This week, Richard Haass made various pronouncements about norms, world order, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — subjects that everyone on Earth should be thinking about urgently right now. While Haass isn’t well known to the general public, he’s long been ensconced at the top of the pyramid of America’s foreign policy elite. He was director of policy planning for the State Department from 2001 to 2003 and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, probably the most influential think tank for foreign policy in the U.S.

On the one hand, Haass is a preposterous hypocrite. He’s leaving out the responsibility of the U.S. in general and his personal role in the destruction of norms and world order. You can read about some of Haass’s more obscure actions here and here. But of course, most importantly there’s the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Haass was working in the State Department. Haass wrote in a book six years later that he was “60/40 against the war.” Yet he didn’t resign and speak out against it, a stance that in reality is equivalent to being 100 percent for the war. Haass has even claimed that “if there was a hidden reason [for the war], the one I heard most was that we needed to change the geopolitical momentum after 9/11. People wanted to show that we can dish it out as well as take it.” It certainly would have been nice to hear that from Haass when it mattered.

On the other hand, he is absolutely right about the power and significance of norms. Creating positive norms is the most important thing humans can accomplish. And generating negative ones is just about the largest mistake we can make. Anyone who’s ever been a child knows that people don’t learn how to behave from a handbook. Rather, they observe and emulate how they see others act.

This is true everywhere, including at the highest levels of politics. Positive norms and precedent present genuine roadblocks — both internal and external — to even the worst leaders. Horrendous politicians, even dictators, are not all-powerful. They do not personally kill millions. Instead, they must convince others to do it. If they’re violating whatever everyone else believes to be the accepted rules, it’s far more difficult to justify their orders to whatever coalition of power they head.

One interesting example can be found in a 1979 Politburo discussion about what to do in Afghanistan. The year before, Afghan communists had seized power in a revolution and signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. But the Afghan government was riven by internal rivalries between its members, who engaged in atrocities against each other and regular Afghans. The Politburo had to decide whether to send Soviet troops. But, according to a transcript of the discussion, longtime Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko said, “Our army, when it arrives in Afghanistan, will be the aggressor. … We must keep in mind that from a legal point of view too we would not be justified in sending troops. According to the UN Charter a country can appeal for assistance … in case it is subject to external aggression. Afghanistan has not been subject to any aggression.” Likewise, Secretary of State Colin Powell — Haass’s boss in the early aughts — argued within the Bush administration that it must try to get support from the United Nations for war with Iraq. This in turn forced Bush and Co. to make the case for war based on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.

The internal factions represented by Gromyko and Powell both eventually lost. But their stances did hamstring those pushing hardest for war. Many member countries of the Warsaw Pact quietly criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and none sent troops. America’s failure to get support from the U.N. made it impossible for the younger Bush’s administration to put together a coalition comparable to the one President George H.W. Bush had forged with U.N. approval for the Gulf War in 1991. After George W. Bush’s war began in 2003, the total absence of banned weapons in Iraq thwarted the U.S. officials who hoped to take Iran next.

Eliminating Terrible Norms

Then take negative precedents. In August 1939, just before the invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler wanted to inspire his Wehrmacht commanders to “send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women, and children of Polish derivation.” The Armenian genocide had taken place two decades before, to the indifference or with the complicity of all the world’s major countries. Hitler therefore reminded his underlings that what he was asking for was acceptable behavior, telling them: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” At other times Hitler had spoken approvingly of Americans having “gunned down the millions of Redskins to a few hundred thousand” and how Germans should conquer Eastern Europe and “look upon the natives as Redskins.”

So the question is this: How can human beings create the good norms we need and eliminate the terrible ones that lead to further catastrophes? The utter devastation of World War II motivated everyone to think about this. But the answer — the U.N. — has had a fatal flaw at its center from the start.

Matters of war and peace at the U.N. are addressed by the Security Council, which since the U.N.’s founding in 1945 has had five permanent members: the U.S., the U.K., France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and China (with the seat held by Taiwan until 1971). Today there are 10 additional rotating members. Security Council resolutions must garner the votes of two-thirds of its members — i.e., nine countries — to pass. But even with such support, any of the five permanent members can vote no on any substantive resolution and thereby kill it.

For the past 75 years, resolutions that would directly rein in the five permanent members generally haven’t even come to vote.

These rules were understandably popular with the five permanent members when the U.N. was created. They were likewise understandably unpopular with everyone else. H.V. Evatt, a prominent Australian politician who was then the country’s attorney-general, proposed that three of the permanent members of the Security Council should have to vote no to veto resolutions. But his idea was shot down, because everyone understood that the Big Five would never accept it and would prefer no U.N. at all to a U.N. that restricted their power in this way.

Thus for the past 75 years, resolutions that would directly rein in the five permanent members generally haven’t even come to a vote. (The Security Council did consider a resolution on Friday that deplored the invasion of Ukraine, which Russia promptly vetoed.) And the U.S. and Russia have prolifically vetoed resolutions that would affect their client states — in particular Israel and Syria, respectively.

Understanding how we got to this dire pass doesn’t mean that two wrongs make a right. They never do. However, one wrong — the creation of a terrible norm — often helps spawn more and more wrongs. That’s why it’s so critical to stop the initial wrong in the first place. You also have to be careful about believing that the perpetrators of the first wrong have a genuine interest in righting the next ones on principle, rather than just mouthing principles to rein in the power of their rivals.

This is what we have to comprehend if we’re ever going to come up with what we desperately need: real peace and security for everyone. Regular people all over the world will have to understand that their real enemies are not each other, but the powerful everywhere. The chances that this will come to pass seem low. But the events of the past week, years, and decades demonstrate that we’d better take seriously how much norms matter — and claim for ourselves the power to create ones that will keep us alive.