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The UK and the international rules-based system

Article by Dr Nicholas Wright

September 8, 2020

The UK and the international rules-based system

The maintenance and enhancement of the international rules-based system (IRBS) has been an essential British interest in the 75 years since the end of the Second World War. Having contributed significantly to its construction throughout this period, the UK has been able to secure for itself a position enabling it to punch above its weight internationally. Indeed, the importance of the IRBS to the UK has only increased in a period marked by its own relative decline in power as it withdrew from empire and the era of superpower rivalry began.


As a middle-rank power with ambitions to maintain global reach, the UK today still possesses the capacity to exercise significant international influence, not least through its membership of key international institutions such as the UN Security Council. However, much of this is dependent on the maintenance and integrity of the system – i.e. it derives from the willingness of other states to remain involved in and committed to the IRBS. A rise in nationalism globally, a greater willingness by some states to act unilaterally, notably the US, and the determination of ‘new’ or revisionist powers such as China and Russia to challenge or re-make international structures of governance mean the IRBS that has served the UK so well is more fragile today than at any point since 1945.[1] The UK has itself contributed to this sense of instability with its withdrawal from the EU and its difficulties in identifying a clear post-Brexit pathway for its foreign policy and diplomacy.


This contribution argues, therefore, that the UK should place a renewed commitment to the efficient, effective and fair functioning of the IRBS at the heart of its post-Brexit foreign policy. This should be accompanied by a clear and unambiguous effort to provide necessary and appropriate international leadership. By doing so it can limit the risk that others see British withdrawal from the EU as part of a broader strategic retreat whilst at the same time buttressing the legitimacy of institutions that remain so vital to the UK’s ability to protect and promote its national interests.


What is the International Rules-Based System?

The IRBS has evolved as a means of developing – to the extent possible – predictability and stability between states as sovereign actors.[2] At a basic level it can be understood as encompassing three main components: (i) formal structures and institutions – e.g. the UN, IMF, WTO, etc. – and also regional organisations such as the EU, ASEAN and NATO; (ii) rules, treaties and international law – e.g. the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,[3] the UN Refugee Convention,[4] or the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT);[5] and (iii) the norms and values that have developed around and through these – e.g. support and promotion of democracy, equality, and human rights. Many of these were deliberately established and/or have evolved primarily since the end of the Second World War as a means of managing and regulating how states interact.


Tensions and disagreements are common, frequently occurring in the interpretation and contestation of norms and values. This can be seen, for example, in the contrast between states’ formal representation and participation in particular organisations on the one hand; and their attitudes to the norms and values that such participation implies on the other. A state may notionally accept the norms and values a particular organisation represents, but strongly reject specific criticism of – or attempts to restrict – its own actions. It may contest the validity of certain norms and values, particularly where it is accused of violating these. A recent example is the controversy surrounding the 2015 appointment of Saudi Arabia’s UN Ambassador in Geneva to chair an independent panel of experts on the UN’s Human Rights Council, with some arguing that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record made it inappropriate for it to hold such a post.[6]


Such tensions illustrate Prof Malcolm Chalmers’ argument that rather than a single IRBS, we can in fact identify three separate but interacting systems: a Universal Security System, a Universal Economic System and a Western-based system, the latter led for much of the last 75 years by the US and promoting a very particular normative perspective.[7] The effectiveness of these systems in managing and mediating interactions between states – and the tensions caused by these – reflects the reality that their ‘worth depends on the extent to which they serve the interests and values of the states which sustain them’.[8] Thus, in the absence of any kind of ‘world government’, the IRBS functions only to the extent that states accept its legitimacy and have confidence in it.


For example, the WTO’s dispute resolution system has effectively collapsed this year due to the ongoing refusal of the US to agree the appointment of new judges to its Appellate Body. The view of the current US Administration is that the WTO does not serve US interests.[9] In response, however, a group of WTO members led by the EU have established an alternative ‘multi-party interim appeal arbitration arrangement’ to enable participating states to ‘solve trade disputes amongst themselves’, thereby reflecting their own belief in the value of maintaining the system in some form or other.[10]


For the purposes of this contribution, the IRBS is discussed as a single entity. However, although space precludes a more detailed discussion of Chalmers’ argument, it does serve to highlight very effectively the complexity inherent in, and ever-changing nature of, the IRBS. Most importantly, it reminds us of the challenges the UK faces in how it engages with and navigates a system characterised by multiple levels and actors, and the potential fragility of the governance structures created to facilitate this.


What approach should the UK take to the IRBS post-Brexit?

How, then, should the UK approach the IRBS and what place should it occupy in the thinking underpinning its post-Brexit foreign policy? First, we must note the important role the UK itself has played in constructing and supporting the IRBS, particularly the key multilateral institutions established after the Second World War including the UN, IMF, NATO and more recently the EU. Support for multilateralism and the maintenance of the IRBS has therefore been part of the DNA of UK foreign policy for decades with this commitment expressed in its economic, trade, defence, development and security policies as well as in its diplomacy.


In turn, the IRBS has been crucial in ensuring the UK’s ongoing international influence and relevance, and thus its capacity to protect, promote and pursue its national interests. We can see this in the strong support the UK received – especially from its European partners – following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982; and in the broad levels of international solidarity shown following the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury by Russian state actors in 2018, which resulted in the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats by 29 countries and organisations.


Second, if the UK is to continue to benefit from the IRBS, its legitimacy must be maintained. This requires other states – and especially the major global powers – to remain invested in it and continue to see its benefits. Here, a brief consideration of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme is instructive. In a united diplomatic approach, the UK, France and Germany as the ‘E3’ established a diplomatic process to persuade Iran to cease nuclear enrichment and allow IAEA to monitor the development of its nuclear programme. After more than a decade of at times tortuous negotiations, and with the diplomatic process expanded to include the US, China and Russia (the other permanent UN Security Council members), as well as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, agreement was finally reached in 2015 on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


For all its faults, the JCPOA was a significant diplomatic achievement – at stake, after all, was the credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime established under the NPT, a key component of global security governance. Despite the Trump Administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA, the UK has maintained its commitment to the agreement – and thereby to ensuring that not only Iran but also China and Russia remain bound into it.[11] This was reiterated in a recent statement by the E3 in response to US attempts to reinstate sanctions on Iran: ‘The E3 are committed to preserving the processes and institutions which constitute the foundation of multilateralism. We remain guided by the objective of upholding the authority and integrity of the United Nations Security Council’.[12] This example demonstrates the importance of constant engagement if the IRBS is to be sustained and the need to work closely with partners – even where, in the case of Russia, relations may be extremely difficult – if the benefits of cooperation and collective rule-making are to be achieved.


It is clear, therefore, that the maintenance of the IRBS is in and of itself a core British interest – a point recognised by the previous May government, which declared: ‘The [IRBS] matters hugely to the UK. Strengthening this system, with the UN at its heart, is a key priority of British diplomacy. It enables global cooperation through which we seek to address international security and economic challenges, and also protects our values’.[13] It should therefore sit at the heart of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy.


The ongoing Integrated Review process – examining at all aspects of UK foreign policy – provides a perfect, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to do this. The lack of a comprehensive, strategic vision as to what that foreign policy entails remains problematic. Presented as ‘Global Britain’, to date its rhetorical ambition has not been matched by real clarity or practical detail. For example, statements such as ‘Global Britain will be a force for good and an energetic champion of free trade as it pursues closer ties with international partners and embarks on a new role in the world’ reveal little about the underlying strategy for how this will be achieved.[14]


A focus on the IRBS provides a means for the UK to fill this intellectual and policy gap. A clear and unambiguous statement of its ongoing commitment to and championing of the IRBS, backed up by a set of concrete actions it will undertake in support – for example, a willingness to take a greater leadership role in supporting the UN’s security and peacekeeping functions – will achieve a number of important objectives. First, it will send an important signal to the international community of the UK’s determination to remain proactive, thereby rejecting any suggestion of a retreat into post-Brexit isolationism. Second, it will provide a clear organisational logic and focal point for policy-makers. The IRBS encompasses both the norms and values that the government currently seeks to promote, for example around human rights, and the institutional structures through which it can do this.[15] This would allow the wide range of diplomatic actions the UK currently undertakes – for example, its increased activity and profile in the UN Security Council and WTO in recent months and its imposition of the first British ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions on individuals for human rights abuses in July this year – to be explicitly linked to a broader strategy and narrative of international engagement rooted in the exercise of responsible power.



This year the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated both the importance and fragility of the multilateral system and international cooperation, particularly in the face of unilateral and national(ist) approaches to crisis. In an environment in which great power politics are once again on the increase, the UK’s capacity to act meaningfully and its ability to ensure its international credibility and reputation, will rest in large part on the maintenance of an effective and credible IRBS. As the government seeks to articulate a clear post-Brexit foreign policy vision for the UK, therefore, committing unambiguously in both word and deed to the IRBS must form a central element of its thinking. Doing so will go a long way to answering the key questions of what UK foreign policy is for in the 21st century and what kind of power the UK wishes to be.



  • The IRBS remains a crucial element in how the UK engages with the world and protects its interests internationally – placing it front and centre in the Integrated Review process will give the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy a powerful intellectual and organisational foundation.
  • A priority for UK foreign policy post-Brexit must be to demonstrate that it is not withdrawing from its international obligations and will remain an active and responsible power – a focus on sustaining and strengthening the IRBS will send a powerful signal of this commitment to the international community.
  • Using the IRBS as a focal point for articulating the core values of UK foreign policy, the UK should identify a set of policy priorities focused: on the leadership role it will seek to play at the UN and in other multilateral settings; how it will champion key aspects of the UN’s humanitarian governance and climate change agendas; and how it will fulfil its obligations to promote and enhance international security as a permanent member of the Security Council, NATO member, etc.


Dr Nicholas Wright researches national and multilateral foreign policy-making at University College London and his work focuses particularly on Britain, Germany and the EU. He has written extensively on the impacts of Brexit on UK foreign policy-making, has provided evidence for a number of parliamentary inquiries and is a regular media contributor nationally and internationally.


[1] See, for example, Will Moreland, The purpose of multilateralism: A framework for democracies in a geopolitically competitive world, Brookings Institution, September 2019,

[2] Wright, Nicholas. 2019. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in Germany and the UK: Co-operation, Co-optation and Competition, New Perspectives in German Political Studies. London: Palgrave. p.1

[3] United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982, February 2020,

[4] UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention,

[5] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),

[6] Tom Brooks-Pollock, Anger after Saudi Arabia ‘chosen to head key UN human rights panel, The Independent, September 2015,

[7] Malcolm Chalmers, Which Rules? Why There Is No Single ‘Rules-Based International System’. Occasional Paper, Royal United Services Institute, April 2019,

[8] Chalmers, vii

[9] Jennifer Anne Hillman, A Reset of the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2020,

[10] Council of the European Union, Council approves a multi-party interim appeal arbitration arrangement to solve trade disputes, April 2020,

[11] See, for example: HMG, EU and UN partnership vital for rules-based international system, March 2019,

[12] HMG, E3 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the JCPoA, August 2020,

[13] HMG, Government Response: UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order, March 2019,

[14] HMG, Bold new beginning for Global Britain as Foreign Secretary kicks off Asia-Pacific tour, February 2020,

[15] HMG, Foreign Secretary’s introduction to the Queen’s Speech debate, January 2020,

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