The Israel-Hamas War and the Disruption of the Rules-Based International Order
-Viewed from Theories of International Politics-

Matake Kamiya


The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is exerting a tremendous impact on the security situation not only in the Middle East but also across the globe; what is particularly serious is that it is disrupting the rules-based international order.

Unquestionably, the disruption of the rules-based international order was a recognized crucial problem in international politics before the outbreak of this war. For example, the current national security strategies of Japan and the United States, released in 2022, both position the protection of this order as the overriding security challenge. However, the challenge to this order envisaged at that time when they were released was chiefly the revisionism of the authoritarian states of China and Russia. But today, we are facing the reality in which the rules-based international order is shaken by a completely different cause.

That cause is criticism of the West's double standard, which is abruptly surging across the globe. The advanced Western democracies harshly denounce Russia's aggression against Ukraine as an act of violating international rules. On the other hand, they turn an almost blind eye to Israel's attack on the civilian population in the Gaza Strip, which is highly suspected of violating international humanitarian law, scarcely criticizing Israel for violating international rules. Such discontent against the West is spreading to a considerable extent throughout international society. This leads to calls that the rules-based international order advocated by the West is not credible because Western nations vary in attitudes, making or not making an issue of rule violations depending on the country. In, among other places, the Middle East, it is no longer uncommon to hear that the rules-based international order is crumbling. What is being questioned is how the advanced Western democracies, including Japan, the United States, and Europe, should face this war and the crisis of the rules-based international order.

Although some attribute the cause of this problem to the particularities of the Palestine issue and of regional interstate relations in the Middle East, this is not accurate. This paper attempts to explore the true nature of this problem by applying the arguments by two leading international political theorists, Hans J. Morgenthau and Hedley Bull, about the peace and stability of society and order.

1. The Rules-based International Order and Criticism of the West's "Double Standard"

What sort of order is the rules-based international order? The West has so far described it as an order in which all nations, large and small, strong and weak, act in respect of international rules. An overriding emphasis is placed on great powers' following the rules and refraining from acting by force.

US President Barack Obama articulated this as early as April 2014; during his visit to China, Japan, and other East Asian countries, when he stated as follows at a joint press conference following a summit meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:

But what we've also emphasized―and I will continue to emphasize throughout this trip―is that all of us have responsibilities to help maintain basic rules of the road and an international order so that large countries, small countries, all have to abide by what is considered just and fair, and that we are resolving disputes in peaceful fashion. And this is a message that I've delivered directly to the Chinese.1

Indisputably, in domestic society, both the strong and the weak should refrain from acting by force and behave following the rules of society. But this is not the case in international society because it operates in a state of anarchy without a central government. Under anarchy, rules have little coercive power; the strong could, to a considerable extent, do whatever they want against the weak, if they so choose.

In the post-WWII world, such a situation has been mitigated to a considerable extent under the "liberal, rules-based international order," which was shaped and maintained under the leadership of the United States, in cooperation with other countries, mainly liberal democracies including Japan. In the postwar world, the United States, now the mightiest nation in the world, had a philosophy that countries, large and small, should abide by the principle of respecting international rules and refraining from acting by force. The United States was not necessarily innocent of forceful actions in some occasions, but for the magnitude of its power, it showed self-restraint in its use of force and respect for the rules. Liberal democracies including Japan and European countries endorsed that stance of the United States; the US attitude had a massive impact on the path that international society followed. As a result, we have been able to live usually little aware that international society is an arena for power struggles between the strong preying on the weak and, ultimately, military power comes into play.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, was an event that revealed that the reality of international society, in which the strong could behave to a considerable extent as they wish, has not fundamentally changed even today in the 21st century. If Russia's actions against Ukraine were overlooked, it could mean that a powerful state can do whatever it wants without regard to international rules. In that case, the logical consequence is that only force can oppose tyranny by force; the world will return to an era of power struggles by military power. The real impact on international security of the Ukraine war lies in that many countries, especially liberal democracies, are now compelled to fear the possibility of the world reverting to such an egregious situation.

Furthermore, the way Israel is attacking the Gaza Strip has made many people in the world skeptical about the West's previous claim that the rules-based international order requires all countries to respect international rules. If Obama's statement is true―"that large countries, small countries, all have to abide by what is considered just and fair, and that we are resolving disputes in peaceful fashion"―, isn't it inappropriate of the West, which harshly condemns force-based behavior by China and Russia as a violation of international rules, to keep silence on its violation when it comes to Israel? This is the true nature of criticism of the West's "double standard," now spreading beyond the Middle East.

Underlying the mounting criticism is the fact that Israel's assault on Gaza has resulted in massive civilian casualties. Up to the time of this writing, in early March 2024, the death toll in the Gaza Strip, with a population of just over two million, has reportedly exceeded 30,000; many of them are civilians unrelated to Hamas, including many children and women. The situation is so devastating that about one out of every 70 residents has been dead. People in many countries, not only in the Middle East but also in the Global South and others, consider the way Israel is attacking Gaza to be a violation of international humanitarian law. Discontent and distrust prevail among these people that the West's commitment to the rules-based global order is nothing but a deception if such an assault is not criticized as long as it is undertaken by one particular country―Israel.

Grave unrest in the rules-based international order caused by the growing mass opposition to the ongoing war cannot be dismissed as solely attributable to the particularities of the Palestine question and the Middle East problem. As will be shown below, theoretical discussions on international order by Morgenthau and Bull, two great masters of the study of international politics, clearly indicate that there are inevitable reasons why the current situation that, if left not addressed, will lead to the disruption of the rules-based international order.

2. The Impact of the Israel-Hamas War on the Rules-based International Order as Viewed from Morgenthau's "Three Conditions for Social Peace"2

In examining what is necessary for international society to become peaceful, Morgenthau discussed why domestic societies are peaceful. He concluded that a "dual foundation" and "three conditions" underlie domestic peace.

What is the dual foundation? According to Morgenthau, it is "the disinclination of the majority members of society to break the peace" and "their inability to break the peace if they should be so inclined."

Morgenthau argues that three conditions must be satisfied to establish the dual foundation. The first is "suprasectional loyalties." A domestic society is composed of various social groups―political, religious, ethnic, and local, for example. That the majority members must feel loyalties to society as a whole, which surpasses their loyalties to any part of it, is necessary for social peace and stability. The second is the "expectation of justice." To maintain social peace and stability, the majority members must feel that what they believe to be just will be fulfilled to some extent, if not perfectly, under the existing order of the existing society. The third is the existence of "overwhelming power." In addition to the existence of government as an entity with an overwhelming material force as a monopoly of organized violence, Morgenthau points to irresistible social pressure obligating the members of society to maintain social peace.

What can we say if we apply Morgenthau's discussion of the "dual foundation" and "three conditions" for social peace and stability to international society? First, the second part of the dual foundation―that nobody can destroy society even if he is willing to do so―is absent in international society, where there is no central government monopolizing organized violence, while social pressure to force its members to maintain peace is limited because their suprasectional loyalties to the world as a whole are weak.

The peaceful and stable order of international society relies on establishing the first part of the dual foundation or the presence of the majority members who do not wish to disrupt social peace. The first part of the dual foundation depends, in turn, on the extent to which the "expectation of justice" is fulfilled among the members whose suprasectional loyalties are weak.

Morgenthau describes the state where the "expectation of justice" is fulfilled in a given society as follows: Even if there are various groups in society that are in conflict or in competition with one another, they must be able to expect from society "at least an approximation of justice" that they want to realize. In other words, the competing groups must be able to anticipate that none of their claims will be completely ignored but that all claims may be at least partially satisfied. Only then will any group in society not think of destroying society to realize the justice they seek.3

From this perspective, Muslims in the Middle East and the Islamic world had entertained a deep-seated suspicion about the possibility that their claims would not be completely ignored and at least partially fulfilled under the current international order led by the United States and the West. The Palestine issue symbolizes their inveterate suspicion. What Muslims believe to be justice concerning the Palestine issue continues to be turned a blind eye to by the West. They question if the justice they seek is unlikely to be fulfilled under the current international order. The recent Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip and the West's response to it helped unleash such discontent and resentment by Muslims. In other words, the "expectation of justice" under the existing international order is declining more drastically than before among Muslims in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Israel's attacks, this time, began at the outset as a justifiable response to Hamas' terrorism. However, it is hard to deny that Israel has since failed to pay due respect to international humanitarian law. Nonetheless, the West has scarcely criticized Israel. For example, the G7 foreign ministers' statement issued on November 8, 2023, when those ministers met in Tokyo for the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began, included a statement that "We continue to condemn in the strongest possible terms Russia's ongoing aggression" against Ukraine, but used no critical language against Israel, only saying that "We emphasize Israel's right to defend itself and its people, in accordance with international law."4 Furthermore, the United States, the leader of the West, continues to veto UN Security Council resolutions on the Israel-Hamas war. For example, during this writing, on February 20, 2024, a draft resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza was rejected by a US veto despite the support of 13 countries, including Japan.

With this Western response, it appears that the "expectation of justice" under the rules-based international order advocated by the West is noticeably undermined, not only in the Islamic world but also in international society, especially in the Global South. Assuming that Morgenthau's arguments are correct, if the present situation in Gaza continues, even the first part of the dual foundation for social order and stability that most members do not want to break social peace may be lost from the current international society. This is why the current international situation surrounding Gaza could inevitably lead to a disruption of the international order if left not addressed.

3. Impact of the Israel-Hamas War on the Rules-based International Order Viewed from Bull's "Three Necessary Conditions for the Existence of International Society"5

Bull's discussion of necessary conditions for the existence of international society yields similar findings. Bull made a remarkable scholarly contribution to the study of international order by examining why the modern international society has been able to exist despite the fact that it is anarchical. He argues as follows.

For a society to exist and sustain itself as such, three minimum understandings must be shared among its members. For a "constellation" of individuals or groups to become social, the three goals, which Bull designates the "values of life, truth, and property," must be widely accepted by its members as being useful to themselves. The "value of life" is that "all societies seek to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm." The "value of faith" means that "all societies seek to ensure that promises, once made, will be kept, or that agreements, once undertaken, will be carried out." The "value of property" signifies that "all societies pursue the goal of ensuring that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree, and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit." A "constellation of persons or groups among whom there existed no expectation of security against violence, of the honoring of agreements or of stability of possession we should hardly call a society at all." This is because "any other goals a society may set for itself presuppose the realisation of these goals in some degree."6

Human-beings cannot devote energy or attention enough to other objects unless they can secure some measure of security. "Unless there can be a general presumption that agreements entered into will be carried out, it is not conceivable that agreements can be entered into to facilitate human cooperation in any field." Unless the possession of things is to some degree stabilized, it is hard to maintain stable relations with others. For these reasons, Bull states that "unless these goals are achieved in some measure, we cannot speak of the existence of a society or of social life."7

According to Bull, this argument applies also to international society. He states that "[t]he maintenance of order in international society has as its starting-point the development among states of a sense of common interests in the elementary goals of social life." "However different and conflicting their objectives may be," states can coexist, and international society will become worthy of being called a society only when they share the "fear of unrestricted violence, of the instability of agreements or of the insecurity of their independence or sovereignty," viewing the "values of life, faith, and property" as instrumental to them.8 Bull believes that throughout the history of the modern international system since the Peace of Westphalia, these fundamental goals have been generally shared and maintained among the sovereign states that make up the system.

However, it can be assumed that people in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East have long held a deep-seated suspicion about whether such common understandings could be formed with Israel. The expansion of Israeli settlements may have seriously undermined the common understanding of the "value of faith." It is easy to imagine, for example, that the expansion by Israel of settlement activities even after the 1993 Oslo Accords caused Muslims to distrust the meaning of making a promise with Israel. As for the common understanding of the "value of property," Israel's attitude toward the Palestinian Authority may have made Muslims doubt whether they could share with Israel the fear of the uncertainty of their independence and sovereignty. There are not a few countries, including Japan, that do not acknowledge the Palestinian Authority as a state, but it has since 2012 been treated as a UN nonmember state as a UN General Assembly observer state. There is discontent in the Islamic world that Israel does not accord the Palestinian Authority treatment proportionate to its UN status.

Undoubtedly, the Israel-Hamas war has further increased such suspicions among Muslims. However, what is more alarming is that Israel's attitude and actions toward Palestinians in the current war have led to a sharp increase in suspicion among Muslims about whether the common understanding of the "value of life" can be formed with Israel, and furthermore, even doubts about sharing this common understanding with the West that has failed to halt Israeli actions. Moreover, as criticism of the West's "double standard" increases, suspicion about the West seems to be spreading beyond the Islamic world across international society to especially the Global South.

The common understanding of the "value of life" is seriously undermined by Israel's indiscriminate attacks on the Gaza Strip. Even US President Joe Biden, the leader of the country which continues to support Israel in this war, refers to Israel's attacks on Gaza as "indiscriminate."9 The continuation by Israel of such attacks could make one doubt that concerns about indiscriminate violence are not shared among Israel, the Islamic world, and the wider international society.

Assuming that Bull's discussion on three necessary conditions for the existence of international society is correct, if the situation in Gaza worsens, it is feared that the social nature of international society will weaken. Western nations, including Japan, aim to maintain the existing rules-based international order, but if international society weakens, they will be unable to achieve their goal. Bull's theoretical analysis of the international order concludes, as in the case of Morgenthau's, that the current international situation surrounding Gaza could, if left not addressed, inevitably be conducive to the disturbance of the rules-based international order is derived from Bull's theoretical analysis of the international order.

In Lieu of Conclusion

The Israel-Hamas war highlights a completely different and, in some ways, more serious challenge than the previously envisaged threat from China and Russia, which could undermine the rules-based international order. It is associated with how the Western liberal democracies, which have to date been the self-appointed guardians of the rules-based international order, should face this war.

The present analysis demonstrates that the challenge, posed by the Israel-Hamas war to the rules-based international order, should not be viewed solely from the particularities of the Palestine question and the Middle East problem but may also be considered by general theories of international politics. The Western countries, including Japan, should acknowledge a growing voice of criticism in the world, particularly in the Global South beyond the Middle East and the Islamic world, against the "double standard" of the West. It is crucial for them to approach this matter with a strong sense of urgency and take appropriate action.

(Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan)

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