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Biden’s Internationalism Conflicts with Global Realities

The administration's longing for a rules-based international order is both anachronistic and shortsighted.

Two noted commentators of our time—the Boston Globe’s Stephen Kinzer and Peter Beinart, writing in The New York Times—took deadly aim recently at the oft-heard phrase, “international rules-based order.” This is the phrase, as the two writers note, that has become a mantra of President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy team, employed constantly to denote the essential underpinning of American diplomacy. But what does it mean?

Kinzer and Beinart argue that it doesn’t mean much of anything. Kinzer’s article title declares that it “rings hollow,” while Beinart’s title calls it “vacuous.” And yet, as Beinart notes, during Biden’s recent European trip, it appeared twice in his joint statement with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, four times in each of the communiques issued by the United States and other Group of Seven and European Union governments, and six times in the subsequently issued NATO manifesto.

In his critique, Kinzer makes a point that Beinart rather glides over—namely, that in the immediate post-Second World War era America was so powerful relative to the rest of the world that it could and did make the rules that other non-communist countries had to acknowledge, however much they may have chafed at them. But he quotes the ancient Roman poet Juvenal as asking: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Who polices the police? Today, says Kinzer, Juvenal might ask: “Who makes the rules? Who decides when the rules have been violated? Who decrees the punishment?”

For years, he continues, the answer was obvious: America. “We became accustomed to making rules for the rest of the world. We think we’re pretty good at it, and we want to keep doing it.” But there’s a problem. In today’s emerging multipolar global environment, many other countries increasingly reject the idea that they must respond to America’s unilateral rulemaking. What’s more, these shifting power differentials will render America’s rules-based conceit increasingly untenable.

Kinzer seems to be lamenting that any country gets to make the rules, particularly the United States, which should avoid hypocrisy and refrain from stomping on lesser nations. Even during the bipolar era following World War II, writes Kinzer, America’s meddling around the world was often “devastating for many countries whose people had no say in making the rules.” And of course even when American foreign policy was at its most benign, it inevitably spawned plenty of American hypocrisy, given “our Hobbesian world.”

Beinart expresses a similar outlook but comes at it from a different angle. He considers the rules-based concept to be a mere “decoy,” a way of avoiding the question that “Democrats should be asking: Why isn’t America defending international law?” Beinart argues that for decades, diplomats and scholars have invoked the international law concept to “encompass the written and unwritten rules that govern the behavior of nations.” To Beinart, this set of diplomatic rules and protocols is far more concrete and prescriptive than the vague concept that guides the Biden administration. He quotes political scientist Patrick Porter as saying that arguments over gauzy phrases such as “rules-based order” are like “wrestling with fog.”

Beinart acknowledges that international law is “contested and fragile,” and not all countries get to share equally in its creation or enforcement. Some nations don’t have any say at all in the matter. But one great virtue of it, in his view, is that “it is not purely an American creation, which means it offers some independent standard against which to evaluate American behavior.”

Here’s where we get to the weakness in both the Kinzer and Beinart treatises—the lack of any clear recognition of national self-interest as an inevitable force in the swirl of international relations.

Beinart is an anti-nationalist, which is why he prefers international cooperation over American unilateralism. In a display of simplistic partisanship, he attributes the unilateral impulse to the “fervent hostility” of Republicans to international law and their refusal to consider “what non-Americans think.” The erosion of national sovereignty doesn’t bother him, but it is certainly a legitimate national issue and deserves better than a dismissive caricature. In any event, Beinart believes it is up to Democrats to scuttle the vague notion of an American rules-based order and turn instead to international law.

International law has its place, and the effort to adjudicate disputes among nations based on recognized and accepted precepts has its merits. But it ultimately lacks force because nations will always act in their own national interest, irrespective of international precepts. Errant nations can be brought back into line only when another nation, or other nations, can muster sufficient power and will to force the issue.

And there’s the rub. Ultimately, it’s about power. There never was a rules-based world order; it was an American power-based order, in which America made the rules because it had the power to do so. The world is anarchic. That’s the significance of Kinzer’s very apt quote from Juvenal. There are no guardians to guard the guardians; there is no central authority or night watchman to step in when a nation is threatened or another nation is overly aggressive. Therefore, nations must rely upon themselves for protection from any hazard, immediate or prospective.

Given that they can’t know precisely the plans and ambitions of real or potential adversaries, the imperatives of survival dictate that they do everything possible to maximize their power based on what they can discern—namely, the military capabilities of potential rivals. This is what the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer calls “the tragedy of great power politics”—the never-ending quest among nations for protection through strength and the inevitable international jockeying fostered by that survival imperative.

Viewed in this light, America has no need to flagellate itself over how it leveraged its global dominance during the bipolar era of the Cold War. Yes, there was hypocrisy in a Hobbesian world; national interest always prevailed in a crunch over humanitarian sentiments; international law was trampled when necessary; it was messy in many ways; and resistance to American interests could be “devastating for many countries,” as Kinzer puts it. But the country maintained relative stability around the globe throughout most of that period while holding off an expansionist Soviet Russia, poised menacingly on Europe’s back porch with 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops. The Cold War victory was well earned. The American grand strategy was suitable for the times and the geopolitical circumstances—that’s why it worked.

But those geopolitical circumstances are fading now, and America faces a new world that it doesn’t want to accept. It’s a world far different from the Cold War era, when America’s share of global GDP reached a high of 50 percent and seldom slipped below 30 percent; when the U.S. Navy was impervious to challenge; when the U.S. could project power throughout most of the globe; and when balance-of-power imperatives were relatively simple.

Today it’s much more complex and, in some ways, more dangerous. It’s all about the hierarchy of power among nations. Stability will come through an equilibrium of power, and great nations should foster diplomatic actions designed to maintain a power balance in key strategic locations. This requires an understanding of and appreciation for the perceived strategic imperatives of other significant powers and how those can be leveraged against other, more troublesome regimes.

Credit Kinzer and Beinart with perceiving the hollowness of the rules-based concept and acknowledging that Biden’s entire foreign policy is based on a fallacy. His rules-based concept has spawned an approach to international relations that collides with the geopolitical realities of our time. The president is locked in the past. But he won’t get to the present, let alone the future, by turning to international law or worrying about hypocrisy in a Hobbesian world. What’s needed is an ability to view the global scene through the prism of cold reality.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).



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