Will the war in Gaza become a breaking point for the rules-based international order?

The scale of death and destruction in Gaza is increasingly viewed as an indictment of a system facing perhaps its most daunting and most stubborn challenge – global perceptions of hypocrisy.

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As the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognizes its prima facie jurisdiction to investigate Israel for carrying out genocide in Gaza, also on trial is the so-called ‘rules-based international order’.

This global set of rules, norms and institutions – the ICJ itself being one – was established by the victors of World War II to manage relations between states based on shared principles of human rights and international law. The intention was to prevent conflict and ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe or anything like it would never happen again. Many saw still greater hope in this order during the era of US unipolarity that followed the Cold War.

However the ICJ case eventually resolves, the rules and institutions comprising the rules-based international order are today being undermined by the very countries that created the system.

But with Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza, this order is facing perhaps its most daunting and most stubborn challenge – global perceptions of hypocrisy.

However the ICJ case eventually resolves, the rules and institutions comprising the rules-based international order are today being undermined by the very countries that created the system.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and their supporters are the ones pushing for these institutions to call out double standards by Israel’s allies and hold them to account. This has become a defining moment for the future of the current international settlement.

The international order under US unipolarity 

Today’s international order has been integral to the global projection of Western engagement and power for decades. Military interventions, such as in Iraq in 2003, or more recently defending Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, were driven by realpolitik calculations but legitimized through a defence of human rights, democracy and international law.

After the attacks on 11 September 2001, at the peak of US unipolarity, President George W Bush infamously said ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.’ The world was thus divided into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ revealing the ideological edifice through which US military and economic prowess and expansion were justified.

Cracks and contradictions are not new to the rules-based order. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration sidelined the UN when it refused to bend to US decision-making. US actions in its so-called ‘war on terror’ also contradicted the country’s purported values, as shown by revelations of abuse and torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Still, the US has consistently rebounded, retaining and projecting ideological power, partly by invoking the rules-based order.

The Western response in Ukraine is as a clear example of this. The US, UK and EU mobilized global rules, institutions and norms to resist Russian aggression. Hillary Clinton, for instance, warned ‘if Russian leadership would rather not be accused of committing war crimes, they should stop bombing hospitals’. Russia claimed these hospitals were used by the Azov Battalion and other radicals for military purposes.

Nonetheless, Western powers were in lockstep, insisting they stood in defence of democracy, human rights, and the norms and institutions of the rules-based order. This allowed them to rally huge public support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

Waning US influence and legitimacy

The IsraelPalestine conflict is exposing the inherent contradictions in the West’s stance as the guarantor of the international order.

Since Hamas’s attack on 7 October 2023 that killed 1,200 and took 240 hostages, Israel’s air and ground campaign has killed over 25,000 Palestinians, including 10,000 children. An estimated 8,000 Palestinians are missing, likely dead under the rubble. According to the UN, Israel is ‘destroying Gaza’s food system and using food as a weapon’ that risks widespread famine.

The Israel–Palestine conflict is exposing the inherent contradictions in the West’s stance as the guarantor of the international order.

But the US and UK governments, who believe in Israel’s right to self-defence and classify Hamas as a terrorist organization, are now among only a small handful of countries refusing to call for a ceasefire at the UN – an event that could halt Israel’s onslaught on Gaza.

Instead they continue to supply Israel with weapons and funding even as it bombs and lays siege to hospitals in Gaza, strikes that human rights organizations and journalists argue violate international law. Israel claims these hospitals were used by Hamas for military purposes.

Meanwhile in Washington, the Biden administration is struggling to use a combination of diplomatic, economic and coercive incentives to compel countries in the Middle East and North Africa to now normalize relations with Israel.

Governments in the region find it impossible to stand with Israel (at least publicly) because their own publics are ardent Palestine supporters. They are therefore declining US overtures, often citing clear contradictions between US policy in Ukraine and Palestine. The timing of both conflicts, only a few years apart, makes it easier for many in the region to spot the double-standard.  

Global calls for justice growing louder

Legal, institutional and even moral appeals that make up the international rules-based order have proven unfit to ensure a sustainable resolution to the IsraelPalestine conflict. Instead, achieving fundamental change and a more viable solution requires moving past the orthodoxy of the rules-based international order and levelling the playing field.

This will only come through the growing calls for justice from publics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the Global South, and Global North whose governments purport to defend the rules-based order. Without this pressure from its public, no government – regional or international – will seek to broker a more sustainable solution.

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Younger generations are particularly dismayed, their outrage exacerbated by viral videos, including those showing Israeli soldiers singing and dancing amidst the destruction in Gaza. The Israeli army says they are isolated cases and are investigating.

There is popular support for a ceasefire, even in countries most supportive of Israel. In the UK, a survey by YouGov found that 71 per cent of respondents believed that their government definitely or probably should have voted for a ceasefire at the UN.

With growing global popular support for making Palestinian rights equal to Israelis’, Western leaders are facing the prospect of greater foreign and domestic repercussions for supporting Israel, including at the ballot box, with elections due to be held in both the US and UK this year.

For generations, the rules-based international order has been woefully inadequate in dealing justly with the Middle East’s most important and long-standing conflict.

If it publicly fails once again, by proving incapable of agreeing an end to the unprecedented bloodshed in Gaza, it will further undermine the world’s faith in the institutions that were built to serve it, and possibly contribute to its complete unravelling. Western leaders should think very hard about this historic moment and what might come next.