state, the Biden government’s liberal temptation will be to call it a victory for a world order based on rules and democracies. That would be a mistake. Victory will belong to Ukraine, leading to a moment of fragile regional stability rather than a renewed world order.

Mr. Grygiel is a professor at Catholic University of America, a senior fellow at the Marathon Initiative, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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