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The Decline and Fall of the "Rules-based International Order"
US-led global Monarchical Society crumbles into anarchy.
Through carefully crafted information campaigns, the US sculpts its international image with the artistry of an advertising ace. Pro-American narratives conjure sentiments of gratitude in media consumers throughout the globe, but most powerfully in the wealthy West.
The great rhetorical exception, the glaring clash of dissonance in an otherwise harmonious symphony of grandeur, is America’s persistent claims to be both the creator and enforcer of a “rules-based international order” (RBIO).
On the surface what could be better than an RBIO? As in sports where everyone appreciates a rulebook and a referee, the RBIO narrative conjures images of the US creating a set of rules that are universally applied to help manage the necessary competition between nations. But a closer look raises questions. What exactly are these rules? Are they written down like the US constitution? Or are these rules unwritten, like the constitution in Britain? The most important question is whether these rules apply to and constrain the US in her quest for global power?
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One rule recently posited in the wake of the Ukraine War is that one nation shall not invade another. After a democratically elected government in Ukraine was overthrown by the US in 2014, Russia responded by invading Crimea to protect her Black Sea Fleet and the Sebastopol Naval Base. In 2022, after years of low-intensity warfare in the Donbass, Russia went further and invaded eastern Ukraine. The US and Western allies have emphatically declared these invasions are in breach of their rules-based international order.
But a look back at recent history puts the clarity of this commandment in jeopardy. The US bombed Serbia into submission in 1999. It invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The US and allies intervened in Libya in 2011 and invaded Syria in 2014 and still occupy nearly a third of the nation. While some of these actions had varying degrees of United Nations backing, others did not. A clear, consistent and universal rule regarding invading other nations does not emerge from these many precedents. Instead what appears is a one-sided anarchy, where the US and allies are free to act militarily when they deem it necessary but others are not.
If a rules-based order actually existed, then its seat and rulebook must surely reside in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This court was created in the late 1990’s under intense American pressure. Bill Clinton dutifully signed the International Criminal Court Treaty in 2000. So far, so good. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration took a two-track approach to the court. It would continue to exist for others, but the US would be totally exempt from the court’s jurisdiction. In 2002, with bipartisan support, the American Service-Members' Protection Act gave the President the power to use: “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release of any U.S. or allied personnel being detained or imprisoned by, on behalf of, or at the request of the International Criminal Court.”
What followed was the criminal invasion of Iraq, waterboarding, Guantanamo prison, torture camps and rampant civilian deaths in Iraq. While the ICC continued to convict war criminals from less privileged states such as Bosnia and Rwanda, wealthy Westerners like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and Blair all avoided long prison sentences because the ICC never pursued them.
Fast-forward to today and the US is not only celebrating the ICC indictment of Russian President Putin but is actually pressuring South Africa to arrest him on an ICC warrant. While for a lawyerly ruling class like the US, such hypocrisy is just part of the job, for the engineering-based ruling class in China, such double standards provoke disgust.
As bad as these acts of hypocrisy are, perhaps the most pathetic occur in the realm of economic sanctions. The US imposes sanctions against China, banning entire classes of microchips from being sold, along with the machinery required to make them. From the NYT:
The Trump administration began to restrict semiconductor sales to Huawei in 2019. Last year, the Biden administration expanded those controls, cutting Huawei’s access to both U.S. consumers and suppliers and issuing a punishing freeze on chip-making equipment to large swaths of China’s semiconductor industry.
Those moves amounted to a “near complete embargo of U.S. technology and U.S. goods” to Huawei, said Daniel B. Pickard, a lawyer at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and an expert on U.S. export controls. “I always think about Cuba, stuck in the 1950s and 1960s purely as a result of a unilateral embargo by the United States.”
Then in 2022, the US introduces its Chips Act, which “provides roughly $280 billion in new funding to boost domestic research and manufacturing of semiconductors in the United States. The act includes $39 billion in subsidies for chip manufacturing on US soil along with 25% investment tax credits for costs of manufacturing equipment, and $13 billion for semiconductor research and workforce training, with the primary aim of countering China.” This act is clearly in conflict with existing trade rules but perhaps the US felt their national security would be enhanced by passing it? Nations should be free to defend their national interests.
But when China meekly retaliates by banning sales of a few US-made Micron Chips to China, the US whines about “economic coercion” as if China’s tit-for-tat response in matching what the US just did to them, is somehow in violation of the rules-based international order.
The existence of an RBIO would entail that nations respect an international set of universal rules and values, debated and agreed by all. Of course no such thing exists, and if it did the US would be the last nation to submit to it. The US pretending the existence of an RBIO invites immediate charges of hypocrisy and of double standards.
During a regular meeting of the WTO's Committee on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures held on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland, Chinese representatives highlighted that the US Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has used the guise of "green" policies to implement protectionist practices, according to a report by China Media Group released on Wednesday.
In the specific implementation fields, the US interprets the "free trade agreements" arbitrarily, seriously undermining global trade rules, said Chinese representatives.
They also pointed out that the US CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 reflects the US' "double standard "approach to industrial subsidies. US chip subsidies are closely coordinated with export controls, seriously disrupting the global semiconductor supply chain.
The best most observers can come up with is that the rules are: “obey what the US tells you to do, ignore what the US does.” In other words, the concept of a “rules-based international order” is simply a weak gaslighting operation that encourages other nations to reject old-fashion power politics and to meekly submit to US hegemony.
There are very good reasons why the US would not want to submit to international rules. On paper at least, the US Constitution provides powerful democratic protections. But while the US is ceaselessly extoling the virtues of democracy around the globe, it then tries to impose authoritarian global order which in large measure nullifies any local democratic impulses.
If the US had its way and became the the only nation engaging in power politics, then there would be no international checks and balances on US global action.
So the problem is not that the US refuses to submit to rule by international fiat. The problem is the US attempts to pose their own tyranny on other nations. There is a fundamental conflict between democracy at the national level and an international level of governance, which must be authoritarian if it is not democratic. The champions of liberal democracy at the nation-state level, especially the US, abhor the idea of a one person-one vote global democracy. They prefer to project G7 group power despite these rich nations only representing 10% of the global population. Global rule by G7 is by definition elitist and authoritarian. In contrast the BRICS order contains 41% of the global population and should therefore, in a democratic global order, have four times more power than the G7. And once the BRICS expands it membership, it will surpass the 50% bar and represent a global majority. But no one in the west will accept a BRICS-based global democratic order.
The international double standards the US deploys is often referred to as American Exceptionalism. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America was the first to posit an American Exceptionalism. But his is not the Shining City on a Hill-type from a Ronald Reagan campaign speech. De Tocqueville, who is a champion of democracy, must make an exception of America in order to delink 1850 America’s lack of intellectual achievements from the concept of radical equality:
It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare. Many Europeans, struck by this fact, have looked upon it as a natural and inevitable result of equality; and they have thought that if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness.
De Tocqueville’s aristocratic opponents held as a general rule that the equalizing tendency of democracy creates an intellectually incurious population. To counter this idea that democracy leads inevitably to Idiocracy, de Tocqueville ringfences perceived American ignorance as not the democratic rule but simply an exception due to local conditions.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the natives of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people
It’s not at all clear that de Tocqueville opponents were wrong on this point. It was only once America rejected its pre-Civil War radical equality and embraced capitalism with its wide gulfs of wealth that great American thinkers and world-class artists appeared on the scene.
“American leaders aspire to an international rule of law that is essentially U.S. domestic rule of law writ large. At the same time, they also recognize the realities of power in the Hobbesian global jungle, where it is better to be the lion than the lamb. Washington often tries to reconcile this tension by depicting a world in which the United States is a benevolent hegemon, acting as the world’s lawmaker, policeman, judge, and jury.
Washington urges other powers to accept the rule-based international order over which it presides. But through Chinese eyes, it looks like the Americans make the rules and others obey Washington’s commands.”
Allison’s notion is that the US acts as the de facto global sovereign. If the globe is seen as a feudal society, the US has attempted to serve as its monarch during its unipolar years, which are now quickly coming to an end. As global monarch, the US demanded a monopoly on international violence, created and managed the coin of the global realm (the US dollar), and to a lesser extent wrote international law through its domination of several international organizations. Assisting the US in its monarchical duties was a noble aristocracy of wealthy nations (EU, Korea, Japan and Australia). Together this US-led Collective West attempted to stifle the rising merchant class (BRICS+) while largely oppressing the 3rd world peasants.
In the language of Thomas Hobbes, unipolar US power pushed the international system from a State of Nature—primitive tribes locked in perpetual low-intensity warfare—to a Commonwealth: a more ordered society ruled by a sovereign. The State of Nature-type international order is an Anarchical Society, where the strongest nations engage in a constant battle of power politics. An international Commonwealth is ruled by a disinterested sovereign, whose role is to provide peace, prosperity and law.
The weakness in Hobbes’ view of the world is that while this sovereign should be disinterested, they never completely are. The sovereign must at least give the impression of being above the petty competition of his Noblemen. His only concern should be in keeping the peace and administering justice to his subjects. But for this to happen (or for this illusion to be sold) requires the sovereign to withdraw from productive activities and therefore become parasitic in the sense that his subjects must pay taxes for his services. In return the sovereign’s court helps boost the aggregate demand of his realm by engaging in vast military spending as well as splendid conspicuous consumption. By these means the sovereign not only provides a market for excess global production but also sets the fashion and cultural tends for the realm. While not perfect, this does describe to a large extent US actions after the Cold War.
The contradiction today is that the US, after losing so much power by offshoring its manufacturing base, must suddenly lower herself into the fray of economic power politics and start competing against both the nobles and the BRICS+ order. In the meantime, the US embarrassingly clings on to claims of being in a disinterested monarchical global position in a futile attempt to curtail others from engaging in power politics. And so the imaginary “rules-based international order” is the mask of a global sovereign trying to hide desperate attempts by the US to start competing once again as a global equal.
The US turn towards protectionism, for example within the semiconductor industry, ruins the illusion of a disinterested US necessary for a monarchical society to function. Despite US claims to only take these moves to “protect” the RBIO, the world inevitably sees the State of Nature paradigm back in effect. The US has fallen off its global throne and is now just one of many competing Nations in a perpetual low-intensity conflict. But the sovereign’s lowering himself into the fray creates tension and distrust since he will still use his currency, his laws, and his security forces for his self-interest. This pressure only gets released by removing these advantages from the soon-to-be former sovereign.
A decade ago, the US could have come to an agreement with the BRICS to act as a benevolent hegemon by only sparingly imposing sanctions and not exerting military expansionism on its rivals. In return the rest of the world would swallow its pride and recognize the US’s role as global sovereign and follow its rules. In return the US would renounce any claim to petty interests and busies itself with the job of being sovereign.
With the outbreak of the Ukrainian War and the coalescing of the China-Russia anti-hegemonic alliance, this option is lost. The US must now retreat back into being just one of many nations competing within an international State of Nature (think the pre-WW1 global order). The dollar will slowly but surely lose its status as the reserve currency of the world. The exorbitant privilege that the dollar brought the US will soon be a memory.
One major mistake the US made in her 30 years of unipolar power were her insecure displays of conspicuous power. Such terms as hyperpower, the indispensable nation, and a quest for full-specturm dominance led many other nations to react against the growing reality of US monarchical global power. A wiser choice was illustrated by Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
[Julius] Cæsar had provoked his fate, as much as by the ostentation of his power, as by his power itself. The consul or the tribune might have reigned in peace. The title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion, as long as it was supported by the virtue, or even by the prudence, of the successors of Augustus. (Chapter III, Part II)
The next global hegemon would do well to imitate Augustus in never openly flaunting global power, denying a desire for it at every turn, but nevertheless accumulating it greedily behind the scenes.
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