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Don’t be fooled: ‘Might makes right’ is the universal rule, so prepare accordingly

The rise of the multipolar world, spearheaded by autocratic and “hybrid” regimes, has reignited concerns about a return to the concept of might makes right” on the international stage. The reality is that this universal law never went anywhere and we need to prepare accordingly.

The rise of the multipolar world, spearheaded by autocratic and “hybrid” regimes, has reignited concerns about a return to the concept of might makes right” on the international stage. The reality is that this universal law never went anywhere and we need to prepare accordingly.

Largely driven by the advent and increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons which would spell the end of humanity, at the end of the Second World War, the two pre-eminent superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – came to an uneasy agreement, that no longer would might make right”.

While this wasn’t always the case, particularly with the number of hot” proxy conflicts that came to characterise the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Pax Americana” or American Peace, reinforced by multilateral arbitration organisations like the United Nations, gave rise to the concept of might, no longer made right.


However, history, particularly the history of the 1990s and into the 21st century, doesn’t necessarily reflect that fact.

From Kuwait to Somalia, to Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and in the waters of the Western Pacific, nations are increasingly falling back to might as a means of achieving their ambitions and designs for the post-Second World War order.

While the US-led operations in the Middle East, Africa, southern Europe, and Central Asia had varying degrees of international support or legitimacy through United Nations resolutions, ultimately, it was the military might of the United States that in these cases, indeed, might made right”.

Today however, the emergence of the multipolar world and renewed great power competition has seen questions raised about the legitimacy of the concept of might makes right”, particularly in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early-2022 and the Hamas-led, Iranian-backed assault on Israel and the broader balance of power in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the Western Pacific, mounting Chinese aggression towards the Philippines, the island democracy of Taiwan, and Australian, American, and Canadian naval and air force forces operating in the area, among others, all serve to reinforce the emergence of this contested multipolar world.

This has only been further exacerbated by the emergence of parallel multilateral economic, political, and pseudo-strategic blocs, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the rapidly expanding BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) organisation which continues to expand its influence across both the developed and developing world, further accelerating the creation of our new, multipolar world.

Increasingly, in this new world, might will take many forms, with the increasing reach of multilateral organisations seeking to secure their prosperity and security in this new global paradigm.

‘Might’ takes many forms

While military might is the most “overt”, visible form of might makes right” is far from the only example or mechanism for leveraging the concept of might makes right”, particularly in the increasingly globalised and interconnected world we live in.

Increasingly, where the overt application of military power would run counter to the desired effect or would have wider reaching regional or global implications (think Operation Iraqi Freedom-style intervention to denuclearise Iran or North Korea) or direct NATO engagement with Russian forces in Ukraine, economic might is instead leveraged.

Indeed, over the past decade, we have seen an explosion (no pun intended) of the preference for sanctions as a means of leveraging economic might, to coerce or force compliance through mounting economic and financial pressure on individuals and businesses within the target nations.

Since the 1990s, the United States has imposed fully two-thirds of the world’s sanctions – according to Assistant Professor Manu Karuka of the Barnard College-based American Studies faculty in his book Hunger Politics: Sanctions as Siege Warfare – with sanctions imposed on more than 20 countries since 1998.

To give a sense of the range of sanctions the United States can implement, this includes bans on arms-related exports, controls over dual-use technology exports, restrictions on economic assistance and financial restrictions such as requiring the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank and other international financial institutions, having diplomatic immunity waived, allowing families of terrorism victims to file for civil damages in US courts, tax credits for companies and individuals denied for income earned in listed countries, authority to prohibit US citizens from engaging in financial transactions with the government on the list except by license from the US government, and the prohibition of US Defense Department contracts above US$100,000 (approximately AU$153,000) with companies controlled by countries on the list.

This attempted isolation effectively flexes the economic, political, and diplomatic might of the United States within the post-Second World War order and the power it has over the post-war multinational institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the International Criminal Court.

Australia, in some capacity, was recently subject to a form of sanctions, via tariffs imposed by the People’s Republic of China during the height of COVID-19 against key Australian exports, specifically targeting our agriculture, viticulture, and aquaculture sectors in response to the Australian government’s request for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, causing embarrassment to the Chinese regime.

But what is the point of all this? Well, what it serves to highlight is that the conceptualisation of “might” goes beyond a simplistic view of who can project the most conventional military power and equally, it shows that as the world becomes more multipolar and more contested, we may have to deal with these measures being leveraged against us.

All fun and games until we’re the target

Ultimately, one of the central risks born of this broader conceptualisation of might” means that Australia and other countries of all sizes, will potentially have to contend with these tools” being leveraged against us either by an individual nation or by a multinational bloc that may seek to coerce us to achieve broader economic, political or strategic objectives.

This uncomfortable reality only becomes increasingly likely as organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS expand their influence, interests, and designs for the global order, bringing the member states into direct competition with the established world order.

Further compounding this is the broader campaign conducted by revisionist powers like Russia and China against the post-Second World War order and its multinational institutions, like the United Nations, World Health Organisation, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and others to overcome what they designate as an unjust” international order.

Beginning with the G77, a multilateral organisation established in the mid-1960s “to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity” for the “Global South” in a world dominated by major powers.

Today’s G77 organisation includes 134 member states, representing 80 per cent of the global population, including a sizeable number of the world’s emerging great powers” and great power adjacent” playing central roles in the direction of this multilateral organisation.

Front and centre is of course Xi Jinping’s China which, while not a formal member”, emphasises increasing cooperation between the nations of the Global South to challenge the unjust” international order established in the final days of the Second World War.

Perhaps the most unexpected supporter of this grievance narrative is Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, who, in his official remarks, highlighted the need to overcome the “unjust” international order in line with Beijing’s key sales pitch for the new world order.

Secretary-General Guterres told 30 heads of state and governments from Africa, Asia, and Latin America at a meeting of the G77 and China in Cuba, The task begins with the multilateral system itself. We are moving to a multipolar world. Multipolarity creates new opportunities for leadership on the global stage. But alone, it doesn’t guarantee peace and justice. Those require strong, effective multilateral institutions.”

Unpacking this further, Guterres adds, But many of today’s institutions – particularly the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions – reflect a bygone era; One when many developing countries were shackled by colonial rule and had no say on their own affairs, or on global affairs. I have proposed measures to make the global financial architecture more representative and responsive to the needs of developing countries.”

Finally, Guterres told the gathered leaders, “To reshape the international system and international institutions to make them reflect today’s realities instead of the realities that existed after WWII. And create a fairer future for developing countries. And we all have a duty to seize them. The voice of the G77 plus China will always be essential at the United Nations.

“And I count on your group, who have long been champions of multilateralism, to step up, to use your power, and fight: Champion a system rooted in equality; Champion a system ready to reverse the injustice and neglect of centuries; And champion a system that delivers for all humanity and not only for the privileged,” Guterres said.

For Australia as a “middle power”, firmly invested in the post-Second World War order, the increasing stagnation at best and decline at worst of the central powers responsible for anchoring the order presents the nation with an increasingly complex economic, political, and strategic calculus for policymakers to account for and overcome.

For the contemporary Australian public, a group of people, who, for the most part have never really known economic hardship or the direct implications of great power competition, the good times are rapidly coming to an end and we are all going to have to do more to overcome the challenges of this new era where we see a return to the overt use of “might makes right”.

Final thoughts

If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments told Defence Connect, “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.

“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians,” he explained.

The most important questions now become, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China, Russia, and their parallel multinational organisations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation continue to expand their interest and throw their economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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