The narrow lens of history will say, about this moment, that the Taliban’s victory has marked the end of American occupation in Afghanistan. But that’s just focusing on the here and now. The immediate and the transitory. The real question is this: what will America’s defeat, and the resulting ignominious retreat, from Afghanistan, mean for the international “rules-based order”, which derives its legitimacy from American power?
The United Nations defines the international ‘rules-based order’ as “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols, and cultural arrangements.” Notwithstanding the soft and inclusive language of this definition, in simpler words, the international rules-based order requires all countries to abide by a set of rules created by the United States. And any country that does not tow the American line—like Cuba, Iran or Syria—is slapped by economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and even military action. In effect, the international rules-based order is America’s stick and carrot mechanism for governing the world.
While this system is ostensible packaged in terms of regional and global collaborations, at its core, the enforceability of the international ‘rules-based order’ is based on a series of assumptions, including: 1) countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above any bilateral relations that such countries may have inter se; 2) violation of this system will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions (including pressure from international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and FATF, etc.); 3) the sanctions imposed, by the United States and her allies, against anyone that violates this system, will be enough to coerce such party into abiding by the rules-based order; 4) participants of the international rules-based order will be willing to employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g. UNSC and NAT), to enforce the system; and 5) the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required.
Without these assumptions, the international rules-based order would be a mere catchphrase; with no real potency or legitimacy.
As such, after the defeat of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, it is pertinent to assess whether the international rules-based order can continue to serve as the currency of power. In other words, in the wake of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, it is important to re-assess whether the assumptions that lend legitimacy to this system hold true.
First—whether individual countries will abide by the dictates of the international rules-based order, over and above their bilateral interests. Well, this core assumption is already dwindling. As America retreats from the global stage, defeated, we are already beginning to see that certain countries are preferring bilateral relations over international commitments. China has reportedly committed some $400 billion to Iran, despite the threat of sanctions. Europe (after Brexit) is willing to deal with Russia and China on their own terms, as opposed to American dictates. All the sanctions in the world did not prevent the Taliban from transacting with the international community in terms of diplomatic and financial (read: hawala and hundi) measures. Syria, despite American pressure, continues to have a fruitful relationship with Russia. Lebanon, despite all the sanctions, continues to work with France, Iran and China. Pakistan, despite the threat of more international sanctions, is going full speed ahead with CPEC. So the assumption that countries will prefer multilateral rules over bilateral interests, is eroding fast.
Second and third—violation of this system will definitively result in economic and diplomatic sanctions, which will be enough to coerce countries to abide by the international rules-based order. This assumption has also been weakened in recent years. India, for a long time, courted Iran, through Chabahar and other projects, without facing US sanctions. India is still willing to buy the Russian S-400 system, at the peril of facing US sanctions. Just this year, the United States waived its threat of sanctions for Germany, in case it built an oil pipeline with Russia. No sanctions were placed on Israel for violating human rights. No sanctions have stopped Iran from growing its influence across the Shia crescent. No sanctions have stopped Cuba from continuing to exist and be functional. And all this was before the United States lost to the Taliban. As the world comes to terms with the new reality of post-American hegemony, the threat of sanctions, imposed indiscriminately against anyone who violates the rules-based order, is likely to further dwindle.
Fourth—participants of the international rules-based order will employ decisive military force, through various multilateral forums (e.g. UNSC and NAT), to enforce the system. This assumption has almost entirely collapsed. The international military machine, led by the United States, completely failed in delivering on its promise. NATO never actually ‘fought’ the Soviet Union. NATO forces lost the war in Afghanistan. They did not win the war in Iraq. They could not enter Lebanon. They did not come to defend Crimea. Some NATO partners find themselves on opposite ends of the war in Algeria and Libya. NATO’s sister organisation in the Pacific, the QUAD, did not come to the aid of Hong Kong. They, most likely, will not be able to hold onto Taiwan, if the matter descends into a military battle. As such, there is no reason for individual countries or groups to fear international military collaborations. The past thirty years are a testament to the fact that international rules-based order will not be enforced, through military battle, by the international fighting machine.
Fifth—the United States has the military muscle to enforce this system, unilaterally, if required. This assumption, weak to begin with, has been proven wrong, time and again, across the Middle East and Central Asia. Can the United States fight a unilateral war against some of the weaker countries across the globe? Yes. Is it likely that it will, anytime in the near future? No. Even if it does, is it likely that the United States will win such a war? No. Since the Second World War, has the United States ever won a unilateral war? No. The United States could not win the war against North Korea in the 1950s. It was defeated in Vietnam during the 1970s. Victory in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, was not won by the United States military. It could not remove Saddam Hussain in the first Gulf War. When it finally did remove Saddam, during the second Gulf War, it was unable to bring any measure of stability to Iraq. The United States, unilaterally was unable to remove Bashar-ul-Asaad—despite the fact that President Obama had signed an executive order for this purpose. And the United States was comprehensively defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
So who will enforce the international rules-based order? And if no one can really enforce it, is there any reason to believe that, after the reclaiming of Kabul by Taliban (a declared terrorist organisation), there still exists such a system?
We are living through the flux of a new regional and global shift. In a period when a unipolar world (led by the United States), and its corresponding world order (rules-based), is fading away. And in its place, a new world, with new pressure centres, new alliances, and new trade routes are taking form. Beyond Kabul, the world will transact with a new set of principles, which are still unwritten; principles based on national interest, instead of international coercion. This new world needs to be met with a new Pakistani foreign relations doctrine. One that is not United States centric, and is instead focused on regional alliances and trade routes.