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The Hollow ‘Rules-Based Order’

Andrew Bacevich offers [1] a useful reminder that laments for a global “rules-based order” require ignoring much of the last seventy years of U.S. foreign policy:

Yet collectively, the actions and episodes enumerated above do not suggest a nation committed to liberalism, openness, or the rule of law. What they reveal instead is a pattern of behavior common to all great powers in just about any era: following the rules when it serves their interest to do so; disregarding the rules whenever they become an impediment. Some regimes are nastier than others, but all are law-abiding when the law works to their benefit and not one day longer.

Just earlier this year, we saw how unimportant the “rules” of the “rules-based order” were to both the U.S. government and the foreign policy establishment. When Trump ordered an attack on Syrian government forces, ostensibly in the name of enforcing an international norm, he did so with no legal authority of any kind. Congress had not authorized the president to commence hostilities against the Syrian government, there was no plausible individual or collective self-defense justification for the action, and the attack clearly breached the U.N. Charter? You could not ask for a more blatant attack on the “rules-based order” than that. The response from most foreign policy analysts and pundits was one of relief, if not jubilation, that the U.S. had “acted” and exercised “leadership.” The “rules-based order” that many of them claim to be so worried about was completely irrelevant when it came to assessing the merits of illegally attacking another sovereign state.

This wasn’t an unusual reaction, but was entirely consistent with attitudes about international “order” and U.S. intervention for well over twenty-five years: when the U.S. wants to bomb or invade another country, it has no implications for “world order” except as proof of the U.S. commitment to maintain said order. If the “rules-based order” really meant anything, the rules would be applied just as vigorously–perhaps more vigorously–to the most powerful state in the world as they are to the weakest, and of course that hasn’t happened and presumably never will.

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10 Comments To "The Hollow ‘Rules-Based Order’"

#1 Comment By Cornel Lencar On June 15, 2017 @ 9:10 pm

Where is the “rule-based order” when U.S. declares with impunity its support for changing democratically elected governments:

“During a Wednesday hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee regarding the 2018 State Department budget, Tillerson was asked whether or not the U.S. supports regime change in Iran. He replied affirmatively, stating that U.S. policy is driven by relying on “elements inside of Iran” to bring about a “peaceful transition of that government.”

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Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) also asked Tillerson if the government would sanction the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a powerful entity inside Iran.

“They are doing bad things throughout the world, on behalf of terrorism and destroying human rights of many people,” Poe said, referring to the IRGC.

“I’d like to know what the policy is of the U.S. toward Iran. Do we support the current regime? Do we support a philosophy of regime change, peaceful regime change? There are Iranians in exile all over the world. Some are here. And then there’s Iranians in Iran who don’t support the totalitarian state. So is the U.S. position to leave things as they are or set up a peaceful long-term regime change?”

“Well our Iranian policy is under development,” Tillerson replied.

“It’s not yet been delivered to the president, but I would tell you that we certainly recognize Iran’s continued destabilizing presence in the region, their payment of foreign fighters, their export of militia forces in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, their support for Hezbollah. And we are taking action to respond to Iran’s hegemony. Additional sanctions actions have been put in place against individuals and others.”

Tillerson also added:

“We continually review the merits both from the standpoint of diplomatic but also international consequences of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in its entirety as a terrorist organization. As you know, we have designated the Quds [Force]. Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there, certainly as we know.”

Tillerson’s reference to Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons above directly contradicts a letter he sent to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in April of this year. The New York Times explained:

“The letter certified that Iran was complying with the agreement, negotiated by five world powers in addition to the United States and Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the agreement with on-site inspectors and advanced technology, reached the same conclusion in its most recent report.” [emphasis added]

This comes just over a week after Iran suffered an ISIS-inspired terror attack of its own, after which American lawmakers immediately proposed sanctions against the Islamic Republic, further demonstrating that the U.S. seeks to undermine Iran as much as possible. The sanctions were approved by the Senate on Thursday. Further, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) appeared to praise the ISIS attack on Iran, even suggesting the U.S. should support terrorists who commit attacks against the Iranian state.”

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 15, 2017 @ 9:52 pm

Regime change is as American as McDonald’s apple turnovers. Why, we’re doing it now, right here in The Homeland.

#3 Comment By blimbax On June 15, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

It just keeps getting worse and worse, doesn’t it.

Rohrabacher seemed to have an enlightened view of Russia and Vladimir Putin, but it must have been for superficial reasons or maybe it’s like a stopped clock that tells the correct time twice a day.

His stance on Iran is simply insane.

#4 Comment By Whine Merchant On June 15, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

The motto of any powerful person or nation: Do as I say, not as I do.

#5 Comment By Viriato On June 15, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

“If the “rules-based order” really meant anything, the rules would be applied just as vigorously–perhaps more vigorously–to the most powerful state in the world as they are to the weakest, and of course that hasn’t happened and presumably never will.”

I agree, but the key question is who would enforce the rules-based order against the US.

That’s why I believe the policeman of the world should be the United Nations.

Absent that, cant about a rules-based order is a mere mask for US hegemony.

#6 Comment By joseph On June 15, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

Our rules are to be applied and ignored at whim because there is no-one larger than us to hold us to account when we violate them. This is why we shun the International Court, why conservatives have long been suspicious of the UN.

Trump’s “America First” impulse is about freeing us from the restraint of our own rules.

#7 Comment By jk On June 15, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

I can’t wait for neocon heads to explode over this cognitive dissonance:

“Germany and Austria warn US over expanded Russia sanctions: ‘Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America.’”


I know the WaPo and NYT are going to ignore this as it does not fit into the Russia-Trump destroying poor, helpless, fragile defenseless EU narrative.

#8 Comment By Chris Chuba On June 16, 2017 @ 8:26 am

I am simultaneously impressed and appalled by the brazen declarations of Neocons, how they say self-righteously declare ‘white is black!’ with such certitude. The only Republican in Congress who opposes them is the circumspect Rand Paul which is very frustrating.

How can any of them talk about a ‘rules based order’?

The Syrian bombing was even worse than you say because we opposed U.N. resolutions and Russian/Syrian requests to use the OPCW to investigate Khan Shaykhun. We didn’t even pretend to investigate the incident. If by rules they mean, our way or the highway then they are being consistent.

#9 Comment By CharleyCarp On June 16, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

The illusion of rules has played an important role, maybe only at the margin for superpowers, but maybe more importantly for others.

Getting rid of the rules because of problems with compliance is the ultimate manifestation of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Laws against murder don’t seem to be restraining the Mob. Let’s legalize it.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 16, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

“If the ‘rules-based order’ really meant anything, the rules would be applied just as vigorously–perhaps more vigorously–to the most powerful state in the world as they are to the weakest, and of course that hasn’t happened and presumably never will.”

I think that is a bit of an overstatement.

The rules based order does mean something. Most national governments go do feel themselves obliged to obey the rules.

True, the more powerful the nation, and its government, the less of a constraint the rules are. But that is true of any system of rules and its enforcement. Powerful individuals are not equally subject to the criminal law, and the strictures of the law in general, as the weak and helpless are, and that is true in even the most egalitarian of countries. Powerful corporations are not either.

This has ever been the case, as Thucydides pointed out two thousand years ago. And the notion that the most powerful nations, and to those they choose to protect, can evade or avoid altogether the rules is practically written into the formal rules enforcement structure itself, at the international level. The five UNSC members can each unilaterally veto any resolution they want to, and nothing has any validity under international law unless the UNSC says it does.

So, is it news to anyone that the US can break the rules? And it is not like Russia is not doing the same thing. As it has invaded a fellow UN member with impunity. The unanimous consensus, that I could find, of international law experts believe that the invasion of Ukraine was a clear breach of “the rules.”

But, again, that does not mean the rules don’t matter. OJ Simpson got away with murder. But most murderers don’t. Similarly, most countries feel that simply violating the rules, without some sort of cover, is not a good idea. And many NATO countries refused to join in the US invasion of Iraq, even though, in that case, there was little to no chance of legal reprisal. And most NATO countries would not act in Libya or Afghanistan without a UN resolution. Some NATO countries refused to take part in the US/UK Balkan adventures, even though, again, the likelihood of legal reprisal was remote. How many more instances are there of nations who have felt restrained by the rules? Particularly in cases where there is no UNSC permanent member cover?

Moreover, the rules matter because they point to an ideal, a principle, one well worth honoring. That some flout the rules with impunity does not change that either.

While we wait on, and perhaps work on making progr progress toward, that ideal, at least the current set up helps us avoid WWIII. Which may be the best we can hope for….