America is breaking global rules by defending the free world

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As an organizing principle of Western foreign policy, the “rules-based international order” has long suffered from disastrous flaws. This is a phrase that means nothing to a normal person. As a result, it is a deeply uninspiring concept. People might go to war to defend freedom or the homeland. No one is going to fight and die for the RBIO.

Nonetheless, senior Western politicians appear to be enamored with the concept. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, likes to appeal to the rules-based international order during his visit to China. Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, has placed the RBIO at the center of British foreign policy. His likely successor, Sir Keir Starmer, a former lawyer, will be just as attached to this idea.

In opposing Russian aggression, Blinken argues that the United States is defending a world based on rules rather than raw power. It’s an attractive idea. But the rules are supposed to be consistent. And U.S. actions themselves undermine vital elements of the rules-based order.

These last two weeks have brutally exposed these contradictions. The Biden administration’s 100% tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles are virtually impossible to reconcile with international trade rules. As an article from the Bruegel think tank puts it: “Customs tariffs. . . quash any notion that the United States intends to play by World Trade Organization rules.

The American reaction to the prospect of the International Criminal Court bringing war crimes charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, is also telling. Rather than supporting the court’s efforts to uphold international law, Blinken told the US Congress that the administration would consider imposing sanctions on the ICC.

Of course, the United States can deploy arguments to justify these measures. It is possible to argue that the ICC has exceeded its jurisdiction or wrongly intervened in an ongoing conflict. The United States also insists that China has been breaking international trade rules for decades.

But as they say, in politics, when you explain, you lose. In many parts of the world, America’s claim to uphold a rules-based international order is treated with derision. So what can be saved from this mess? One answer would be for Blinken and his colleagues to talk less about the rules-based international order and more about defending the free world. This is a more accurate and understandable description of what Western foreign policy really is.

The US, EU, UK and other democracies like Japan, South Korea and Ukraine are currently struggling to contain the territorial and political ambitions of authoritarian countries – particularly China and Russia. A world in which these countries are more powerful will be less secure for free people and countries.

Unlike the defense of a rules-based order – which implies absolute consistency – the defense of the free world involves the acceptance of some necessary inconsistency. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies entered into tactical alliances with undemocratic regimes, as part of a broader effort to contain and ultimately defeat the Soviet Union.

In today’s world, the United States is once again making uncomfortable compromises as part of a larger struggle with authoritarian great powers. US tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles make little sense in defending the rules-based order. They make much more sense when viewed as an effort to prevent China from dominating the industries of the future.

As it seeks to fight China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States rightly accuses Beijing of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The problem is that the United States they themselves have not ratified this particular convention. So why not accept that America’s primary motivation is not to uphold international law per se, but rather to prevent a crucial trade route from falling under the domination of an authoritarian power?

And what about Israel? Much of what Biden does can be explained by domestic politics. But his instinct to defend Democratic allies also underlies his unwavering support for Israel. America’s refusal to entertain the notion that Netanyahu may have committed war crimes in Gaza is discreditable. But it is easier to understand America’s discomfort with a process that sees the Middle East’s only democracy put in the dock, while Syrian and Iranian leaders escape prosecution for their crimes.

Calming the discourse on the rules-based international order should not mean abandoning international law altogether. This would be a recipe for global anarchy. It would also be unwise and impractical. There are many international laws and finding yourself on the wrong side can be very disadvantageous. Vladimir Putin – and perhaps soon Netanyahu – will find that their travel plans are severely limited by ICC arrest warrants.

Russia and China always claim that their actions are consistent with international law – even when they clearly are not. The United States will sometimes have to do the same thing. International law is part of the emerging struggle between democratic and authoritarian powers.

This does not mean that the two camps are on the same moral level. As during the Cold War and the struggles of the early 20th century, the world’s democracies need not apologize for ruthlessly defending free societies.

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