The End of the Rules-based International Order Rapidly Approaching

One of the most tiresome phrases uttered by officials of the United States and its loyal acolytes such as Australia is its claim that its foreign policy and adheres to what it repeatedly refers to is the “rules based international order.”  What the Americans (and the secretary of state Anthony Blinken uses the phrase repeatedly) really mean is a system of rules dictated by successive US governments and repeated ad nauseam as though the phrase carried magical properties intended to quell any criticism of their actions.

Blinken use the phrase recently when he tweeted about the NATO meeting in Brussels that he attended. He tweeted “our alliances were created to defend shared values. Retaining our commitment requires reaffirming those values and the foundation of international relations we vow to protect: a free and open rules-based order”

The phrase “the rules-based order” is an open code, telling the rest of the world that the rules are set by America and the rest of the world’s duty is to obey them unquestionably. The origins of the phrase have a history going back to the end of the Second World War. The purpose was twofold. On the one hand it was intended to differentiate the United States from its two major Communist adversaries, Russia and China. Secondly, it was a way of spelling out that in the new world order that followed World War II, the United States was the dominant party that set the rules.

The role of the United States in this new order has always been clear to the Americans, as president Joe Biden recently spelled-out. In a recent speech, Biden advocated “a stable and open international system.” Biden argued that the restoration of this international order “rests on a core strategic proposition. The United States must renew its enduring advantages so that they can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength.”

The Americans are anxious to maintain this order because for many years it has been dominated by them. The collapse of the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1990 did not diminish the appetite for continued control. There are two fundamental problems with this worldview however.

The first is that it purports to uphold a system that is dominated by one country; the United States. That is not a position that finds favour with the bulk of the world’s nations. The second problem is that of the concept itself. By the “rules based international order” the United States and its allies actually mean “their rules” and “their system.”

The United States has ruthlessly pursued its notion of international law regardless of the actual legal definition that does not recognise the rights of one nation to impose its will upon the rest and to ignore the rights of other nations with whose policies it finds itself in disagreement.

It is very difficult to locate a respect for the law in the multiple invasions mounted by the United States in the post-World War II period when it has been almost continually at war somewhere in the world. It has violently overthrown governments of all persuasions that failed to pay sufficient regard for the United States’ view of things.

It is impossible to reconcile a belief in International Law with the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government since 1959. Astonishingly the Americans maintain a military prison base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, actually defying the wishes of the Cuban government that they depart.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile a true belief in a rules based international order with the wholly unjustified invasions and occupations of both Iraq and Syria. In the case of the former a patently manufactured excuse of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” was the ostensible reason for the invasion. With the death of Hussein and the failure to discover the existence of any such weapons it should have been the basis for massive apologies, compensation and withdrawal. Instead, nearly 20 years later the United States is still there and showing no hurry to respect the wishes of the Iraqi parliament by leaving.

The invasion of Afghanistan was solely based on a lie with the events of 11 September 2001 providing a fig leaf of justification for a decision actually made months earlier. Again, the original reasons for invading have long since disappeared. Trump’s plan to withdraw during 2021 is currently under review, with American sources suggesting a withdrawal by September of this year. The CIA does not want to have to have the bother of developing a fresh source for the heroin crop that makes such a substantial contribution to its “off the books” funding.

Ironically, it was Trump that also had the least respect for the international rules-based order referring a more blatant, and honest, “America first” approach to imposing his views. The Biden administration is working hard to renew the primacy of its view of international law. In my view that is an impossible task. That ship has long sailed and the bulk of the world’s nations, led by China, are making it very clear that the resumption of United States hegemony is simply unacceptable.

It is an open question as to whether or not the Americans accept that the world has changed and they are unable to re-capture the dominance they enjoyed in the 1990s and earlier this century. Judging by the reported comments of both Biden and Blinken that reality has some way to go before it is accepted. The world does not accept a division between good and evil, with the western democracies personifying the “good” and the rest of the world the “evil”.

Part of that change is reflected in the refusal by an increasing number of countries to conduct their international trade in United States dollars. The previously dominant role of the dollar, apart from propping up the ailing United States economic system with its multi trillion-dollar deficits, also gave the Americans unparalleled influence over the economic structure of multiple countries. Those days are rapidly diminishing, and for an increasing number of countries the end of the dollars hegemony cannot come soon enough.

The United States’ reaction to this diminished role will be interesting to watch. It was an historically unique position for them to be in for the past 75 years. They will undoubtably strive to maintain the hegemony. Therein lies the greatest danger. Unless the United States recognises that the world has changed, we are in for some very rough times.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.