The End Of The ‘Rules Based International Order’

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Above photo: Partners in the Alliance for Multilateralism during the UN’s high level week event – 2 April 2019. FranceONU / Martin Loper.

The ‘western’ countries, i.e. the United States and its ‘allies’,  love to speak of a ‘rules based international order’ which they say everyone should follow. That ‘rules based order’ is a way more vague concept than the actual rule of law:

The G7 is united by its shared values and commitment to a rules based international order. That order is being challenged by authoritarianism, serious violations of human rights, exclusion and discrimination, humanitarian and security crises, and the defiance of international law and standards.As members of the G7, we are convinced that our societies and the world have reaped remarkable benefits from a global order based on rules and underscore that this system must have at its heart the notions of inclusion, democracy and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, diversity, and the rule of law.

That the ‘rules based international order’ is supposed to include vague concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘fundamental freedoms’, ‘diversity’ and more makes it easy to claim that this or that violation of the ‘rules based international order’ has occurred. Such violations can then be used to impose punishment in the form of sanctions or war.

That the above definition was given by a minority of a few rich nations makes it already clear that it can not be a global concept for a multilateral world. That would require a set of rules that everyone has agreed to. We already had and have such a system. It is called international law. But at the end of the cold war the ‘west’ began to ignore the actual  international law and to replace it with its own rules which others were then supposed to follow. That hubris has come back to bite the ‘west’.

Anatol Lieven’s recent piece, How the west lost, describes this moral defeat of the ‘west’ after its dubious ‘victory’ in the cold war:

Accompanying this overwhelmingly dominant political and economic ideology was an American geopolitical vision equally grandiose in ambition and equally blind to the lessons of history. This was summed up in the memorandum on “Defence Planning Guidance 1994-1999,” drawn up in April 1992 for the Bush Senior administration by Under-Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and subsequently leaked to the media. Its central message was:

While that 1992 Washington paper spoke of the “legitimate interests” of other states, it clearly implied that it would be Washington that would define what interests were legitimate, and how they could be pursued. And once again, though never formally adopted, this “doctrine” became in effect the standard operating procedure of subsequent administrations. In the early 2000s, when its influence reached its most dangerous height, military and security elites would couch it in the terms of “full spectrum dominance.” As the younger President Bush declared in his State of the Union address in January 2002, which put the US on the road to the invasion of Iraq: “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War… A world once divided into two armed camps now recognises one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America.”

But that power has since failed in the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, during the 2008 financial crisis and now again in the pandemic. It also created new competition to its role due to its own behavior:

On the one hand, American moves to extend Nato to the Baltics and then (abortively) on to Ukraine and Georgia, and to abolish Russian influence and destroy Russian allies in the Middle East, inevitably produced a fierce and largely successful Russian nationalist reaction. … On the other hand, the benign and neglectful way in which Washington regarded the rise of China in the generation after the Cold War (for example, the blithe decision to allow China to join the World Trade Organisation) was also rooted in ideological arrogance. Western triumphalism meant that most of the US elites were convinced that as a result of economic growth, the Chinese Communist state would either democratise or be overthrown; and that China would eventually have to adopt the western version of economics or fail economically. This was coupled with the belief that good relations with China could be predicated on China accepting a so-called “rules-based” international order in which the US set the rules while also being free to break them whenever it wished; something that nobody with the slightest knowledge of Chinese history should have believed.

The retired Indian ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar touches on the same points in an excellent series about the new Chinese-Russian alliance:

Bhadrakumar describes how the ‘west’, through its own behavior, created a mighty block that now opposes its dictates. He concludes:

Quintessentially, Russia and China contest a set of neoliberal practices that have evolved in the post-World War 2 international order validating selective use of human rights as a universal value to legitimise western intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. On the other hand, they also accept and continuously affirm their commitment to a number of fundamental precepts of the international order — in particular, the primacy of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, the importance of international law, and the centrality of the United Nations and the key role of the Security Council.

While the U.S. wants a vague ‘rules based international order’ China and Russia emphasize an international order that is based on the rule of law. Two recent comments by leaders from China and Russia underline this.

In a speech in honor of the UN’s 75th anniversary China’s President Xi Jinping emphasized law based multilateralism:

China firmly supports the United Nations’ central role in global affairs and opposes any country acting like boss of the world, President Xi Jinping said on Monday.

“No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others or keep advantages in development all to itself,” Xi said.Noting that the UN must stand firm for justice, Xi said that mutual respect and equality among all countries, big or small, is the foremost principle of the UN Charter.

No country should be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon or bully, Xi said. “Unilateralism is a dead end,” he said.

International laws should not be distorted or used as a pretext to undermine other countries’ legitimate rights and interests or world peace and stability, he added.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went even further by outright rejecting the ‘western rules’ that the ‘rules based international order’ implies:

Ideas that Russia and China will play by sets of Western rules under any circumstances are deeply flawed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with New York-based international Russian-language RTVI channel.”I was reading our political scientists who are well known in the West. The following idea is becoming louder and more pronounced: it is time to stop applying Western metrics to our actions and stop trying to be liked by the West at any cost. These are very reputable people and a rather serious statement. It is clear to me that the West is wittingly or unwittingly pushing us towards this analysis. It is likely to be done unwittingly,” Lavrov noted. “However, it is a big mistake to think that Russia will play by Western rules in any case, just like thinking this in terms of China.”

As an alliance China and Russia have all the raw materials, energy, engineering and industrial capabilities, agriculture and populations needed to be completely independent from the ‘west’. They have no need nor any desire to follow dubious rules dictated by other powers. There is no way to make them do so. As M.K. Bhadrakumar concludes:

The US cannot overwhelm that alliance unless it defeats both China and Russia together, simultaneously. The alliance, meanwhile, also happens to be on the right side of history. Time works in its favour, as the decline of the US in relative comprehensive national power and global influence keeps advancing and the world gets used to the “post-American century.”