2023 BRICS Summit in South Africa. CREDIT: GovernmentZA.

2023 BRICS Summit in South Africa. CREDIT: GovernmentZA. (CC)

Oct 5, 2023 Article

A Requiem for the Rules-Based Order: The Case for Value-Neutral Ethics in International Relations

The Unraveling of the Established Order

Regardless of how it eventually concludes, the Russo-Ukrainian War represents a seismic event signaling profound changes in the global landscape. The unipolar era is at its end, major countries are more concerned with their cultural sovereignty and strategic autonomy than they have been in decades, and it seems inevitable that the once-dominant Western hegemony must gradually yield to a more diverse and multipolar system.

The period following World War II witnessed the ascendancy of the United States and its allies as architects of a new international order premised on the institutionalization of Western values such as democracy and human rights. This Western-centric approach to global governance—known as the “rules-based order”—has encountered mounting challenges. China's rise, Russia's geopolitical subversiveness, and the growing assertiveness of emerging powers from the Global South have eroded Western dominance. The outcome is a more diverse world, characterized by multiple centers of power coexisting, challenging any single ideology or set of substantive values.

We live in a period we should perhaps call the Great Transition. We are witnessing the emergence of a polycentric, regionalist, and interest-based order centered around middle powers and civilizational states: These states hold historic disagreements and rivalries but are nevertheless united in rejecting a U.S.-led system, which they consider the latest instantiation of a Western exceptionalism and colonial hubris that abhors genuine difference and opposing worldviews. With peer great power China putting its weight behind this informal non-aligned axis and the non-Western economic bloc BRICS expanding to six new members including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina in 2024, trepidations have risen among U.S. and European observers as to the future of the international order they created and underwrote since 1945.

While a crux of these worries stems from questions of power and structural change—after all, no great power (certainly not one that spent more than two decades as the undisputed global superpower) looks kindly at being challenged by peer rivals—this transition also raises crucial questions about future international norms and the ethics that should underpin them. In the halls of power in Brussels, London, and Washington DC, one hears lots of talk about the threat to the “rules-based” order or the importance of a “values-based” foreign policy. According to these elites, to not protect the extant status quo and its normative framework is an inexcusable offense presaging the fall into tyranny.

The Nietzschean Perspective on Values

Ironically, there are striking parallels between how our contemporary intelligentsia has reacted to the great transition and how 19th-century public opinion came to view German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, after all, also lived at a time of profound social transitions spawned by Modernity. With his famous notion of the “death of God,” Nietzsche resorted to allegorical language to convey what he deemed to be simply an empirical observation: that the advent of Modernity and the changes it had spawned in the West had also undermined belief in the moral frameworks of Christianity as the timeless, universal order. While playing a pivotal role in human evolution and the rise of civilizations, morality was not God-given and unchanging but the product of human communities adapting to their unique needs and distinctive circumstances. Values, according to Nietzsche, do not originate from above or from within our conscience or genes but rather are conceived bottom-up and organically according to the collective experiences of great individuals and communities.

Christianity, Nietzsche provocatively argued, was just one ethical system among many; different cultures and civilizations that espoused different substantive values would therefore engender entirely different ethics. Nietzsche's perspective on values challenges the notion of a single, universally applicable set of values for all mankind. Instead, it suggests that values are contingent upon historical, cultural, and social contexts. While Christendom had become synonymous with the West, the Western civilization was now attempting to justify its value system on a new ground—from Nietzsche’s standpoint, this was the root cause of the modern crisis that confronted the West.

Nietzsche’s critics were quick to label and disparage him as the prophet of nihilism and an advocate for moral chaos. Yet, they had missed his point entirely. Nietzsche was not championing nihilism but warning of its arrival. By providing a genealogy of morality as a human creation, he was hoping to provide his most perceptive disciples with a blueprint and the tools to master the art of ethics so as to create new normative frameworks that would resist and prevent general nihilism–-the ultimate modern malaise and the source of cultural décadence in Nietzsche’s diagnosis.

"In a world where power politics leans toward diversity, we therefore need ethical principles that are premised on dialogue, tolerance, and consensus among all the major powers."

The “Death of God” and the “Rules-Based Order”

The comparison is especially salient if we consider the current rules-based order—even if this order has been underwritten by U.S. power—to be ultimately a product of the Anglo-Protestant moral culture. Nietzsche was not so much against all morality per se but a particularly ressentimental version having an external locus of behavior, which he associated with Judeo-Christianity and sought to replace (or “re-value”) with a “counter-ideal” that could encompass the range and depth of man’s ethical experience from a position of strength.

Of course, Nietzsche’s primary preoccupation was exploring the necessary conditions for culture and societal health. He was motivated by a desire to save and reanimate Europe. But his insights can be applied to international relations. The decline of the post-1945 liberal international order and its constructed “rules” does not entail disorder and permanent chaos but an alternative sort of order that places multiplicity above universality. It similarly portends a crisis of moral authority and legitimacy, on this occasion caused by the end of unipolarity and the heightening skepticism about the exceptionalism and universalist pretenses of the Western worldview. But here lies an opportunity to reevaluate the fundamental principles guiding international relations. Seen in this light, the shift towards multipolarity or polycentrism does not signal the end of international ethics but could instead herald the emergence of a novel and instrumental normative system grounded in a functional and value-neutral ethic.

Another problem Nietzsche rightly observes is that a universalist morality like the current “rules-based order” depends on enforcement and the threat of punishment. A polycentric landscape makes that top-down implementation of any one system of value practically impossible even for the great powers. In a world where power politics leans toward diversity, we therefore need ethical principles that are premised on dialogue, tolerance, and consensus among all the major powers.

In other words, we need a normative model that could fit the requirements of global cultural pluralism that polycentrism inevitably produces. A counter-vision for what is to replace our (Western) universalist conception of value must be able to accommodate cultural distinction and fundamental pluralism. A peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic world (where peace and harmony are the only intrinsic values) simply cannot accept a set of substantive values from any one civilization and find them universally binding or absolute. Achieving such coexistence, nevertheless, requires a set of general rules and principles: a system of customs and norms of conduct (Gr. Sitte) that conduce to a modus vivendi.

A Functional, Value-Neutral Ethic for Global Cultural Pluralism

In a polycentric world, cultivating a functional, instrumentalist, and value-neutral ethic is essential. This ethic prioritizes the functionality of international norms over the imposition of specific, substantive values. Rather than exporting Western-style democracy or neoliberal values, it focuses on fostering dialogue, mutual recognition, conflict resolution, and the pursuit of common interests among diverse nations.

Such an ethic, inspired by older diplomatic norms and practices that eschew compliance and coercion, acknowledges that different cultures, societies, and nations have their unique substantive values and belief systems. It does not seek to impose a single set of values but facilitates dialogue and cooperation based on shared objectives. This approach recognizes that a global diversity of worldviews and values is a reality of human life, and promoting global homogeneity and conformity can be corrosive over time, causing distrust and conflict.

The way forward in this era of global cultural pluralism lies in cultivating a modus vivendi, a way of coexisting that recognizes and tolerates differences while heeding the pragmatic need for understanding, cooperation, and stability in a complex world often facing global challenges. Derived from a new cultural realism, this modus vivendi should endeavor to discover the apposite principles that would allow it to function with less conflict: they include non-universalism, mutual respect, inclusivity, and the recognition of the rank and status of all major powers and civilizations—irrespective of their values, ideologies, or ways of life.

In such a world, international norms and rules would be based on a value-neutral ethic that creates objective protocols of engagement to facilitate communication and avoid misunderstanding. They cannot amount to the top-down imposition of a particular set of values and ideology for all to follow.


Our particular sense of morality in the West should not stop us from aspiring to pursue what’s both wise and right. The evolving international order, characterized by polycentrism and multipolarity, challenges the conventional Western-dominated “rules-based” order. Drawing from Nietzsche's perspective on values, we recognize that values are context-dependent rather than innate, timeless, or universal. Similarly, the decline of our ancien regime does not spell the end of international ethics. If the current transition is understood correctly, it could promise the birth of a new normative system based on a functional, value-neutral, situational, and diplomatic ethic that has its primary concern in managing reciprocal relations between world powers.

Instead of attempting to impose our values on others (no matter how good or true we think they are), we in the West should prioritize engagement with other major powers based on common interests and shared objectives. While relative power compared to neighbors will be the key determining factor in granting status to states, the U.S.-led West will nevertheless remain one of the poles in this new order. Yet to remain influential, it must adapt, foster the ethos of non-interference in realms outside of its own, and learn to treat other major states—both rivals and partners—as equals.

In sum, within the intellectual framework offered by cultural realism, we need an alternative instrumentalist and pragmatic ethic that 1) accepts the realities of power politics and spheres of interest without moralizing and projecting a Manichaean mentality upon the world, and 2) is grounded in principles that are conducive to a pluralist modus vivendi, including mutual and equal recognition, statesmanship, non-interference, humility, strategic empathy, and open dialogue.

This approach acknowledges the diversity of values in the world as an inescapable fact but harnesses it for a new equilibrium based on a balance of cultures and civilizations, not hostility or division. As we navigate the complexities of this emerging multiplex world, peaceful coexistence among all major powers—whether great or middle-tier—becomes the core intrinsic value in international relations. The key to achieving such coexistence is cultivating a global cultural pluralism that shuns black-and-white thinking and fosters tolerance. Failing to do so now could promote a spiral of exclusionary power politics and war, making a clash of civilizations and perhaps nuclear armageddon a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

You may also like

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

MAR 27, 2024 Article

The Specter of EMP Weapons in Space

Visiting Fellow Zhanna Malekos Smith details the danger of electromagnetic pulse weapons. How can nations protect themselves from this catastrophic threat?

MAR 19, 2024 Podcast

2054, with Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Ackerman & Admiral Stavridis join "The Doorstep" for a talk on AI, geopolitics, and a dark future that we must do all we can to avoid.