The Japan Forum on International Relations

June 14,2022

Protect the Rules-Based Order against Russian Aggression

Witness to a war of aggression

  We are now witnessing a Russian war of aggression for which there is no excuse. If the international community tacitly approves of this kind of action by a major power against a smaller nation through silence, this will damage the very foundation of the rules-based international order that has served as the basis of global peace for the past several decades.

  If this were to happen, the world runs the risk of returning to a situation akin to the 19th-century style power struggles in which power is the only tool available to counter that of other countries and protect one’s own country. We need to recognize how undesirable this would be and must confront Russia’s outrageous action in order to preserve the rules-based international order.

  What is the international order that is based upon rules? The international community lacks a central government. Under these circumstances, a powerful actor could do almost anything they want, especially to a weaker actor. Within a country, even powerful individuals and groups are not allowed to engage in actions that violate laws and rules. This is because governments and government agencies such as the police, the military, the courts, and others would restrain and punish such actors in accordance with the law.

  However, the international community does not have such enforcement mechanisms in place. This is why international law has little coercive force, allowing powerful actors to remain unchallenged when they violate rules.

  In the post-war era, this situation has been greatly mitigated under the international order that was created and maintained primarily by the liberal democracies of the world (including Japan), with the United States at its helm. This constitutes the rules-based international order.

  Under this order, major powers including the United States, which is the most powerful country in the world, as well as smaller powers have in principle respected international rules, and refrained from taking actions that depend upon force. Naturally, there has not been a complete absence of tyranny by the major powers. However, taking the United States as an example, even in the period during which its power overwhelmed that of all other countries, the United States endeavored to act in ways that were, relatively speaking, in accordance with international laws and rules. As a result, this order enabled us to remain relatively oblivious to the fact that the international community is an arena of power struggles where military might ultimately have the final say.

Tyranny by force must not be allowed

  However, Russia’s recent actions are based on the belief that powerful countries are free to disregard international rules and do whatever they want. If we allow such behavior to continue, the only option to counter tyranny would be to use force, reverting the world to a time of confrontation based on military power. As a result, countries around the world would be forced to strengthen their militaries. Japan would be no exception if this occurred.

  Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that Russia is the world’s most powerful nuclear power, and on February 27, he put the country’s nuclear forces on “special alert.” Thus, there is concern that he is considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons in order to end the war in Ukraine.

  If this occurs, it would signal the end of the era of non-use of nuclear weapons that has been in place for 77 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world would realize that nuclear weapons could be used. In such a situation, the number of countries which would pursue obtaining nukes might increase. Once this transpires, it would be uncertain whether Japan could remain the exception to the rule.

China shares the same idea as Russia

  If we do not wish to witness the emergence of such a world, the international community, including Japan, must be prepared to resolutely protect the rules-based international order against Russian aggression. In this sense, the exclusion of Russia from the international payment network known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) was the right decision; as such, it was only natural that Japan immediately announced that it would participate in this sanction. Although some are concerned that this would have a negative effect on the global economy, this is no time to be worried about such things.

  It is of concern that China, the number two major power in the world, has not criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China, which values cooperation with Russia in the face of the confrontation with the United States, has not wavered in its pro-Russian stance despite the situation in Ukraine. According to reports, President Xi Jinping has expressed support for Russia in the face of global economic sanctions. On February 24, immediately after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Consul General of the P.R.C. in Osaka Xue Jian posted a tweet under the title “A major lesson that should be learned from the Ukrainian problem” in which he stated, “the weak should absolutely never be stupid enough to pick fights with the strong!” The idea that weak nations should “absolutely never” defy powerful nations is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the rules-based international order.

  The danger that we may revert to a situation in which international politics is reduced to power struggles and international rules are rendered meaningless is not a problem that Japan is insulated from. If we believe that such a world is undesirable, we must be willing to acknowledge the criticality of the present moment.

(This is the English translation of an article written by KAMIYA Matake, Vice President, the Japan Forum on International Relations / Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan. The article was first published on the “Seiron” Column in Sankei Shimbun on March 3, 2022. It was also reprinted on the JFIR Website on the same date.)