Is Changing the World Order Legitimate?

One of the fundamental objections to the February 2022 Russian occupation of Ukraine was that it contravened the established world order enshrined in the United Nations Charter developed soon after World War II. Although most UN members endorsed the rule of international law established within the Charter documents, its promotion and enforcement relied heavily on the United States and its allies. At the time and for several decades thereafter, the U.S. and its alliances were the most powerful actors on the international stage. However, over time, both Russia (a.k.a. Soviet Union) and the People’s Republic of China developed their own national power to the point where, by the 2020’s the two nations were openly challenging the right of the United States to determine the rules of international politics. Leaders in Russia and China began to voice alternative visions of a new world order and to reject the notion that the rule-based order backed by the U.S. and most members of the international community was the standard under which all countries ought to conduct their foreign relations.

The Russian occupation of Ukraine rejected the international norms of territorial integrity, national freedom of choice, and peaceful settlement of disputes through negotiation and instead harkened back to the principles of spheres of influence, expansion of territorial boundaries to encompass ethnic groups found in neighboring countries, and the establishment of buffer states to protect the security of large and powerful nations. In other words, Russia reverted to more traditional big-power competition rather than to abide by the more cooperative international model of peaceful coexistence. 

The question raised in this article is whether the Russian adoption of an alternative model of world order was legitimate? 

In truth, the UN model was never adopted in toto by all nations at all times since WWII. Both big and small powers ignored the UN principles of international relations when it suited their interests. Also, the history of governments worldwide over the centuries have shown a slow but steady evolution from tribal political systems to modern nation-states and emerging concepts  of global governance advocated by many people today. Thus, in both recent years and throughout history the predominate system of world order has changed repeatedly over time and different circumstances.

This would suggest that Russia’s (and China’s) current efforts to change the rules of international relations are normal for major countries which have the power, determination, and vision to go their own way when it is deemed by their leaders to be in their national interests. The question of “legitimacy” in international politics is not really an issue, although long-term trends point towards a broader and thus more multilateral perception of how each country evaluates how best to ensure its own security and well-being.