The proponents of the US-led and the West-dominated international system established in the aftermath of World War II are in the habit of describing it as a rules-based world order which has maintained peace and brought about unprecedented economic prosperity across the globe. This self-serving description, even at its best, tells just half the story. It is true that the system was able to prevent the outbreak of a direct war among major powers and encourage rapid economic growth in many parts of the world. But it would be wrong to assert that it promoted peace, justice, and human progress throughout the world without serious gaps or discrimination against the weak.

In fact, the post-World War II international system was cleverly designed to maintain the political and economic hegemony of the West over the rest of the World, especially over the Third World countries. Consequently, no major decision can be taken in the UN Security Council, IMF or the World Bank without the approval of the US-led West. Precisely because the prevalent rules of international conduct are heavily skewed in favour of the US-led West, China is likely to demand modifications in them to accommodate its interests as it rises in terms of economic and military power. The coming years will, therefore, witness a growing challenge to the West-dominated international system from China and other emerging powerful nations, and increasing tensions in international relations.

While the predatory instincts of the Western countries, which were at full display during the colonization process of the 19th century, were kept under check to some extent during the Cold War because of the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, they still did not hesitate from undertaking aggressive actions against Third World countries whenever the former’s national interests so demanded and the global geopolitical scenario allowed them to do so. The conduct of France during the Algerian war of independence, which resulted in millions of casualties of the Algerian people was, was condemnable. So was the conduct of both UK and France in their ruthless exploitation of the resources of Africa during the early years of the Cold War or during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.

As far as the US is concerned, its professed commitment to a rules-based international system did not prevent it from launching an aggressive and highly destructive war in Vietnam in violation of the principles of international law and the UN Charter for defending its perceived security interests. That this adventure ultimately ended in an unmitigated failure for the US goes to the credit mainly of the heroic bravery with which the people of Vietnam under their courageous leaders fought for their independence with the support of the Soviet Union and China. Still, the US hegemonic tendencies were kept somewhat in check during the Cold War because of the prospect of stiff resistance by the Soviet bloc and the need to earn the goodwill of the Third World countries. The end of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed that check. The US emerged as the sole super power allowing it to give free rein to its hegemonic designs. A planning document of the Pentagon leaked in 1992 enunciated that henceforth global hegemony was to be main goal of the US grand strategy.

The coming years saw the actual pursuit of the goal of global hegemony by the US. President George Bush declared on 1 June, 2002, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace”. Unchecked by the possibility of resistance by any major power in view of the weakness of both Russia and China and oblivious of the principles of international law and the UN Charter, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 without any UN Security Council sanction. It also propounded the doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive military interventions wherever its security interest so demanded to justify its violations of international law and the UN Charter.

The emergence of a re-assertive Russia and the rapid rise of China have placed growing constraints on the US ability to act unilaterally on major issues of war and peace. But it appears from Washington’s overt and covert interventions in the affairs of other countries, especially Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Venezuela, that while it expects others to abide by the recognized rules of international law, US itself attaches little importance to them in dealing with important issues of war and peace. Here, the rules of realpolitik rather than the principles of international law are the guiding factors in determining the operational US policies.

The latest US decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights in clear violation of the UN Security Council resolutions is the latest example of the US disregard of the principles of international law and the UN Charter. Influenced by the US conduct, other powers are also showing growing inclination to resort to the use of force in the management of foreign affairs in clear violation of their obligations under the UN Charter. The present mess in Yemen, Syria and Libya is partly the result of this growing tendency which portends growing anarchy and chaos in international affairs unless the international community wakes up to the dangers inherent in this trend and takes strong steps to reverse it. India’s violation of Pakistan’s air space through its air attack at Balakot on 26 February on false pretexts was another example of the same trend.

Pakistan’s policy makers must take careful note of characteristics of the present era marked by the domination of power over principles, the diminished authority of the UN on strategic issues of war and peace, the rise of new great powers like China demanding modification of the present pro-West international system to accommodate their interests, the primacy of economic and technological power in international relations, civilizational fault-lines, operations of non-state actors active on the international political scene in the form of terrorist groups, and shifting alliances in response to new developments. These developments portend growing anarchy rather than order in international relations.

In the emerging scenario of anarchy and chaos, national power rather than principles of international law will be the ultimate arbiter of strategic issues of war and peace. Pakistan must, therefore, build up its national power comprising political stability, economic and technological strength, military prowess, and pro-active diplomacy. It is a tragedy of the highest proportion that in the face of an unpredictable and inhospitable international environment and the enduring security threat posed by our eastern neighbour, Pakistan is suffering from extreme political instability besides losing the race for economic growth to India. Our political and military leadership should wake up to the dangers inherent in the present situation and take resolute and necessary corrective steps. In view of the greatly diminished authority of the UN in dealing with major international security issues, we should adopt a realistic approach and stop pinning high hopes on it for helping us resolve the Kashmir dispute. However, we should remain engaged with the UN and its various forums to make our voice heard and to play our due role in the evolution of new standards of desirable international conduct. Finally, we must develop alliances and strategic partnerships with friendly countries to face possible political, economic and security challenges in the years to come.