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Ukraine: A War to Save the Rules-Based International Order?

HIMARS in Ukraine
HIMARS. This is similar to what is being used in Ukraine.

Washington’s Fraudulent, Rules-Based International Order: Among the many deceptive arguments that Joe Biden’s administration has made about the Ukraine war is that Russia’s invasion is an attack of unprecedented severity on the liberal, “rules-based international order” established at the end of World War II. That allegation has been a constant theme of administration officials and their allies in the news media and the foreign policy blob.  Proponents argue that the war is a global existential struggle between order and chaos, free societies and unprincipled aggressors.  Biden has stated the thesis succinctly that the Ukraine war is nothing less than “a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules‐​based order and one governed by brute force.”

The argument is shockingly disingenuous. Russia’s aggression, ugly as it might be, is hardly unprecedented in the post-World War II period. Indeed, there have been numerous violations just during the 3 decades since the end of the Cold War, and the lion’s share of them have come from the United States and its allies. 

U.S. officials sanctimoniously condemning the use of force against another country may elevate chutzpah to record heights. The United States and its NATO partners bombed secessionist Bosnian Serbs in 1995 to impose a political settlement on Bosnia. Four years later, The United States not only led a NATO air war against Serbia (a fellow member of the United Nations), but proceeded to dismember that country. In 2003, Washington and its allies invaded and occupied Iraq—with NATO members providing well over 90 percent of the combat forces. In 2011, the U.S. and NATO waged an air war to depose Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. U.S. troops currently occupy portions of northeastern Syria against the explicit wishes of the Syrian government.

Washington’s reaction to unilateral territorial aggression by close allies is markedly different from its huffing outrage over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.  Turkey seized the northern 37 percent of Cyprus in 1974, and Turkish troops occupy that territory to this day. Washington did nothing more than impose token sanctions on Ankara—sanctions that faded away in a few years. The U.S. reaction has been even less adverse regarding Israel’s seizure and continuing occupation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank, Turkey’s repeated, ongoing military incursions into northern Iraq and northern Syria, and France’s periodic episodes of military intervention in Chad. In all of those cases, Washington not only has refrained from imposing sanctions, but it has also maintained an extensive array of bilateral military and economic ties with the perpetrators.

The rules-based international order is a fictional standard that Washington and its allies disregard whenever convenient. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are reprehensible, but they do not even come close to constituting an existential threat to global order. If Washington had not meddled, the conflict would have been nothing more than a bilateral fight between 2 authoritarian East European states.  Even now, it is a proxy war limited to Russia and NATO. 

Other nations, especially in the Global South, are wisely sitting this fight out. The noticeable lack of international support–aside from NATO and Washington’s longtime dependents and allies in East Asia – for a confrontational policy toward Russia underscores that reality. To most governments and populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the war looks like a mundane power struggle between Russia and a Western client state, not an existential fight for global order and international law.


M777. Marines with India Battery, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepare to receive a fire mission during MEU Exercise 14 aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Nov. 20, 2014. The purpose of MEUEX is to train the different elements of the 15th MEU to work together to complete a wide variety of missions.
(U.S. Marine Corps HDR photo by Sgt. Jamean R. Berry/Released)

As one prominent African scholar put it: “many in Africa and the rest of the Global South do not regard—and never have regarded—the liberal international order as particularly liberal or international. Nor do they consider it to be particularly orderly, considering how much their countries were turned into spheres of influence and arenas for geostrategic competition.”

Despite Washington’s pervasive propaganda campaign, that attitude is not likely to change. Invoking the alleged need to repel Russia’s assault on a liberal, rules-based international order is seen in most of the world as brazenly hypocritical. One wonders if the American people might wake up and reach the same, correct conclusion.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. Kelvin Clarke

    October 20, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    I live in Australia, Mr Carpenter, and I can assure you that the assistance provided by the United States from 1942 to 1945 in repelling a murderous invader (Imperial Japan) was greatly appreciated and has provided my country with decades of largely peaceful existence. We remain a solid ally of the United States, and of nation states that support civil society.
    Security across the whole of central and eastern Europe is dependent upon the success of the Ukrainian military in its’ existential fight with Russia. That you, and Mr Bandow, are incapable of recognising the consequences of a Russian victory is perplexing.

  2. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    Liz Truss has resigned as British Prime Minister.

    So, another one bites the dust.

    The Zelensky curse…

    How many more governments have to fall before Ukraine Warmongers realize their policy has been a disaster.

    (I suppose they don’t care… as long as the war keeps going… but I suspect it’s going to get rammed right down their throats…)

    What we need is a fresh start and a repudiation of “Regime Change” foreign policy… it’s been a disaster.

    A fresh start by respecting & following International Law, not a self-serving “rules based” system imposed by the outlaw foreign policy establishment…

    And, their brain dead toadies, spewing propaganda in support of it.

    The mid-terms will be the start for the necessary course correction.

  3. Ross

    October 20, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    It’s amazing how conservative groups, like the Cato Institute, who were anti-communism and the Soviet Union have basically no problem with Putin trying to reestablish the Russia empire by force. Ted wants to bury his head in the sand and act like these are equal foes battling it out instead of one much larger aggressor trying to impose its will through brute force, or that Putin would be content with only “re-acquiring” Ukraine into his orbit. This entire article is incredibly disingenuous and his sweeping claims are backed with zero evidence.

    • Scottfs

      October 21, 2022 at 1:15 am

      Yes, this a war to discourage other bad actors for engaging in wars of conquest. That is so 20th century. That said, this is Europe’s problem.

      Yes, we’d probably supply arms, but the onus should be on European nations such as France, Belgium, Sweden, and, especially, Getmany. Not enough has been done. And Germany is useless.

      BTW, the CATO institute is libertarian, not Conservative.

  4. 403Forbidden

    October 20, 2022 at 3:51 pm

    The war in Ukraine is a full-blooded uncompromising & hard-hitting proxy war fomented by Biden and loyal sidekick stoltenberg.

    Very possibly egged on or prompted by deep state cabal and biden’s false belief that Russia brazenly interfered in 2020 election to help GOP & trump.

    Shows US and Biden and NATO readily prefer caveman conduct to modern civilized international interaction or just plain old diplomacy.

    Result is that nations opposed to US & NATO must eventually arm themselves to the teeth to preserve their lives and themselves.

    We live in the era of the ultra modern blood-and-gore Genghis who simply doesn’t accept a ‘no’ for an answer.

    Very similar to the legendary MIB characters who are known to barge into people’s houses and issue dire warnings and/or chilling threats. “Don’t do this…don’t do that, stop going there, stay inside your home…stop talking about what you have seen….OR ELSE !”

    To fight them, gotta go for the jugular !!! Always remember this.Always and always.

    • Michael

      October 21, 2022 at 4:44 pm

      Yikes. You Forgot to put “Q” in your username!

  5. Gary Jacobs

    October 20, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Wow. How absurd. So the world should have simply allowed the Serbs to continue to commit massive atrocities against the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia? That’s really your argument?

    And Israel should have just allowed the Syrians to fire at civilians from the high ground on the Golan for no other reason than to kill Jewish farmers in the Galilee below? You think that’s some kind of valid counterpoint?

    Somehow it isnt the Serbs or Syrians undermining the the rules based systems?…it’s the people who sought to end their atrocities that are in the wrong?

    With a slim argument on Libya, but there again we are back to simply allowing a dictator to slaughter people being the author’s argument. Plenty to complain about with handling the aftermath in Libya…but getting rid of Gaddafi as a negative talking point is right out of Putin’s playbook.

    Your best argument in there is Turkey invading Cyprus. Even there, as much as I loathe Turkey and side with the Greeks, an objective person would note that Greek Cypriots staged a coup. Then Turkey invaded.

    Of course it is somewhere between tragic irony and pure hypocrisy for this author to make an argument about “their countries were turned into spheres of influence and arenas for geostrategic competition” when it is Russia desperately clinging to its imperial fantasies by going to war to deny Ukraine its right to look west rather than east.

    It’s just the next evolution of the Russians attempted coup in 2014 when they strong armed the leader of Ukraine to go against the EU trade deal that was integral to the platform which got him elected by the people of Ukraine. But then again this author clings to a leaked call by Victoria Nuland at the State Dept. giving political advice on Ukraine in 2013-14 as “evidence” that the US staged a coup. More Putin talking points. The people of Ukraine came out into the streets in massive numbers.
    On. Their. Own.

    So at one point this author has argued the US helped stage a coup in Ukraine in 2014, and according to him that’s wrong so it’s only natural Russia invades Ukraine. But when the Greek Cypriots stage a coup, somehow Turkey invading Cyprus is wrong. Totally incongruent “logic”.

    What it really seems to boil down to is this author speaking for the American isolationist crowd. Just as excessive neocon interventionism is a problem, so is excessive isolationism. At $15 Billion for 8 months to Ukraine and them basically defeating the Russian army with no US troops on the ground… That’s about the best bargain the US defense budget has gotten in decades. Perhaps ever.

    And contrary to people like Tamerlane trying to pretend otherwise, polls consistently show Americans are not only on board with supporting Ukraine… they are willing to pay higher prices to see it through. And that isnt even rich people. Released just a couple days ago The latest round of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll finds respondents under the age of 30 tended to be more prepared to pay a price for supporting Ukraine — 72 percent said they’d accept higher energy prices and 71 percent said they’d accept rising inflation. That means there will be long lasting support from an age group that will be affected the most. A significant portion of those respondents also report earning less than $100,000 per year.

    Bottom line: The US likes a scrappy underdog that fights for its freedom against a giant bully like Putin’s Russia. As well, this author’s attempt to undercut the argument for supporting Ukraine is flimsy at best. But I’m sure many of the usual Putinistas around here will cling to it nonetheless.

    • Kelvin Clarke

      October 21, 2022 at 7:39 am

      Your third last paragraph is gold. The pro-Fascist Putin propagandist commenters who claim that America will suffer economically from supporting the democratically elected Government of Ukraine should consider that Ukrainian victory would represent the greatest peace dividend since the end of World War Two.
      But then such commenters are generally Russian Trolls (chilly in Moscow….and Kherson?): then situation normal.

    • Matthew Carlton

      October 21, 2022 at 9:40 am

      Yes Gary that is his argument. I equally found it repugnant. Nato’s involvement in Bosnian civil war is rule based, i.e. genocide is basis for what Nato did.

      • Yrral

        October 22, 2022 at 7:47 am

        Jacob, Israel is a pariah state by the majority of the world,the US government do not do a good job protecting American citizens,by passing legislation,that protect them from all kind of internal wrongdoings,it not 15 billion, but 58 billion,and they want another 50 billion on top of this

  6. Commentar

    October 20, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    America and NATO’s sordid record in dismembering Yugoslavia using cluster bombs, crushing Libya (& its central bank gold reserves) and their bald attempts to hand over Syria to fanatical jihadist outfits is proof western nations are direct offspring of Lucifer.

    The allegorical story of babylon riding atop the beast, which could be NATO, EU, WB or whatever, definitely has come to pass and amazingly, in our lifetime, too.

    Babylon is the ultimate creation or handiwork of the ruler of the netherworld and this ruler’s subjects or ‘actors’ carrying out his aims on Earth are therefore Babylon and the beasts in unison.

    Beware of NATO. Beware of America and Europe. Their ‘rules’ and ‘orders’ come directly from their father named Lucifer.

    They’re full of crap.

  7. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Ross, don’t be a toady for the foreign policy blob.

    What is it? Is Russia so weak they’ll get booted out of Ukraine as about half the Ukraine supporters state or is it like what you say, so powerful they’ll stream roll over Europe?

    That was never their goal, you exercise little critical thinking… just drinking the Kool-aid and regurgitate and repeat.

    It get old real fast.

    And leaves you and the rest of the foreign policy toadies looking like the black knight in Monte Python.

    Pathetic… but still willing to give it a go.

  8. The Al U Know

    October 20, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    ‘This is not even the beginning of the end. But perhaps it is the end of the beginning.’
    Churchill, paraphrased.

    This war is not over by a long shot. Also read that China is approaching the point of no return on its chances on Taiwan, especially as its population ages.

    US military doctrine is to be able to fight 2 countries at once, but will they be able to do so vs. Russia AND China?
    What if Iran or North Korea get involved?

    Europe, or Australia(who has made some real investments) or Canada(who sadly has made little) need to take charge and show that the international order is made up empathetic, moral and active democracies. Not some self-congratulating, race exploiting, in bed with the communist enemy capitalists.

  9. Goran

    October 20, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    Two years ago some questioned whether NATO is needed at all. Nobody sane will ask that question for a long time to come. If Ukraine benefits from the overall process of reaffirming NATO’s relevance, even better.

  10. CDXow

    October 20, 2022 at 11:52 pm

    I don’t know anything about the author, but after reading this I know he’s a Putin Bot and probably a good friend of Dimity Simes. Poor quality article where the author ignores completely the very long history of Russian aggression and follows the usual Russian play book of blaming everyone else. Russia and Russians never take resposibility for their actions, it’s always someone else fault.

    • Arash P

      October 22, 2022 at 4:08 am

      Just stop this nonsense.
      Stop shutting down the arguments you don’t like in this most underhanded way. Have a country argument ? Put forth.

      Most articles published here are shilling for Israel. Do you call them Israeli puppets?
      So anyone who is calling the establishment’s BS here is a Putin puppet?

      Where was the outrage when US was selling Saudi Arabia weapons that it was using in Yemen causing what UN called “the greatest human catastrophe of our time”?!

  11. Tamerlane

    October 21, 2022 at 12:34 am

    Of course NATO doesn’t need to exist. Ukraine isn’t part of NATO, nor should we be part of a military expansionist aggressive alliance like it which draws us time and time again into new wars contrary to American interests. The radical neoconservatives here, like Gary and his morally evil ilk won’t go serve our country, but cheerlead for her sons who are brave enough to serve to go and fight and die for foreign causes. That is wrong, and must be opposed by all those seeking to preserve this marvelous country and the liberties it represents. Non interventionism and foreign policy realism are not Chamberlain-esque “isolationism”, despite the smears of the gutless chickenhawks.

    We absolutely should never have intervened in Syria, or in Serbia, or in Libya, or of course, in Iraq… all countries whose sovereignty we completely violated at whim. Those and many other imbecilic and counter-productive interventions prove that strong countries do as they will, and weak suffer as they must, and have informed the Russians about precisely what lengths they must go to to protect their own existential interests. It’s sad that the short sighted policies of these hyper interventionists have resulted in yet another war, but here we are. Fortunately, Biden and his neoconservative allies will be defeated in a few weeks’ time, and some reason and restraint put on their Armageddonist deathwish “strategy”.

  12. Scottfs

    October 21, 2022 at 1:12 am

    Yes, this a war to discourage other bad actors for engaging in wars of conquest. That is so 20th century. That said, this is Europe’s problem.

    Yes, we’d probably supply arms, but the onus should be on European nations such as France, Belgium, Sweden, and, especially, Getmany. Not enough has been done. And Germany is useless.

  13. Jim

    October 21, 2022 at 10:14 am

    Regime Change

    Is maximalist.

    Is Neoconservative.

    Is John Bolton.

  14. Goran

    October 21, 2022 at 11:47 am

    Tamerlane: “Of course NATO doesn’t need to exist”

    What is the percentage of let’s say the US population that supports that statement of yours, and how relevant are the political candidates that openly support that idea? It is a free society and people don’t end up in prison for calling war a war, so we should have a fairly decent understanding of how prevalent such sentiment is.

  15. Tamerlane

    October 21, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    We’ll see come November won’t we Goran, when you Democrat warmongers are shellacked. Too cowardly to serve yourself; yet brave enough to seek the deaths of millions of innocent fellow citizens.

    No, we don’t need NATO—we never have. The allies within NATO needed “us”, but it was a one sided necessity. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the alliance has sought to create an opponent to justify its existence… and now through its aggressive expansion, has found someone willing and able to oppose its growth. It’s been a hammer in search of a nail for 30 years.

  16. TheWoodsman

    October 21, 2022 at 11:58 pm

    The author is conveniently forgetting that every major incursion by the U.S. onto foreign territory since WWII attempted to establish democracy in those countries. Whether it was successful or not after the U.S. left was up to them.
    Look at how the occupied Ukrainians lived under Russian terror (torture chambers in police station basements, tortured Ukrainians buried in shallow forest graves) and how utterly grateful they are when liberated by their forces. It is a battle of good vs. evil, democracy vs. despotism. Worth the in investment of U.S. tax dollars to contain the fighting to Ukraine, because the Baltics and Western Europe was no doubt next up to bat.

  17. Arash P

    October 22, 2022 at 4:01 am

    Or when US withdraws from JCPOA and imposes unilateral, illegal, sanctions on Iran with secondary sanctions on any nation who dares defy them.
    Meanwhile never sanctioning Israel for failure to sign up for NPT and thus giving it blank check to quietly assemble a nuclear arsenal.

    So much so for the rules!

    If you sign up for NPT, you will get sanctioned endlessly, if you don’t sign up for it, we will help you build a nuke arsenal. That is if you have powerful enough lobby in the US!

    There is no such thing as “rules based order”, only US hegemony and bullying and it’s high time it goes to garbage dump of history.

  18. Donald Link

    October 22, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    A good many of the comments in this forum reflect a condemnation of a lack of consistency and a desire for comparability. That is not how foreign policy works and as been said, a characteristic of small minds. Rwanda is an example of a moral tragedy that could have been at least partially averted but of no strategic import. Ukraine has a strategic basis that was understood, if not spoken, for three decades. Putin disrupted that understanding and as a consequence has sparked a deserved concern on the part of Finland and Sweden who now feel that their understanding of the arrangement is in danger of being breeched. Same with China/Taiwan. Other areas that have been cited, Bosnia, Syria, Iraq II, have effects for their citizens but not much beyond that and clearly should have been managed differently. The amoral term in the 1980s was “realpolitik”. It provided cover for differing approaches to similar circumstances but differing areas. No one pretended that it was intended to justify modern day crusades. Metternich is probably turning in his grave.

  19. Organic Chemist

    November 10, 2022 at 11:30 am

    Death, taxes and wars in Europe.

    And America selling its extra products for exorbitant prices (manufactured goods after WW2, now fracked gas)

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