What is the “Rules-Based-Order”?

Photo by Mark Duffel

When addressing the UN Security Council on April 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called out the United States and its Western allies for promoting a “rules-based order” where nobody has seen the rules and which bars access to modern technologies and financial services to punish countries with which it disagrees.

Mr. Lavrov is not alone in struggling to understand what rules are included in this U.S.-dictated alternative to international law, which apparently does not include the UN Charter, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, other multilateral conventions and treaties, rulings of the International Court of Justice or the World Trade Organization, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court or customary international law.

However, a close examination of American actions and inactions in recent decades, notably including its wars against Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, its unconditional support for Israeli apartheid, its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and its fierce hostility toward the International Criminal Court and international law generally, suggests that there are three primary and fundamental rules of this “rules-based order”:

1) It is not the nature of the act that matters but, rather, who is doing it to whom.

2) Do as America says, not as America does.

3) Whatever rules exist, the United States and its citizens are not bound by them.

It clearly does not include the “Golden Rule” — “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

From this perspective, no one should be surprised that the U.S. Government has never sought to publicly clarify, let alone to formally promulgate, the rules comprising its “rules-based order”.

But wait …

Perhaps such a struggle for understanding is an exercise in barking up the wrong tree, focusing as it does on the cosmetic adjective “rules-based” rather than on the operative noun “order”.

Tellingly, in an interview on the TV program 60 Minutes on May 3, 2021 (https://johnmenadue.com/us-hypocrisy-serial-rules-breaker-forfeits-global-credibility), Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down. It is to uphold the rules-based order that China is posing a threat to.”

China, whose last war was a one-month border war with Vietnam in 1979, publicly proclaims its allegiance to the UN Charter and other aspects of international law as understood by most countries, and its actions and inactions in recent decades have been in substantially greater compliance with these internationally agreed obligations than the actions and inactions of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The order to which China is posing a threat is the existing international order of American full-spectrum global dominance and unipolar hegemony.

This order is threatened by an aspirational but burgeoning multipolar New Free World, encompassing countries with widely varying cultures and internal governance systems which, inspired and encouraged by China, are both willing and able to assert their own freedom, sovereignty and national preferences and to refuse to be told by anyother country what they must or must not do, either in their domestic affairs or in their relations with other countries, under threat of military or economic punishment if they disobey the dictates sought to be imposed upon them.

From this perspective, the U.S. government’s failure to identify the rules comprising its “rules-based order” can be explained by the reality that no rules are actually relevant, since all that matters is maintaining, in the spirit attributed to King Canute, the existing order.

John V. Whitbeck is a Paris-based international lawyer.