The International Order Is Dying in Gaza

The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has dealt a crushing blow to the multilateral security system and threatens to alienate the Arab and Muslim world.


After Covid-19 struck in 2020, creating chaos and misery, I hoped that some silver lining would emerge from this global tragedy. For a time, it seemed possible. The pandemic was a powerful reminder of our common vulnerabilities, our shared humanity, and the importance of solidarity that transcends our differences and borders. 

Now, however, I wonder if I was wrong even to hope. Once the pandemic subsided, we rushed back to the precipice with renewed vigour. None of the lessons of solidarity stuck, as if we were coated in Teflon. Many, if not all, of the pillars of the post-World War II global order seem to be crumbling. Violent conflict has become the default method to settle disagreements between countries (Russia and Ukraine) and within countries (Yemen, Sudan), while the multilateral security system, headed by the United Nations Security Council, is sliding into irrelevance. 

Moreover, the inequality gap between the Global North and the Global South has widened, and more of the latter countries are suffering from debilitating debt burdens. This, in turn, has exacerbated poverty, fuelled migration, and sown distrust. With populism and authoritarianism on the rise, attacks on human rights and democratic values have intensified and, in some cases, the veneer of elections has given these attacks spurious legitimacy. And the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China is fast becoming an end in itself. 

But the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has dealt a particularly crushing blow to the system. The gross violations of international humanitarian law to protect civilians beggar belief. In fact, the atrocities committed against civilians, first in Israel and now in Gaza, are evil in its purest form. These despicable acts should be at the top of the priority list for the International Criminal Court prosecutor and addressed in International Court of Justice proceedings. We must halt this descent into the abyss. 

The cavalier disregard for the principles and norms of international law, such as limitations on the right to self-defense, and the willful blocking of the Security Council from fulfilling its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” have been unconscionable. Senior UN humanitarian officials on the ground in Gaza have used phrases like “hell on earth” and “humanity giving up” to express their desperation. Few seem to be listening. 

There is now a looming rupture between the West and the Arab and Muslim world, even as Western and Arab populations are directing anger toward their leaders. Dehumanising, rage-filled rhetoric emanates from all sides and reverberates on city streets, university campuses, and in small towns the world over. All efforts to build bridges of respect and understanding over the last few decades seem to have collapsed. 

Moreover, the Arab and Muslim world has lost faith in perceived Western norms: international law and institutions, human rights, and democratic values. In their view, the West itself is showing that brute force trumps all else. Of course, the increasing belief that democracy and human rights – the liberal values that once inspired the Arab Spring – are simply tools for Western domination is music to the ears of autocrats and despots. 

The war underscores two lessons. First, conflicts don’t resolve themselves, and allowing them to fester is shortsighted and dangerous. UN Secretary-General António Guterres was viciously attacked by Israel after saying that Hamas’s October 7 attack “did not happen in a vacuum.” But he was acknowledging a truth – the pent-up humiliation and sense of injustice among the Palestinians – that most people who follow the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have long recognized. 

The conflict has elicited calls for the revival of the ill-fated “peace process” that has been limping along for decades. But the same leaders now promoting a two-state solution silently looked on as Israel devoured (through annexation and settlement expansion) most of the land that was meant for a Palestinian state. The aftermath of today’s violence may very well offer the last opportunity to reach a just and lasting peace before the entire region goes up in flames. 

The other important lesson is that building a more robust and equitable global security system and financial architecture requires structural reforms. For starters, the veto power of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members should be drastically curtailed, if not eliminated. The US and Russia must also resume nuclear arms talks and take meaningful steps toward disarmament. It is scandalous that there is no longer a single nuclear-arms-control agreement in operation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. 

The Bretton Woods institutions – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – must give the developing world a fair say in global decision-making and equitable access to financial resources for development. Although policymakers have been calling for such an overhaul since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago, no progress has been made. 

We must not permit an opportunity born of war to slip through our fingers. In the absence of radical reform of the international order, the Gaza war will herald a world spiraling out of control. 

© Project Syndicate

Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General Emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Agency, received the Nobel Peace Prize