This article appeared in The National Review on January 20th, 2022. Click here to view the original article.
MUCH like Covid-19, some bad ideas never disappear. One misbegotten, potentially dangerous idea holds that we live in a “rules-based international order,” or should at least aspire to. At first glance, this notion seems innocuous. In the domestic law of consti¬tutional republics, don’t we have “rules-based order”? Why not internationally?
References to the “order” are now ubiquitous, but its meaning remains unclear. Possible definitions abound, since Western diplomats seem determined to mention “rules-based international order” everywhere, in G-7, G-20, U.N., EU, OECD, OSCE — even NATO — communiqués and speeches. It’s as if intoning the words often enough, as in religious ceremonies, will make them true. But as Ben Scott, an analyst writing in the Interpreter, observed, “although the ‘rules-based international order’ is central to Australian strategy, what exactly this concept means remains a work very much in progress.” In a 2017 speech, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland offered her take: “Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules. One in which might is not always right. One in which more powerful countries are constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced, and upheld.”
Whatever the “order” is, the Biden administration is for it. The president endorsed it in addressing the U.N. General Assembly last September, in his 2021 U.N. Day proclamation in October, and in his first talk with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi after becoming president. Secretary of State Antony Blinken invoked the “order” to open his and National-Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s embarrassing March 18, 2021, Alaska meeting with their Chinese counterparts.
Commentators, too, are for it. Fareed Zakaria, as he wrote in the Washington Post, supports a “liberal, rules-based international order” but also endorses Sullivan saying that “the object of the Biden administration is to shape the international environment so that it is more favorable to the interest and values of the United States and its allies and partners to like-minded democracies” (sic). That sounds like vintage Barry Goldwater, thus highlighting a problem that arises when the “order” flubs one of America’s priorities, which happens more frequently than its acolytes like to admit. Whose “order” are we talking about?
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov opined on this oratorical flood in 2019: “There have been attempts . . . to replace the universal norms of international law with a ‘rules-based order.’ This term was recently coined to camouflage a striving to invent rules depending on changes in the political situation so as to be able to put pressure on disagreeable states and often even on allies.” Ironically, devotees of “international law” (another vague, shape-shifting term) worry that the “order” is so much broader than “law” that the former may undermine the latter.
WHAT should we make of all this? Cynical politicians likely think: “Why not endorse the ‘rules-based international order’? It means everything and anything, so what’s the harm?” Unfortunately, however, severe con¬sequences can flow from national-security policies based on illusions. To the extent the “order” possesses any coherence, its implications for countries that prize their constitutional sovereignty, as America still does, are troubling.
History provides context and a better understanding of the lineage of the “rules-based international order.” Starting in 1945, with the United Nations replacing the failed League of Nations, there was a burst of support for “world government,” through either enhancing the U.N. or other means. Some en¬visioned a “world federation,” although it was, like “world (or global) government,” ill defined. In 1949, otherwise sensible young congressmen such as Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford endorsed resolutions embracing these concepts in various ways. Even Ronald Reagan was a member, albeit briefly, of the United World Federalists. Despite its initial appeal, “global government” didn’t fare well in America and the less toxic brand “world federalism” quickly replaced it, but they traveled in the same direction. The Cold War froze debate about global government for almost four decades. Other ideas for “international order” nonetheless still abounded.
As Europe’s empires decolonized, many newly independent states used the U.N. system to increase concessional assistance flows from the “first world” to the less developed “third world.” (The Communist “second world” offered ideology and armaments but had little wealth to share.) Gossamer concepts like the “new international economic order” and the parallel “new world information and communications order” envisioned global wealth redistribution and regulation. Third-world diplomats and their Western advocates weaponized entities such as the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, to oppose the free-trade-oriented General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to transfer intellectual property and other assets of “the common heritage of mankind” from developed to less developed countries. These efforts ultimately foundered during the Reagan administration, which flatly re¬fused to play the game, pursuing American interests unashamedly and ignoring the unrealistic leftist ideologies embodied in the sundry “orders.” Other ploys to redistribute “the common heritage of mankind” and simultaneously undermine sovereignty, such as the Law of the Sea Treaty, remain afloat, but Washing¬ton never ratified that one and hopefully never will.
Nonetheless, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR’s dissolution unleashed a revival of post–World War II euphoria for supranational institutions. Even President George H. W. Bush endorsed a coming “new world order” after the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War and communism’s collapse. Others, however, including even nominal American allies, focused, typically under the radar, on constraining Washington, the “sole superpower,” or, in French foreign minister Hubert Védrine’s more pejorative term, the hyperpuissance.
Rebranding was again required, and “global governance” became the prevailing buzzword. The lineal descendant of “global government,” this new variant sounded less all-embracing and therefore less threatening; but its ultimate (perhaps hazier) objective was essentially identical because of the reductions in national sovereignties that both required for implementation. A Commission on Global Governance, no less, comprising self-appointed luminaries and embraced by the U.N., informed us in 1995 that “the development of global governance is part of the evolution of human efforts to organize life on the planet, and that process will always be going on.”
For its supporters, the European Union was the apotheosis of the global-governance trend, with European leaders gleefully transferring “competencies” to the growing mega-state. Not surprisingly, European enthusiasts were eager to help the United States give away its sovereignty to global institutions as well.
Along with the EU’s seemingly inevitable greater glory (Brexit not even a cloud on the horizon), in 1999 came the International Criminal Court (ICC), purportedly exercising jurisdiction even over citizens of nonmember states and second-guessing whether states dealt adequately with war crimes or crimes against humanity. Other international courts, such as the Law of the Sea Treaty’s tribunal, seemed intent on ex-panding their jurisdiction to extend global governance. Multiple efforts by these bodies to restrict national decisions on the international use of force, often under “human rights” cover, included arguing that any use of force without express Security Council approval was illegitimate.
Even the Clinton administration rejected certain of these initiatives; for example, it didn’t sign the International Land Mines Convention. In 1999 the Senate unexpectedly but decisively rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, intended to ban all nuclear testing. During George W. Bush’s administration, global governance lost momentum. America “unsigned” the ICC’s founding treaty, withdrew from the 1972 Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty, blocked U.N. efforts to impose inter¬national gun control, and tanked a hopelessly ineffectual, counterproductive draft verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention.
During Obama’s presidency, however, the “rules-based international order” emerged. Underground during the Trump years, the “order” was resurrected by Biden’s arrival, and it is once again “game on.” The most benign effect of incessant incan¬tations about the “order” would be irrelevance. Much like the endless repetition of the U.N. Charter phrase “international peace and security,” it doesn’t bring either notion closer to reality. Simple indifference, therefore, is an appealing response.
UNFORTUNATELY, whether political leaders believe or even understand what they say, their statements have consequences. Westerners who worship “international order” may not realize that the idea has an unsavory history, long predating 1945, where we began above, and much of it shocking. In the most hateful and extreme forms, Nazism was an aspiring world order, and Imperial Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was similarly motivated. In more palatable variants, the Roman and British empires were proto–world orders, as were successive Russian and Chinese empires and many others. Americans have long been skeptical of inter¬national orders. Napoleon’s ambitions prompted Thomas Jefferson to say, “It cannot be in our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy.” Not just any “international order” will do.
So, does the appeal turn instead on the phrase “rules-based”? Certainly not, because “rules” can also be objectionable, some of them savagely so. In fact, “rules-based” is only one aspect of “order” itself, making for a definition both repetitive and incomplete. One of Minister Freeland’s sub-rules, that “might is not always right,” doesn’t solve the problem; might is very frequently employed precisely because countries can’t decide peacefully what is right. Nor does her view that rules should be “internationally respected, enforced, and upheld” help, since historically the only truly effective means to uphold and enforce rules is through force or the threat of force. As for “international respect,” force has always war¬ranted more respect than incantations, unpleasant though that reality may be.
Advocates of the “rules-based international order” make the same fundamental mistake as their “global government”/“global governance” predecessors, trying to equate managing global disputes with managing domestic disputes. International affairs are ultimately about power and politics, not law. The historical absence of international institutions, such as courts, prosecutors, and jails, that actually “enforce and uphold” rules is not accidental. Creating them ex nihilo, without the pre¬requisites that exist within countries, where citizens have renounced the use of force to settle disputes, does not change that reality. The manifest ineffectiveness of the International Court of Justice has made it a joke. The Inter¬national Criminal Court, after just over 20 years, is nearly there. U.N. peacekeeping forces are deployed almost uniformly in conflicts where the concrete stakes for the great powers are trivial, insufficient to energize them to attempt some kind of lasting dispute resolution. Even nation-states that believed they had renounced using force internally have found themselves engaged in bloody civil wars. We live in one. Pretending to play at law-and-order internationally has come nowhere close to making it so but, sadly, has likely deluded many people into believing that they need not take more-effective steps to ensure their peace and safety.
One example of an ineffectual “rules-based international order” was the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact, an attempt to outlaw war. It failed (although Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg did get a Nobel Peace Prize). As noted on the State Department’s Office of the Historian website, the pact “did little to prevent World War II or any of the conflicts that followed. Its legacy remains as a statement of the idealism expressed by advocates for peace in the interwar period.” Kellogg–Briand’s real-world impact effectively ended before the ink on the treaty dried, subsequent Nuremberg convictions producing no deterrent effect. So much for renouncing force as an instrument of national power.
OPTIMISTIC advocates of the “rules-based international order,” conveniently disregarding millennia of earlier human history, would respond that drawing conclusions from Kellogg–Briand ignores how times and conditions have changed. But consider how incantations about the “order” might affect today’s crises. The “rules” against changing Europe’s borders through force apparently never made it to Moscow. Russia illegally annexed Crimea and successfully used force in the Donbas, creating another “frozen conflict,” as in several other former Soviet republics. Vladimir Putin has ignored sanctions and other reprisals and appears fully prepared to ignore them again. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he threatened a complete rupture in Moscow–Washington relations, which he knows is the one thing, other than military force, most likely to rattle the State Department.
China is playing a similar cat-and-mouse game with Taiwan and is ignoring international judicial rejection of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing is violating, without consequences, its treaty with the United Kingdom that returned Hong Kong to full Chinese sovereignty. The “rules-based international order” is meeting cultural genocide against China’s Uyghurs with symbolic diplomatic boycotts of the Winter Olympics. Beijing, like Moscow, has its own ideas about what the right “order” is, visited upon two of Freeland’s fellow citizens. In 2018, China seized two Canadians as hostages to exchange for a senior Huawei official arrested in Canada for extradition to the United States. Ultimately, the Biden administration broke down and agreed to a swap.
Neither Russia’s nor China’s belligerence will be resolved in the Security Council, where their vetoes ensure inaction. Nor will the threat from Iran, which has torn up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As the U.S. and others beg Tehran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, its obstruction of International Atomic Energy Agency officials remains in full swing. Iran also continues arming and funding Houthi rebels in Yemen’s grinding conflict, which long ago passed from civil strife to surrogate international war. North Korea violated the NPT, then withdrew from it, and is closer to having deliverable nuclear weapons than ever before. The “rules-based international order” is clutch¬ing its pearls but doing very little else in either case.
Biden accepted Trump’s deal with the Taliban (but not the legitimate Afghan government) and withdrew U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. His “rules-based international order” adherents watched the country descend into chaos and brutality, as the capability to carry out terrorist attacks against America, by the Pentagon’s own admission, is now less than six months away. More pearl-clutching.
It is never prudent to base national-security decisions on delusion, but that is the palpable risk of taking seriously notions of a “rules-based international order.” What order exists in the world today results from American military, political, and economic strength and the alliance structures we created globally post-1945. No other nation or combination of nations could do what we have done, nor could any international organization. We did all this not out of altruism but because it was in our national interest, and we have benefited enormously in economic terms alone but also politically and militarily. Our allies too often fail to meet the mutual obligations they have agreed to shoulder, about which we should vigorously remind them. But we made these commitments not for their benefit, but for our own. No other country will safeguard our interests or our jury-rigged order better than we will. When we exit some area on the globe, as Afghanistan is proving before our eyes, no better order emerges.
Until lions lie down with lambs, a “rules-based international order” is a fantasy. The world will see only partial orders, such as ours, facing vigorous resistance from competing visions and philosophies. Today, the partial order that suits America best is the one we created and sustain. We “respect, uphold, and enforce” it, along with willing allies, whom we should not abandon. There is no better alternative.
JOHN R. BOLTON, who served as national-security adviser to President Trump and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the author of The Room Where It Happened.