Supporting a Rules-based World Order

The United Nations (UN) was set up after the Second World War to create a framework of rules-based international relations (6.6.6); there are agreed international economic regulations ( and a system of international law (5.3.6) within its umbrella.  These rules require respect for other countries as equals and a willingness to comply with the requests of international organisations, but the framework has not operated as intended – largely because national representatives on the UN Security Council pursue their own narrow interests.

Joseph Nye acknowledged the value of supporting the UN, in his lecture Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics:

“…countries, including the United States, should find it in their self-interest to work with and through the UN, because they need that legitimacy for their own soft power.”

In response to a question at the end of the lecture, he said that:

“The UN has a great deal of soft power of its own.  In other words, it is attractive, and that gives it a certain amount of power.  What the UN can convey that is particularly important is legitimacy…”

Norway and some of the smaller EU countries support a rules-based world order.  The ex-colonial powers, though, have not yet come to terms with the idea of treating other countries as equals – and they are even less comfortable with accepting UN rulings.  As described below, they have used force whenever it seemed to suit them to do so: in examples of realpolitik (

A policy of avoiding coercion can open the way for cooperation and fruitful trade relationships.  Ron Paul wrote an article, I advocate the same foreign policy the Founding Fathers would, asking:

“by what superior wisdom have we now declared Jefferson, Washington, and Madison to be “unrealistic and dangerous”? Why do we insist on throwing away their most considered warnings?

A non-interventionist foreign policy is not an isolationist foreign policy.  ….  The real isolationists are those who impose sanctions and embargoes on countries and peoples across the globe because they disagree with the internal and foreign policies of their leaders.  The real isolationists are those who choose to use force overseas to promote democracy, rather than seek change through diplomacy, engagement, and by setting a positive example.”

Politicians should be able to explain to the people that support for a rules-based world order is a policy of strength and legitimacy, and one that is conducive to peace.  There is evidence that this would be popular.  The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, explained Why the World Has Changed in the U.N.’s Favor:

“public support for the U.N. remains strikingly high. A new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found large majorities (74 percent) believe the United Nations should play a stronger role in the world, whether in preventing genocide and defending nations under attack or aggressively investigating human-rights abuses”.

Compliance with agreed rules does not imply abandoning the pursuit of national interest.  Economic competition, within a framework of free trade (3.5.4), can be proactively pursued by helping a country’s industries and services to be efficient and competitive.  And a policy of ‘playing by the rules’ strengthens a country’s influence, for example when negotiating with others on environmental challenges (6.7.5).

There have been successful examples of security interventions with UN authorisation, for example driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in what the BBC described as Operation Desert Storm: Last of its kind, and protecting Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone, 2000: A Case History in Successful Interventionism.  These two interventions achieved their objectives without damaging the legitimacy of the participants.

Several opportunities have been missed, though.  Stephen F. Cohen’s book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, argues that Russia might have joined a rules-based world order had different paths been taken – if Trotsky’s “New Economic Policy” had been adopted instead of Stalin’s aggressive nationalism, and later if Gorbachev had not been overthrown by Yeltsin (with US support) – according to M.J. Carly’s review of the book.

A rules-based international order is often referred to as a ‘Wilsonian’ concept since U.S. President Woodrow Wilson enthusiastically supported the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War.  And it is faltering.  Walter Russell Mead’s article, The End of the Wilsonian Era, is subtitled “Why Liberal Internationalism Failed” – explaining that China, Russia and Iran among others do not share Wilson’s “belief that democratic institutions contributed to international peace whereas absolute monarchies were inherently warlike and unstable” and they “correctly see Wilsonian ideals as a deadly threat to their domestic arrangements”.

A rules-based system could be stable, as demonstrated by the EU for example, but internationally it has been undermined by weaknesses with the structure of the UN as a legal system (, by politicisation and disagreement in the UN Security Council (, and by UN failures to keep the peace in practice (7.4.4).  For it to be viable on a global scale, some concessions would have to be made to those powers who do not agree that liberal democracy is self-evidently the best form of government – because a broad consensus is needed on what the rules should be.



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6772b.htm