As the international community wrings its hands over the Syrian catastrophe, unfolding in yet another way in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, a critical question rears its head once again. When we speak of an "international order", is this merely a rhetorical tool? Or something that is genuine and real? Because the current state of play certainly doesn't appear all that encouraging.
The notion of international order is not a new one; it goes back several hundred years. But it isn’t a notion that was universally discussed as an actual experience. On the contrary, very often thinkers and historical figures took the absence of an international order to be a given, rather than a present reality and they recommended international engagements accordingly.
For example, one can easily find an exhortation in different classical treatises on international relations to actively build up offensive capacities to deter other entities from invading or otherwise disrupting the order within a particular territory. Indeed, in different manuals, regular, pre-emptive limited campaigns were advised – again, for deterrence. The more advanced would propound that such campaigns could be dispensed with if treaties were entered into because such treaties would then, presumably, extend the zone of order that existed within the territory proper. Indeed, within much of the Arab-Muslim domain, that pursuing of multiple bilateral treaties was particularly well-entrenched.
But the backdrop for international relations was – until relatively recently – almost universally accepted to be one of anarchy. That is to say, there was no overarching mechanism by which the powerless, for example, were able to withstand the efforts of the powerful. If that sounds like the law of the jungle, that’s because it often was.
And then the 20th century happened, with first the League of Nations and then the United Nations. As the narrative goes, the basis of international relations being anarchy became redundant – that we, as a species, entered into a time of international law, where the powerful, the powerless and everyone in between were subject to the same rules of conduct.
Of course, that's not actually the case at all. The truth is, it probably never was. Have we, as a species, drawn closer to a system of international law? Yes, undeniably so – but it is all relative to what has come before. In this "equal under the law" system of international relations, there are still the big powers on the United Nations Security Council that can veto, for example, council resolutions. That veto prerogative is not universally shared, nor is it rotated. In this system of international law, we still have the invasion, occupation and annexation of the Crimea in the Ukraine – because a big power decided it ought to be so. We still have the destruction of Syria by the Assad regime, aided and assisted by a big power.
It’s that cruel truth that stares us right in the face when we see the horrors of Ghouta today. Ghouta isn’t unique in the history of the modern Syrian conflict, nor is it unique in the history of recent decades, really. It isn’t simply enough that what is happening in Ghouta is a complete violation of international law, morally and ethically. For it to end, it must be a violation that enough of the big powers are unwilling to allow to continue, one way or another. Because in the end, the implementation of international law depends greatly on the willingness of the most powerful to implement it. Or, to put it another way, where the most powerful in the jungle decide to make sure that the law of the jungle is actually a reasonable law.
It’s not a very comforting paradigm to consider because it means, essentially, that international law is still very much an idea rather than a fully implemented model. Many of our liberal sensibilities will be outraged by such a suggestion because so much of what we consider today within the domain of international relations hinges on that idea that we are all bound by certain norms. But while that is a nice idea, it’s not necessarily the case.
Unless, of course, the powerful deem it to be so. And arguably, they should. Those who talk up the complexities of the Syrian conflict insist that those who demand accountability are really just thinly disguising their desire for a repeat of the Iraq scenario – that they are basically warmongers who have no sense of historical memory. But the truth is, the shoe is very much on the other foot. The Bosnian Muslims who escaped genocide in the 1990s must be exceedingly grateful that their struggle took place before the Iraq war of 2003 – otherwise, they might have faced the same fate en masse as Grozny did in Chechnya at the hands of the Russian military.
And there are other ways to enforce change, in any case, without the use of military hardware. Some of the most effective tools in conflict do not involve bullets of any kind but are economic and strategic in nature. But any tactic, nevertheless, needs to be very clear on its determination to actually uphold certain standards and values. If the determination is there, then solutions will be found. Alas, as we’ve seen time and again in Syria, that determination simply isn’t there and is focused less on the people of Syria’s welfare and more on ensuring they – and their refugees – stay as far away as possible.
The choice to establish an international order has always been there – and it remains there today. It’s a wilful choice, one way or the other. Nothing can happen by default. It is an active choice – and right now, the people of Syria are witnessing firsthand how utterly destructive the absence of international order actual is. But make no mistake – we choose, every day, to make it that miserable. And we can choose otherwise.