23 03 2021

The Rule Based International Order – which rules?

Screenshot from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Screenshot from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9KBOhPXhds

The new catch-word in international politics is “Rule Based International Order”. The narrative is that this order is being challenged from outside by rogue revisionist countries, principally China, Russia and Iran, and from inside by nationalist and populist politicians (Trump, Brexiters, Orban, Marie Le Pen and the like). There is a call to arms to defend/re-establish this threatened Rule-Based Order. However, if we take a closer look, it becomes obvious that the rules are bent or invented to fit the wanted narrative to the extent that you start doubting whether there are any rules at all.

Malcolm Chalmers from the conservative British Think Tank RUSI has produced a useful paper discussing the concept Rule Based International Order. He distinguishes three pillars: Security (mainly UN), economy and international trade (mainly IMF, World Bank, WTO) and a more exclusive Western System (principally EU, NATO, G7). To this come ad-hoc agreements negotiated based on military power, principally the arms control agreements, now largely abandoned by the US. We shall here concentrate on the first pillar.

The first pillar, the international security system, was set up after the Second World War with the main aim to avoid a new war. The basic rules were self-determination, respect for national sovereignty and non-interference and were embodied in the UN Charter and its Security Council. The new borders drawn up in Europe after World War 2 have been relatively stable, post-colonial Africa and even the Middle East have largely insisted on maintaining the arbitrary borders established by the colonial powers, several countries have been formed by secessions (Eritrea, Bangladesh, South Sudan, the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yogoslavia) and have won almost universal international recognition, while others are more controversial, even if the secessions are supported by the local population (Abkhazia, Transdniestria, Kosovo). Some annexations that have been resisted by the local population have been reverted, e.g. Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in 1975, while others persist as e.g. Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara in 1976. Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, seized during the 1967 war with Syria, Jordan and Egypt, is now the most longstanding breach of the no-annexation-by-force norm. The Russian annexation of Crimea is a recent case, but as the population is mostly ethnic Russian and all indicates that the population supports joining Russia, the principle of self-determination comes into conflict with no-annexation, and it is unlikely that it will be reverted, even in the implausible event that the Russian Federation is dissolved some time in the future.

The UN-led international security system mandated that states were strictly limited in the circumstances under which they could use armed force, other than in direct self-defence or in defence of other states at their request. The primary exception to this rule was action taken under mandate from the UN Security Council. The transgressions were broadly condemned, e.g. the Soviet repression of the rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), the Indian intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and Tanzania’s intervention to overthrow Idi Amin’s government in Uganda in 1978. Only the developing countries and the Soviet Union/Russia have protested against repeated US interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean in the post-war period, either directly by the US military (Dominican Republic 1965, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989, Haiti 1994) or by supporting military coups or arming insurgents (Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961, Brazil 1964, Bolivia 1971, Chile 1973, Nicaragua 1979-1989), apart from some half-hearted occasional objections from Western European countries.

The UN-led security system has eroded since the end of the Cold War when the US came out as the only remaining superpower. The US and its allies adopted a doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” which was since been conceptualised as the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”) doctrine, adopted unanimously by the 2005 World Summit. The doctrine established the responsibility of each state to protect people within its borders against atrocities, and the responsibility of other nations to provide support, and if that doesn’t work, use force to stop atrocities by military means. R2P has been justified mainly by referring to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, but its use to justify the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia raised the suspicion that R2P was only a pretext in a US-NATO geopolitical strategy. The bombing of Yugoslavia was justified as a response to the alleged ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population in Kosovo, but was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. By the way, the NATO occupation of Kosovo and the victory of the rebels, the KLA, were followed by atrocities against local non-ethnic-Albanian populations and the result was the expulsion of at least 100,000 Roma people (plus tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs). Subsequently, credible criminal acusations against some leading ex-KLA figures in the Kosovar government, including of human organ trafficking, have turned out to be uncomfortable for their NATO allies.

The suspicion was reinforced after the UN Security Council resolution in 2011, which authorized member states to “take all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya (Resolution No. 1973), was used to justify a NATO bombing campaign against forces loyal to the then leader Mohammad Gadaffi with the aim to force a regime change. The result was that Gadaffi was overturned (and killed – as Hilary Clinton said, laughing: “We came, we saw, he died”), the country has been in chaos now for 10 years, and the intervention has failed to protect the Libyan people against atrocities, not least the 1.8 million migrant workers, mainly from other African countries. The Libyan intervention has convinced particularly Russia that “in future Russia will not approve UN Security Council Resolutions sanctioning forceful intervention and hostilities without thorough consideration of the parameters of their implementation. Those must not be cartes blanches. In addition, the international community must not shy away from the question of civilians’ fate after the regime accused of gross violations of human rights is overthrown.

As many researchers have rightly pointed out, the concept of Rule Based International Order is more precisely denominated US-led liberal international order. This is a system where the US sets the rules and enforces them, with or without the UN, and with or without a coalition of the willing. Lately, partly as an inheritance from the Trump administration, the US is apart from military interventions, using its absolute dominance of the international payment system and its control of some key technologies to a degree not seen before to enforce the US-led order. So countries considered enemies or adversaries, and which are considered too costly to subdue by military force, are crippled with economic sanctions, which also hit third parties interacting with them. These sanctions are enforced with what can only be described as international piracy, as when US naval forces capture oil tankers headed for Venezuela with Iranian oil in international waters, referring to a forfeiture order by the US Justice Department, and simply confiscate the oil and auction it off. Or when the US slaps sanctions on international firms working on North Stream 2, a project agreed upon by two sovereign European nations (Germany and Russia) considering it to be mutually beneficial. The State Department has warned that “Any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks US sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline” . To the EU protests that “The EU considers the extraterritorial use of sanctions as a breach of international law,” the answer was that “The United States must act to address the threat to our national security and foreign policy interests.” So it is not an international order, it is a US imposed order, where the US itself defines the rules, judges the alleged transgressors and carries out the punishment.

The basic justification for the US’ right to do whatever it considers appropriate is the “American exceptionalism”. On the most general level, ‘American exceptionalism’ refers to the belief that the US differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, and distinctive political and religious institutions”. The term is attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, who noted that the US held a special place among nations, because it was as a country of immigrants and the first modern democracy. There have since been numerous variations over this theme, among them America as: mankind’s last best hope, beacon on a hill, God’s own country, the indispensable nation and the Jacksonian idea of Manifest Destiny. As Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, put it: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

Former UN Nuclear Weapons Inspector Hans Blix (on whom the US’ ire fell in 2003 as he refused to declare – against evidence - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) wrote recently : “Both media and governments routinely state that the US has “withdrawn” from the “agreement” on the Iranian nuclear energy programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is misleading.” His point is that the JCPOA was not an agreement, in which US participated with six other countries, but a UN Security Council resolution backing the JCPOA and lifting the sanctions against Iran. “The mandatory provisions on the lifting of UN sanctions are like a law. They contain no lines that allow anybody to “withdraw”, but commends elaborate procedures for the handling of complaints”, he wrote. “What we have witnessed is, in effect, Washington purporting to replace the United Nations Security Council.” The new Biden administration has the opportunity to start complying with the Security Council resolution, but there are no signs yet that they have planned to do that.

The Canadian liberal politician Michael Ignatieff states in a recent book: “First, the United States signs on to international human rights and humanitarian law conventions and treaties and then exempts itself from their provisions by explicit reservation, non-ratification, or non-compliance. Second, the United States maintains a double standard: judging itself and its friends by more permissive criteria than it does its enemies. Third, the United States denies jurisdiction to human rights law within its own domestic law, insisting on the self-contained authority of its own domestic rights tradition.”

I fully support the construction of an international rule-based order. But you can’t build an international order like this. This is not a path to order, it is a path to conflict and – in worst case – war. The construction of a new multi-polar world order should perhaps start with more modest aims that are palatable to most countries, including the US, instead of too ambitious human rights objectives that are unlikely to be possible to implement at present, and which will just end up being one more tool in the tollbox of international geopolitical competition.


By the way:

Do you remember the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” from 1969? There is a funny scene where a member of Butch’s gang challenges him to a knife-fight, which he obviously is going to lose. “We have to agree on the rules first”, Butch says. Confused, the challenger answers “Rules?” And receives a kick in the groin. Perhaps this is where the US is taking the inspiration. You can enjoy it here.

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