Follow the rules! That’s all President Biden asks of the world. Over and over during their first months in office, Biden and his senior aides have blamed global turmoil on the refusal of other countries to follow rules. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said America’s main job in the world is “to meet the challenges that most credibly undermine our international rules-based order.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that the United States promotes “the rules-based order that maintains global stability” and will insist that other countries accept it.
A world system run according to fixed rules would be good for almost everyone. It would be like a sports event: An impartial referee makes final decisions and everyone obeys. The United States claims to be that impartial referee. In the real world of geopolitics and national interests, however, there is no such thing.
The ancient Roman poet Juvenal posed an essential question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Who polices the police? Today Juvenal would ask: Who shapes that “rules-based order”? Who makes the rules? Who decides when the rules have been violated? Who decrees the punishment? Who administers it?
For years the answer was obvious: America. During the half-century that followed World War II, most non-Communist countries recognized our dominance, even if they did not approve. 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.
In the multipolar world of today and tomorrow, though, rules will be widely observed only if a large group of nations shapes them. Some hoped the United Nations would play this role, but it has little real authority and its scope is often limited by vetoes cast by the big powers. So the United States has proclaimed that we and our partners will make rules — only to find that the rest of the world isn’t always going to obey.
“From Russia’s standpoint, the idea of ‘rules-based world order’ which is promoted by the Western colleagues, has nothing to do with the law or universal moral,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tweeted. China’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it could never accept made-in-Washington rules because the United States “severely violates basic norms governing international relations.”
The American-run system helped prevent nuclear conflict between superpowers. Yet that “rules-based” Cold War order was devastating for many countries whose people had no say in making the rules. American leaders took it upon themselves to decide which governments were rule-breakers. One of the basic rules was protection of American investment abroad. Enforcing it meant attacking various elected governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In some cases, we meted out punishments that plunged nations into war or tyranny. We acted to enforce rules that we alone set.
What, then, does the term “rules-based order” really mean? According to a scholarly definition presented by the United Nations Association of Australia, it is “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time.” President Biden sees it as a code aimed at “upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” He has also reasserted the right of the United States and its partners to make the rules, determine which countries break them, and “impose consequences on those responsible.”
Many countries naturally see this assertion as a threat to their sovereignty. They also sense that the United States is not the honest broker it claims to be and does not enforce the rules fairly. When China brutally represses its Muslim minority, for example, we call it genocide. When India does so, India’s leader gets to chat happily with Biden and then tweet: “President Joe Biden and I are committed to a rules-based international order.”
Few recent events have led more people around the world to howl at American double standards than the Israeli bombing of civilian targets in Gaza. Most of the world’s governments are appalled, but the United States refused to join the condemnation and even worked to prevent swift action at the United Nations. By our rules, Israel’s behavior is acceptable. Not many other countries agree with those rules.
The widespread outrage over Israel’s attack might be seen as support for a genuine “rules-based order.” Yet some of the most outraged world leaders are themselves reckless rule-breakers. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey said Israel’s bombing campaign violated “fundamental human rights, international law, and all human values.” That is rich indeed coming from a leader who is waging a scorched-earth campaign against political opposition in his own country and has sent troops to seize and occupy a swath of Syria. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister condemned Israel for “flagrant violations” of human rights — this from a country whose leader ordered a prominent dissident murdered and dismembered in a consulate and who is using his air force to wage a savage war against Yemen.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia claim to support a “rules-based order,” but in fact they cynically bend rules to suit their own interests. News flash: So do most other countries. In our Hobbesian world, making and enforcing rules is often an exercise in hypocrisy. Rules are essential to prevent chaos, but the United States alone cannot impose them. If we continue trying, the phrase “rules-based order” will become as empty as “maximum pressure,” “global war on terror,” and “mission accomplished.” All embody made-in-Washington fantasies that collapsed in the face of onrushing reality.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.