Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Some Rules of Global Politics Matter More Than Others

| Mar. 27, 2023

Norms are real, but there's enormous room for interpretation.

If there's a phrase that (supposedly) defines what U.S. foreign policy is all about these days, it's "the need to uphold a rules-based order." Case in point: a desire to strengthen the current order is one of the main reasons the Biden administration has worked so hard to assemble a set of like-minded nations this week, in the second iteration of its so-called Democracy Summit. One can understand why: Saying the United States is just trying to uphold the rules is politer than saying its goal is to preserve U.S. primacy in perpetuity, weaken China permanently, topple governments it doesn't like, or undermine its other adversaries.

Of course, when U.S. officials say "rules-based order," they mean the current order, whose rules were mostly made in America. It's not the existence of rules per se that they are defending; any order involving modern states must by necessity be rules-based, because the complex interactions of a globalized world cannot be managed without agreed-upon norms and procedures. These norms range from foundational principles (e.g., the idea of sovereign equality) to mundane everyday practices (e.g., the use of English as the standard language for international air traffic control). This raises the question: Which parts of the current order is the United States most eager to defend? Which norms matter most?

For many in the West, the essential element of today's world order is the norm against territorial conquest. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last summer, Russia's invasion of Ukraine had challenged "the fundamental principles of peace and security … that one country can't simply change the borders of another by force or subjugate a sovereign nation to its will or dictate its choices or policies."

Blinken wasn't just making this up. Chapter I of the U.N. Charter states that "all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." The charter further commits states to resolve disputes by peaceful means. Furthermore, the Fourth Geneva Convention bars states from expelling the populations of territories occupied during a war or from transferring its own citizens into these territories, thereby erecting a further normative barrier to gaining territory by force. Not surprisingly, a desire to uphold this norm has become a frequent justification for outside support for Ukraine, especially after Russia's annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts (a claim rejected by most of the international community) and its forced transfer of people from Ukraine to Russia in the course of the war.

By itself, the norm against conquest hasn't convinced states not to go to war or even to try to gain territory, and there aren't many examples in the historical record where a government contemplated a war of conquest and then refrained because its leaders recognized there was a norm saying it was wrong. For the most part, states have refrained from large-scale acts of conquest not because of a norm, but because nationalism and an abundant supply of small arms usually makes governing a foreign population costly and difficult....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Some Rules of Global Politics Matter More Than Others.” Foreign Policy, March 27, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt