A firefighter works at a site of a residential building heavily damaged by a missile strike
Tearing up the rule book: a residential building in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike © Reuters

In the battle for global influence, all sides have their jargon. The US and allies talk of the “rules-based international order” (RBIO). Russia and China prefer a “multipolar” world. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s astute foreign minister, recently split the difference by talking about the need for a “multilateral rules-based international order”.

For the west, the RBIO underpins peace and stability. It demands respect for territorial integrity and international law, and the protection of minorities, small nations, democratic norms and the global trading system.

Russia — often supported by China — argues this is hypocritical. The US, in Moscow’s view, writes the rules, imposes them on others and ignores them when convenient. Other nations that emphasise the RBIO are, from Moscow’s perspective, basically US vassals.

Russia and China believe the decline of US global power is necessary and inevitable — the result being a more just world in which US power is constrained and multiple centres of power operate. According to the Russians and Chinese, this will allow different civilisations to live by their own rules, rather than having to hew to a Washington consensus.

For the US and allies, these arguments are dishonest. The US and the EU believe that, while the idea of multipolarity can sound appealing, it often boils down to a demand from autocracies, in Moscow and Beijing, to have their own poles of influence. That means imposing their will on democratic neighbours like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping make a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023
Moscow audience: Xi’s visit to Putin last year marked relations between them having grown closer since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine © Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

In different ways, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — as well as the tensions in the South China Sea and the battle for opinion in the Global South — all involve this rhetorical struggle to shape the world order and the power realities that underpin it.

For the US and the EU, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke one of the most fundamental tenets of the RBIO — the prohibition against invading your neighbours and annexing their territory. Russia’s justification, by contrast, leans heavily on the idea that Ukraine was being dragged into the western civilisational space, thus becoming a tool of the US-dominated world order. Attacking a pro-western, pro-Nato government in Kyiv was — Russia claims — not an act of aggression or a breach of global rules, but an effort to protect Russia’s security interests and strike a blow for a multipolar world.

Russia has not had huge success in pressing this argument. It has been hit by western economic sanctions and experienced ostracism beyond anything Moscow encountered in the cold war. Russian teams have, for example, been excluded from sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. President Vladimir Putin has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, making it difficult for him to travel.

Very few countries have voted to defend Russia’s actions at the UN. However, important Global South nations, notably India, have abstained on votes condemning Russia.

As well as reflecting such interests as a desire to buy cheap Russian oil and weapons, India’s UN votes reflect sympathy with Moscow’s argument that the world order is too shaped by western colonialism’s legacy. But India is increasingly wary of China, which has killed Indian troops on the countries’ disputed border and led New Delhi to increase military co-operation with Washington. Thus, India endorses both multipolarity and the RBIO.

One country steadfast in backing Russia is China. Cushioning the blow of western sanctions, Chinese economic support has essentially kept the Russian economy afloat. On a 2023 trip to Moscow, President Xi Jinping told Putin, in front of the cameras, that Russia and China were together making fundamental changes to the global order. Without spelling it out, Xi had in mind the emergence of a multipolar world order and the breaking of US power. Some US analysts believe that China ultimately has a vision of achieving another unipolar system, with the pole in Beijing.

The Putin and Xi Moscow exchange was much discussed in western capitals, which fear the Ukraine war could be the first major breach in the RBIO. The next could come in east Asia — if China uses its growing military power to invade or blockade Taiwan, or push even harder its claims of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

But, while many western strategists see Asia as the fulcrum of competition between rules-based and multipolar visions, war in the Middle East continues to command enormous attention.

The west’s support for Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza has hugely complicated the battle of narratives. For many in the Global South, western support for Israel in Gaza, when combined with condemnation of Russia in Ukraine, proves western RBIO talk is hypocrisy.

The west responds that there is clear distinction between the two cases: Israel was attacked by Hamas and is exercising its right to self-defence; Russia is waging a war of aggression. That does not mean every Israeli action in Gaza is justified. Western leaders have become increasingly open in condemning the devastating level of civilian casualties.

For now, while the Gaza war is an embarrassment for the west, in the battle of narratives not much evidence exists that world opinion will be tipped decisively in either direction. Countries that align with Washington, Moscow or Beijing, usually do so based on hard-headed assessment of their interests.

But those views are strongly linked to underlying values. Democracies are clearly more likely to buy into the US-led RBIO. What happens to the RBIO if Donald Trump is re-elected is a huge question weighing on the global system.

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