Western politicians in general, and the American and Australian versions are not exempted, are fond of using phrases such as “the rules based international order.” What they unfailingly really mean is the Western version of a rules-based order. The classic definition was set out in Wikipedia when it said:
“The rules based international order describes the notion that contemporary international relations are organised around principles of international cooperation through multilateral institutions, like WTO, open markets, security cooperation, promotion of liberal democracy and leadership by the United States and its allies.”
The key lies in the last part of that quote, “leadership by the United States and its allies.” For the United States any other concept was simply unthinkable. Not only was the United States self- represented as the personification of the “liberal rules-based order”, it fought almost continuous wars between 1945 and the present to ensure that the rest of the world understood and excepted that principle.
It was never realistic. As Nick Bisley (AIIA 27/7/18) pointed out, the rules based international order became a rhetorical centrepiece of Australian international policy. The problem for Australia (and the United States) is that the premises underlying the policy are being progressively more challenged as world power relentlessly shifts away from a United States centred approach.
Bisley suggests that the apogee of the policy was in fact 2016 when the phrase was mentioned no less than 48 times in the Australian defence department White Paper of that year. The notion of an international rules-based order has a number of problems which the western media were remarkably reluctant to face.
Perhaps the foremost problem lies in the assumption that the rules and the associated principles were built on the clear assumption of United States military supremacy. That was always a dubious proposition. It has become increasingly untenable as power in the world shifts.
The Western powers had become accustomed to having their own way over the previous 200-300 years. Unfortunately for them, they never questioned the basis of that power, nor conceived that the sun would indeed set upon the Empire. This power was reflected in the United Nations Security Council’s permanent membership.
Until the early 1970s that permanent membership consisted of three Western powers who had been victorious in World War II, plus the Soviet Union and China. The expulsion of the Nationalist regime from China in 1949 was not reflected in the Security Council, where they clung to power for a further 23 years.
Nowadays the privileged status of France and the United Kingdom as permanent members of the Security Council looks increasingly anachronistic. 75 years after the war ended, Germany and Japan are still excluded from permanent membership. Some would argue that others, such as India and Brazil should also be considered for permanent membership.
The retention of the current permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council represents a world that no longer exists. A major part of the problem is that the Western powers are reluctant to acknowledge that the world has changed since 1945, and with those changes there has been a diminution of their political power.
They may still think in terms of the rules-based international order, but are reluctant to ask some fundamental questions. For example, whose rules are we really talking about? How valid is a system of Western rules when the vast majority of the membership of the United Nations are neither “Western” nor particularly addicted to the West’s system of rules.
Those nations see the rules-based order as simply a device designed to maintain Western power. Their disquiet or even rejection of this principle is enhanced when they observe the actual actions of those same Western powers. The United States is but one example, but it is a major one. As noted before, the United States has been almost continuously at war somewhere in the world since 1945. None of these wars could be described as in defence of a truly liberal rules-based order. One has only to look at the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to make the point.
Afghanistan was invaded based on a lie, and when the object of that lie, Osama bin Laden was long dead, the invading troops failed to leave. There is currently speculation about whether the new United States president, Biden, will honour even Trump’s manifestly flawed commitment to leave.
A different set of lies was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and again, 18 years later the Americans and their allies like Australia are still there. In Iraq’s case the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution in January 2000 that all foreign troops should leave the country. One year later they are still there.
The invasion of Syria was a regime change operation. That has failed, but United States troops are still there. The felony is compounded by the systematic theft of Syrian oil. Israel continues to regularly bomb Syrian targets, a felony that compounds the theft of Syrian territory more than 50 years ago. The Australian government does them the courtesy of not mentioning the theft, and is regularly part of a tiny minority of votes for Israel in United Nations General Assembly resolutions. None of this is fit for publication in the Australian mainstream media.
Looking at this long history of bad international behaviour it is little wonder that the bulk of the world’s nations look askance at notions of the “rules-based international order”. They see it for the hypocrisy that it manifestly is.
It is a little surprising therefore that an ever-growing number of nations look to China as the leader of a different order. China has a number of features that distinguish it from the western view. One of the most important is the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other nations.
It is clearly a principle that has stood China in good stead. One result has been increasingly strong criticism by some western nations of alleged flaws in China’s own internal behaviour, especially its alleged treatment of the Uighurs.
Whatever the merits of that criticism, one feature stands out. There is never any attempt by the Western critics to understand the nature of the problem, let alone acknowledge that China is facing a security problem heavily influenced by Western training of local terrorists, most of whom have returned from fighting on behalf of Western interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
China’s economy has now surpassed the United States in terms of parity purchasing power measures. It is a fact that the Americans are reluctant to accept. Donald Trump’s increasingly irrational and anti-China measures were an attempt to reverse that trend. It will fail and the main reason it will fail is that it is an attempt to reverse the tide of history. The danger for the rest of the world is that the United States will not except that it no longer rules the roost.