If there’s a phrase that (supposedly) defines what U.S. foreign policy is all about these days, it’s “the need to uphold a rules-based order.” Case in point: a desire to strengthen the current order is one of the main reasons the Biden administration has worked so hard to assemble a set of like-minded nations this week, in the second iteration of its so-called Democracy Summit. One can understand why: Saying the United States is just trying to uphold the rules is politer than saying its goal is to preserve U.S. primacy in perpetuity, weaken China permanently, topple governments it doesn’t like, or undermine its other adversaries.
Of course, when U.S. officials say “rules-based order,” they mean the current order, whose rules were mostly made in America. It’s not the existence of rules per se that they are defending; any order involving modern states must by necessity be rules-based, because the complex interactions of a globalized world cannot be managed without agreed-upon norms and procedures. These norms range from foundational principles (e.g., the idea of sovereign equality) to mundane everyday practices (e.g., the use of English as the standard language for international air traffic control). This raises the question: Which parts of the current order is the United States most eager to defend? Which norms matter most?
For many in the West, the essential element of today’s world order is the norm against territorial conquest. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last summer, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had challenged “the fundamental principles of peace and security … that one country can’t simply change the borders of another by force or subjugate a sovereign nation to its will or dictate its choices or policies.”
Blinken wasn’t just making this up. Chapter I of the U.N. Charter states that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” The charter further commits states to resolve disputes by peaceful means. Furthermore, the Fourth Geneva Convention bars states from expelling the populations of territories occupied during a war or from transferring its own citizens into these territories, thereby erecting a further normative barrier to gaining territory by force. Not surprisingly, a desire to uphold this norm has become a frequent justification for outside support for Ukraine, especially after Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts (a claim rejected by most of the international community) and its forced transfer of people from Ukraine to Russia in the course of the war.
By itself, the norm against conquest hasn’t convinced states not to go to war or even to try to gain territory, and there aren’t many examples in the historical record where a government contemplated a war of conquest and then refrained because its leaders recognized there was a norm saying it was wrong. For the most part, states have refrained from large-scale acts of conquest not because of a norm, but because nationalism and an abundant supply of small arms usually makes governing a foreign population costly and difficult.
The norm against conquest may play a role, however, if large-scale aggression makes it more likely that third parties will come to the aid of the state that has been attacked, as a sizeable coalition did when Iraq seized Kuwait in 1990 and as NATO has done since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But even here it is tricky: Did states rally to the victim because they were defending a norm, or because they wanted to prevent an adverse shift in the balance of power or accomplish some other strategic aim? Maybe both?
As with most norms, what’s really occurring is that states are finding ways to work around it. The United States has been perfectly willing to violate the territorial integrity of other countries, for example, but it doesn’t divide them into pieces or annex them after the enemy army has surrendered. Instead, it sets up a new government that is formally independent but is supposed to follow U.S. guidance (or so the United States hopes). This maneuver allows Washington to pretend that it hasn’t conquered anyone; it’s just replacing a few evil leaders with more compliant and benign ones.
The idea that states are designing around the norm against conquest gains further support from recent research by Dan Altman. Altman showed that the norm against conquest hasn’t produced a significant decline in attempts at territorial change; it has merely altered how states go about it and how much they try to achieve. In his words, “the evolution of conquest is a symptom of war’s decline, not its cause.” Attempts to conquer and subjugate entire countries have declined since 1945 (China’s 1950 seizure of Tibet being an early and obvious exception), for two main reasons. First, as noted above, conquering an entire country forces the victor to rule a restive and resentful population, and the costs of doing so usually exceed the benefits. Second, such attempts frequently lead third parties to worry about the aggressor’s long-term ambitions and thus encourages them to join forces to aid the victim and/or contain the aggressor going forward.
According to Altman, instead of trying to absorb an entire country, states are more likely to engage in faits accomplis or limited land grabs, ideally in areas that are sparsely populated and lightly defended, and in the hope that these modest gains will not provoke a full-blown international response. Obvious examples would be the 1999 Kargil dispute between India and Pakistan, the recurring border clashes between India and China, Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands in 1982, China’s “island-building” efforts in the South China Sea, and Russia’s conquest of Crimea in 2014. States making limited land grabs can still miscalculate—as the Argentine junta did in 1982—but these and other examples show that attempts to gain territory by force have not ended. And in some cases, such as Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and its continuing efforts to colonize the West Bank, the international community has done little to stop or reverse them.
There’s another norm in today’s world order that is supposed to limit what states can do each other. In addition to not taking territory, states are also not supposed to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. The norm of non-interference goes back centuries, but it is a much fuzzier and contested principle than the norm against conquest.
For one thing, in a world of interdependent states, some degree of interference is unavoidable. When the U.S. Federal Reserve raises interest rates, the economies of many other countries are going to be affected no matter what. Furthermore, reasonable people (and different governments) disagree on what constitutes improper interference, and many believe there are situations where interference is justified or even required, such as the prevention of genocide or when existing governments are unable to take care of their citizens.
Equally important, most governments have been unwilling to completely abandon meddling in other states’ domestic affairs. The norm of “non-interference” hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from using cyberweapons, supporting anti-regime exile groups, imposing economic sanctions, or conducting targeted assassinations of foreign officials) and the United States is far from unique. Russia engages in propaganda and social media activities intended to disrupt domestic politics in other countries, and governments in the global south have moved away from the strict commitment to non-interference that many of them embraced in the immediate aftermath of decolonization. African governments have repeatedly interfered in each other’s internal politics, for example, even though the Charter of Organization of African Unity explicitly mandates “non-interference in the internal affairs of states.”
When officials today defend the rules-based order, a strict norm of non-interference is not really what they have in mind. Even countries that routinely invoke the principle of non-interference (such as China), are increasingly willing to violate it.
What does this analysis of norms tell us about Ukraine and Taiwan, two places where the territorial status quo is either under attack (literally) or hotly contested? It’s potentially bad news for Ukraine, because recent history suggests that the international community might eventually be willing to accept some amount of territorial change provided most of Ukraine retains its independence. The norm against conquest is more accurately seen as a norm against complete subjugation or absorption, and that means Kyiv has reason to worry that its current supporters will eventually want it to cut a deal.
The implications for Taiwan are more ambiguous, largely due to Taiwan’s ambiguous status. If Taiwan is viewed by others as an independent nation (de facto though not de jure), then a Chinese attempt to conquer the island is more likely to be seen as an illegitimate attempt to conquer and subjugate a free country, somewhat akin to Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990. If others see Taiwan as a separate entity, in short, stronger global opposition to a Chinese move would be more likely.
If others view Taiwan as something less than an independent country, however, or as a territorial anomaly left over from the Chinese Civil War, then a Chinese invasion looks more like a limited land grab of disputed territory. This latter interpretation is the one Beijing prefers, of course, but whether other states will accept it is not clear. Remember that Iraq tried to legitimize its seizure of Kuwait by claiming that Kuwait was its long-lost 19th province, but nobody in the opposing coalition agreed.
This leads me—unsurprisingly—to a typically realist conclusion. Norms do matter, but there’s enormous room for interpretation and powerful states will typically find ways to work around whatever constraints a norm might impose. It follows that prudent states should not assume that a norm against conquest will suffice to protect them; adequate hard power, shrewd diplomacy, and reliable allies are better—if still imperfect—guarantees.
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