The collapse of the concept of a rules-based international order
by Veniamin Popov on 02 May 2024 0 Comment

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States believed that a unipolar world would last forever: year after year, day after day, it became increasingly blatant in its disregard for the interests of others and the opinions of the rest of the world.


Then the concept of an international “rules-based order” was born: a group of American scholars, former and future officials, presented a paper at Princeton in 2006 entitled “A World of Freedom Under Law”. They framed this as a response to the weaknesses of international law, suggesting that when international institutions fail to produce the outcomes preferred by the “world of freedom”, there is “an alternative forum for liberal democracies to authorise collective action”. In practice, this forum has most often been the White House.


During the Libyan crisis of 2011, the United States and its allies used Security Council authorisation for a no-fly zone to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. American troops have now been operating in eastern Syria for more than eight years – yet there is no justification in international law for their presence.


Even American political scientists describe this concept as a kind of asterisk placed over international law. The “rules-based order” absolves the US and its allies of responsibility and fundamentally undermines the concept of international law. US policymakers use this theory to entrench US advantages as a global power. When the prerogatives and rules of international law coincide with the canons they establish, Washington calls them synonymous.


Thus, on the eve of February 2022, i.e., the start of a special military operation in Ukraine, Secretary Blinken warned of a moment of danger for “the foundations of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order that preserves stability around the world”, but when US prerogatives diverge from international law, the concept of a “rules-based order” comes into play, which “should ultimately benefit global stability”.


A prime example is the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which the George W. Bush administration cynically justified as a means of enforcing UN disarmament mandates. Iraq was declared an invader, it survived the military occupation, the death toll of Iraqis is approaching 1 million, and the country is still reeling from America’s brazen attack. Washington’s military and economic might at the time ensured that America would face few consequences for invading without UN authorisation.


The very concept of a “rules-based order” set America at odds with the rest of the world, which recognised that international relations were becoming multipolar. Many leaders of developing countries, especially Russia, China, India and Brazil, talked about the same thing. Even American allies tried to show the flaws in the concept. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder warned of the “undeniable danger of US unilateralism”, and former French Minister Hubert Védrine once said that “France’s entire foreign policy… is aimed at making tomorrow’s world consist of several poles, not just one”.


According to Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, the US was carried away by a show of force, disregarding the opinions of even its allies and international organisations, and then went off on its own to gain the advantage.


The Gaza war drew a final line under the concept of the “rules-based order”: on 25 March, 14 members of the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding an immediate end to the war in Gaza, with the US abstaining. The resolution became a legally enforceable document, but Israel, unwilling to accept UN mandates, continued to bomb the southern town of Rafah and besiege Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.


Shortly after the vote, a spokesman for the Biden administration called Resolution No. 2728 “non-binding”, in a clear attempt to deny its status as international law. At a State Department press briefing, the spokesman said the measure would not lead to an immediate ceasefire or affect the complex hostage negotiations.


International law is clearly against what Israel is doing in Gaza. 2 months before Resolution No. 2728 was adopted, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel’s ongoing campaign could plausibly be considered genocide and called on Israel to take measures to prevent genocide.


On the eve of the passage of Bill 2728, the Canadian Parliament passed a motion to halt new arms transfers to Israel. On the day the Security Council adopted the resolution, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese, recommended that member states “immediately” impose an arms embargo on Israel for failing to comply with mandatory measures ordered by the International Court of Justice.


After the above resolution was passed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby clarified that American arms shipments and sales to Israel would not be affected, while the State Department stated, and the White House later confirmed, that “there are no incidents where the Israelis have violated international humanitarian law.


All of this comes after Israel has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, most of them women and children, and displaced and permanently starved two million people in Gaza. In addition, the Israeli military bombed a convoy of aid workers from the World Central Kitchen.


The crux of the matter is that Washington is arming a country that has been ordered by the Security Council to cease hostilities. Washington’s actions are at odds with reality: the massacre in Gaza has made many foreign figures and organisations reluctant to listen to American officials on other issues. According to US press reports, Annelle Sheline, a State Department human rights official who recently resigned, said that some activist groups in North Africa have simply stopped meeting with her and her colleagues: “Trying to defend human rights has simply become impossible as long as the US is helping Israel,” she said.


Two years ago, US diplomats seeking support for Ukraine faced “a very clear negative reaction to America’s penchant for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides”. In this regard, the New York Times concluded on 10 April this year that “Resolution No. 2728, which passed without result, may well be remembered as a watershed moment in the decline of the ‘rules-based international order’ – that is, the world the United States seeks to build and preserve… Gaza is a chilling reminder that in a world of exceptions to international law, it is the least powerful who suffer the most.


All these developments were accurately characterised by China’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who described the US statements and actions as incompatible with the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and said that Washington was undermining the authority of the Security Council.


Veniamin POPOV, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Candidate of Historical Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” Courtesy 

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