The date of 26 January 2024 may become a watershed moment in the history of international relations. That was the day the International Court of Justice ruled there was a “plausible case” that Israel was committing genocide in Gaza. But the West then attacked the institution that held Israel to account.

In the past, plausible accusations of genocide have triggered UN resolutions, air strikes (Yugoslavia), ground invasions (Kosovo, Sierra Leone) and the creation of special tribunals to hunt down and prosecute the perpetrators (Rwanda, Yugoslavia). Instead, days after the ICJ’s decision, nine western states (including the US and UK) stopped their funding for the international agency that provided evidence against Israel.

Twelve employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine were accused (by Israel) of involvement in the 7 October attack by Hamas. UNRWA employs around 30,000 people and immediately suspended those accused. Israel now faces allegations that it tortured some or all of the witnesses into giving false testimony. It seems unlikely that the timing, and the West’s willingness to take such drastic action on the basis of unproven claims, were coincidental. The same states maintained or increased their funding to Israel in the face of far better substantiated allegations.

The withdrawal of funding contributed to the famine now ravaging Gaza. But it’s also a catastrophe for the global order. Since 1945 we have enjoyed a period of relative peace and stability guaranteed by the rules-based international order. The West’s treatment of Gaza is the latest step in the erosion of that order by the very states that should uphold it.

After the American Civil War, the UK and US almost went to war over claims relating to compensation for British-built ships aiding the Confederacy. Instead, they referred their dispute to arbitration. This began, perhaps, their greatest contribution to world peace. In the aftermath of World War II the allied nations drew on this precedent to create a global order whereby states settled their differences according to agreed-upon rules and through international institutions, rather than by force. New global challenges, such as nuclear weapons, financial instability and even environmental threats were addressed through multilateral agreements.

The “rules-based” or “liberal” order was far from perfect. The “long peace” that followed 1945 was hardly universal. Elements of the liberal order imposed structural violence and poverty. It baked in western (largely American) hegemony. And it lacked the flexibility to adequately address the multi-polar world created by the rise of China and resurgence of Russia. At the same time, however, it created a forum to address these flaws.

The West has not simply looked the other way while rules are broken, but actively rejected the very concept of the liberal order. Compliance with international law will never mirror domestic law. Rule-breaking has, at a low level, always been tolerated. But the general obligation to respect the international system has broadly been honoured. The West was willing to at least pay lip service to the liberal order, and led the way in imposing political and economic consequences when states broke the rules too egregiously.

The West has actively rejected the concept of the liberal order

The Iraq war, fought explicitly without UN sanction, represented a public rejection of the order. The active support for Israel’s potential crimes (and punishment of an institution which should hold them to account) is another. UK and US governments have repeatedly attacked the liberal order for domestic political gain. UK governments promised to break international law over Brexit. The Trump administration junked the multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear disarmament to “own the libs”. We are already seeing the consequences. The subsequent resumption of Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s regional power struggle created the conditions for the flourishing of the Houthi militias which have almost paralysed global shipping through the Suez Canal.

In the absence of the liberal order, we face a return to the politics of “might is right”. This suits authoritarian states such as China and Russia. The former is slowly annexing the islands of the South China Sea and buying up vast interests in Africa. The West created the conditions for the Russian invasion of Ukraine by allowing Putin to invade Crimea and also intervene to crush the Syrian democratic movement without meaningful consequence. Republicans have made clear that, should they take the White House in November, they will open the gates for Putin to finish the job.

The West’s stance on Israel may be changing. Recent months have seen both the UK and US governments criticise Israel’s indiscriminate attach on and take steps to alleviate the famine. We must hope this signals a new attitude to the rules-based order.

The world is more interconnected now, and the most serious threats we face are collective. Issues such as the rise of AI weapons demand global attention. They have the potential to disrupt warfare on the same scale as the nuclear bomb. The challenges of regulating them are legion. Having computer programmes take over responsibility for target selection may render the current rules on war crimes and crimes against humanity meaningless. If “might is right” becomes, once again, the abiding rule of international relations, then the “long peace” will not last much longer.

Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He tweets at @SamFowles

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April 2024, Columns, Star Chamber

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