In a world with fewer rules, the only truly effective one is knowing what you can get away with. The answer today, it turns out, is: quite a lot.
As the era of uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence – or diminish that of their rivals – by meddling in foreign conflicts. Multilateralism and its constraints are under siege, challenged by more transactional, zero-sum politics.
Instruments of collective action, such as the UN Security Council, are paralysed; those of collective accountability, including the International Criminal Court, are ignored and disparaged.
Nostalgia can be deceptive. Too fond a portrayal of the era of Western hegemony would be misleading. Iraq’s chemical weapons use against Iran in the 1980s; the 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Sri Lanka’s brutal 2009 campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan: all these happened at a time of – in some cases because of – U.S. dominance and a reasonably coherent West. A liberal and nominally rules-based order hardly stopped those setting the rules from discarding them when they saw fit. The erosion of Western influence, in short, looks different from Moscow, Beijing, and the developing world than it does from Brussels, London, or Washington.
Still, for better and for worse, U.S. power and alliances have for years shaped international affairs, set limits, and structured regional orders. As the West’s influence declines, accelerated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s contempt for traditional allies and Europe’s struggles with Brexit and nativism, leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.
In their domestic policies, many of those leaders embrace a noxious brew of nationalism and authoritarianism. The mix varies from place to place but typically entails rejection of international institutions and rules. There is little new in the critique of an unjust global order. But if once that critique tended to be rooted in international solidarity, today it stems chiefly from an inward-looking populism that celebrates narrow social and political identity, vilifies minorities and migrants, assails the rule of law and independence of the press, and elevates national sovereignty above all else.
Trump may be the most visible of the genre, but he is far from the most extreme. The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide. They realise, at times perhaps to their surprise, that constraints are crumbling, and the behaviour that results often fuels violence or crises.
Myanmar’s mass expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya, the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of a popular uprising, the Cameroonian government’s apparent determination to crush an Anglophone insurgency rather than tackle the grievances fuelling it, the Venezuelan government’s economic warfare against its own people, and the silencing of dissent in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere are but a few examples. All are motivated in part by what leaders perceive as a yellow light where they used to see solid red.
Beyond their borders, these leaders test norms, too. Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens – including the International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig. Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution.
Such actions are hardly new or equal in magnitude. But they are more brazen and overt. They have this much in common: They start with the assumption that there will be few consequences for breaches of international norms.
The U.S. government has hardly been an innocent bystander. Trump’s disdain for human rights and penchant for transactional diplomacy have set a strikingly negative tone. So too has his flouting of America’s international commitments: tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and, worse, threatening to impose economic punishment on those who choose to abide by it; hinting he will leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if U.S. demands are not met rather than working within it to press Russia to comply; and signalling, through attacks on the International Criminal Court and chest-thumping speeches about U.S. sovereignty, that Washington regards its actions and those of its friends as beyond accountability.
The danger of today’s free-for-all goes beyond the violence already generated. The larger risk is of miscalculation.
Overreach by one leader convinced of his immunity may prompt an unexpected reaction by another; the ensuing tit for tat easily could escalate without the presence of a credible, willing outside power able to play the role of arbiter.
True, not everyone gets away with everything all the time. Bangladesh seemed poised to forcibly return some Rohingya refugees to Myanmar but stopped, almost certainly in response to international pressure. The feared Russian-backed reconquest of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has, for now, been averted, in no small measure due to Turkish, European, and U.S. objections. The same is true (again: for the time being) when it comes to a potential Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeida, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi largely deterred by warnings about the humanitarian impact and cost to their international standing.
Elsewhere, leaders anticipating impunity have been taken aback by the severity of the response: Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, by the stiff sanctions and show of united resolve that Western powers have maintained since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the killing of its former agent on British soil; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the outrage that followed Khashoggi’s murder.
Overall, though, it is hard to escape the sense that these are exceptions that prove the absence of rules. The international order as we know it is unravelling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake. The danger may well lie less in the ultimate destination than in the process of getting there. As the following list of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 amply illustrates, that road will be bumpy, and it will be perilous.
Robert Malley, President & CEO .