How Not to Run the World

When two states cannot reach a mutually beneficial bargain, the framework offers a third category, in which either side is free to take independent actions to advance specific national goals, consistent with the principle of sovereignty but subject to any previously agreed-on prohibitions.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at his home in Connecticut [Photo © George Etheredge / DER SPIEGEL]

Leaders are inevitably hemmed in by constraints. They operate in scarcity, for every society faces limits to its capabilities and reach, dictated by demography and economy. ~ Henry Kissinger, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy

The Current Situation

Dr. Kissinger goes on to say in his latest book: “Any society, whatever its political system, is perpetually in transit…leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead”.

In world affairs, we seem to have reached what Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist called the Third Promethean Moment – a moment in time that destabilizes and radically changes the world around us. The two preceding such moments were when the industrial revolution met capitalism, and States rose to confront the emerging power of Russia in the Baltic region.  In this third Promethean Moment, which resonates Lenin’s statement that there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen, brings to bear the need to question what we euphemistically call “the rules based international order”, where the operative question is whether there is any one or any entity, or for that matter any concept or principle running the world.

Up until now, at least in bits and pieces, there was a concept running the world, which was the rules based international order.  It worked, insofar as the world adhered to this phenomenon, but in the past months and weeks it seems to have faded into oblivion. Take for instance, the latest condemnation in the United Nations of Russia’s annexation of certain parts of Ukraine – a sovereign country. On 12 October of this year, The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution – which is nothing but the result of political compromise and which is destitute of legal legitimacy or enforcement powers –  calling on the international community not to recognize any of Russia’s annexation claims and demanding its “immediate reversal”. The Resolution was supported by 153 of the UN’s member States while 35 States, including China and India, abstained. Many African States also abstained, seemingly to avoid friction in their trade ties and to indicate their policies of non-alignment.

One could well ask: is this how to run the world?  Richard Haas, Head of the Council on Foreign Relations in the September/October 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs says: “On the one hand, the world is witnessing the revival of some of the worst aspects of traditional geopolitics: great-power competition, imperial ambitions, fights over resources. Today, Russia is headed by a tyrant, President Vladimir Putin, who longs to re-create a Russian sphere of influence and perhaps even a Russian empire. Putin is willing to do almost anything to achieve that goal, and he is able to act as he pleases because internal constraints on his regime have mostly disappeared. Meanwhile, under President Xi Jinping, China has embarked on a quest for regional and potentially global primacy, putting itself on a trajectory that will lead to increased competition or even confrontation with the United States.

But that is not all—not by a long shot. These geopolitical risks are colliding with complex new challenges central to the contemporary era, such as climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. And not surprisingly, the diplomatic fallout from growing rivalries has made it nearly impossible for great powers to work together on regional and international challenges, even when it is in their interest to do so”.

The Problem

The United Nations, with all its well-meaning diligence in confronting world problems, has its own inherent structural issue. On the one hand, Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter gives the Security Council the power to intervene militarily or non-militarily in order to preserve peace in any part of the world.

However, there is a snag. Nayomi Goonesekere, a Thomas Buergenthal scholar and former judicial fellow at the International Court of Justice, writing in Berkeley Journal of International Law addresses the problem head on: “Deadlock in the United Nations Security Council (the Security Council or Council) due to the veto power of its five permanent members obstructs the ability of the United Nations (the UN) to effectively address atrocity crimes. The procedural failures of the Security Council have led to the escalation of crisis situations around the world”.  The Security Council is comprised of 15-member member States (five permanent seats and ten rotating non-permanent seats). However, the Charter accords the veto power to only the five permanent members: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China.

Ms. Goonesekere cites Article 27 paragraph 3 which provides that all matters of the Security Council pertaining to non-procedural matters must be made by “an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring vote of the permanent member”, meaning that any draft resolution in the Security Council on a non-procedural matter that is supported by nine or more members of the Council can be vetoed by a single permanent member (the permanent members are  China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

A Solution?

Authors Dani Rodrik and Stephen M. Walt, also writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs suggest a framework for a “better rule based international order” that would comprise four categories of binding agreement between States. “The first category—prohibited actions—would draw on norms that are already widely accepted by the United States, China, and other major powers. At a minimum, these might include commitments embodied in the UN Charter (such as the ban on acquiring territory by conquest), violations of diplomatic immunity, the use of torture, or armed attacks on another country’s ships or aircraft.

The second category includes actions in which states stand to benefit by altering their own behavior in exchange for similar concessions by others. Obvious examples include bilateral trade accords and arms control agreements.

When two states cannot reach a mutually beneficial bargain, the framework offers a third category, in which either side is free to take independent actions to advance specific national goals, consistent with the principle of sovereignty but subject to any previously agreed-on prohibitions.

The fourth and final category concerns issues in which effective action requires the involvement of multiple states. Climate change and COVID-19 are obvious examples: in each case, the lack of an effective multilateral agreement has encouraged many states to free-ride, resulting in excessive carbon emissions in the former and inadequate global access to vaccines in the latter. In the security domain, multilateral agreements such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have done much to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Because any world order ultimately rests on norms, rules, and institutions that determine how most states act most of the time, multilateral participation on many key issues will remain indispensable”.


It seems inexorable that the defective United Nations structure will change or even be revised drastically.  It may even morph into a new entity given the geopolitical events that are making the Third Promethean Moment a compelling stimulus for radical changeOne of theprotagonistsof this change is very likely China which is spreading its tentacles throughout the world. Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and an expert on China says in his book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jing Ping’s China that  China will likely proceed towards “ creating its own network of new multilateral institutions outside the framework of the post 1945 UN and Bretton Woods system. While Xi has not described specifically what a future international order of the CCPs (Chinese Communist Party’s) choosing would ultimately look like, he has made plain that he does not intend China to simply replicate the current US led international order.  Rather, China will seek an order much more conducive to its political, ideological, and economic interests”.

Before this comes to pass something must be done.

In 2017 United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres initiated a reformation process for the Organization, the political aspects of which have the aspiration to reach the overarching goals “to prioritize prevention and sustaining peace; enhance the effectiveness and coherence of peacekeeping operations and special political missions and move towards a single, integrated peace and security pillar”. This seems a distant reality as inequality, both geopolitical and economic, has polarized nations and led to serious threats to the core essence of peace and security – the sovereignty of States and its inviolability.  Asia is inadequately represented, and African States have been excluded from permanent membership of the Security Council. 

This imbalance, when broken down shows the Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG) now accounting for three of the five permanent members (France, the United Kingdom, and the US). There is only one permanent position for the Eastern European Group (Russia), one for the Asia-Pacific Group (China), while Africa and Latin America remain destitute of representation. This has to be seriously looked into. Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs says “one possible way to resolve the problem would be to add at least four Asian seats: one permanent seat for India, one shared by Japan and South Korea (perhaps in a two-year, one-year rotation), one for the ASEAN countries (representing the group as a single constituency), and a fourth rotating among the other Asian countries”.

Additionally, the African and Latin American countries would also have to be considered. This might be just the first step.  The second step would require a realistic look at the equity of Article 27 (3) of the Charter of the United Nations which has been already discussed.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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