Why the West should stop talking about the “rules-based order”

11:40 19.06.2024 •

“The rules-based international order” has become almost a mantra, ritualistically recited by Western leaders from Washington to Canberra. A staple of foreign policy jargon, the RBIO now appears in government white papers, think tank reports, newspaper columns, social media posts, White House press releases and the leading foreign policy journals. The Biden administration itself is all in on the idea: the defence of the RBIO has become the geopolitical cornerstone of its foreign policy doctrine from the Ukrainian steppe to the South China Sea.

But for all the enthusiasm with which the term is embraced in the West, its content remains an enigma. The RBIO is an almost comically ill-defined concept. What rules does it refer to? Who gets to set them? How are they enforced? – writes ‘The New Statesman’.

Given the cocksure attitude with which the RBIO is often invoked nowadays, one could be forgiven for thinking that the rules-based order has been with us for a long time. Yet the concept is a surprisingly recent one. A Google Ngram search shows that the term was rarely used before 2000, and its usage did not take off until the past decade or so.

We can trace the roots of the RBIO to two separate sources. The first is the more familiar idea of the “liberal international order” (LIO). Brought to prominence by the international relations scholar John Ikenberry in the 1990s, the LIO was truly a child of its times. Buoyed by Western triumphalism after the US-led victory in the Cold War, it wore its ideological commitments on its sleeve. The LIO gave a clear political identity to the “new world order” that came into being after the fall of communism, as successive US governments sought to globalise the rule of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy under the aegis of uncontested American hegemony.

Even then, the LIO did not immediately capture the public imagination. It mostly remained confined to a new body of international relations scholarship on the changing geopolitical landscape of a newly unipolar world. The term itself only belatedly appeared in the New York Times in 2012. Since then, its use has surged. Today, it is still the preferred term for the US-led world order that emerged in the post-1990 period.

In recent years, however, Western leaders have increasingly begun to drop the explicit ideological identifier and come to speak of the LIO in the more neutral-sounding terms of a rules-based order. This semantic shift was not a spontaneous evolution of language. It served a particular political purpose.

The adjective “rules-based” has its origins in the arcane realm of international trade. It goes back to the same period as the LIO, but it speaks to a more technical set of concerns. As globalisation accelerated and deepened in the early 1990s, neoclassical economists and advocates of free trade, such as Jagdish Bhagwati, began to speak of the need for a “rules-based trading system” that could lower the barriers to trade and create a “level playing field” between firms in different countries.

Politicians used the “rules-based” moniker to shield their trade policies from political opposition. Western leaders presented the World Trade Organisation not as a neoliberal trade regime, but as an impartial rules-based one. This particular framing may not have inspired great passions, but that was the point. The idea was to render international trade as an abstract, non-political domain that was best administered by technocrats: a dull and complicated field that was not of any real concern to the average citizen.

So if today’s “rules-based” foreign policy discourse sounds like old-school Davos doublespeak, that’s because it is. The rules-based lexicon directly arose out of the Clintonite and Blairite brand of neoliberalism that dominated the final decade of the 20th century.

Hillary Clinton never really left the 1990s. When Barack Obama appointed the former first lady as his secretary of state in 2009, she brought with her many of the same policy advisers – and many of the same ideas – that had informed her husband’s administration. It was in these Democratic circles that the notion of a “rules-based order” began to proliferate. In 2010, Clinton appears to have become the first US cabinet member to use the term publicly.

In November 2011, Clinton gave a speech in Honolulu whose title, “America’s Pacific Century”, was clearly framed as a rebuke to what many commentators were already starting to call the “Chinese century”. The secretary of state noted that if Washington wanted to accomplish its goals in Asia, “we have to create a rules-based order, one that is open, free, transparent and fair”.

The rules-based order was therefore never meant to be a set of consistent and binding international rules. It was invented as a rhetorical device to help the US confront a rising China. A recent study confirms that a very specific negative framing has emerged in recent years that construes China as an adversary of the “rules-based international order”. This has had far-reaching implications.

Given the West’s own double standards, the concept of the RBIO now risks becoming a dead letter elsewhere in the world. This is not just the case for the regimes of Russia and China, which have their own reasons for disparaging the West, but also for the democratic “middling powers” of the Global South. In recent years, countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India, Indonesia and South Africa have displayed a willingness to chart a more independent course in international affairs.

The existing system of international law is far from perfect, but at a very minimum the West needs to return to the UN Charter and the binding treaties and conventions it has already signed up to. It needs to accept that the unipolar moment of the 1990s – with its uncontested US hegemony and its neoliberal free-trade dogmas – is over. It needs to recognise, as the non-aligned countries of the Global South already do, that we are witnessing the birth of a multipolar world.

The West therefore has no choice but to work with its international partners on a basis of equality and mutual respect to upgrade the multilateral UN framework, so that it can protect humanitarian law, address legitimate security concerns and confront the planetary crisis of the 21st century.


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