The 'rules-based international order' is a myth
American foreign policy elites and their counterparts in allied countries, especially in Europe, repeatedly instruct us that diplomatic and military power should be used to "uphold" the "rules-based international order," which has been defined as "a shared commitment to conduct international affairs in accordance with laws, principles and practices embodied in institutions such as the United Nations, regional security arrangements, trade agreements and multilateral financial institutions."
The Biden administration's foreign policy seems wedded to defending such an order (secretary of state Antony Blinken mentions it quite frequently in his speeches, and State Department officials often refer to it in press briefings), but as Jacob Grygiel has pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the "rules-based international order" is a myth.
"An Earth-spanning security space governed by global rules or a few key powers," Grygiel writes, "doesn't exist." "There is also no 'global threat' facing all states equally," he continues. International relations and the foreign policies of states remain subject to varying regional political equilibriums and the global balance of power. Regional and global stability, however temporary, is the best outcome possible in a world of anarchic nation-states — which is still the world in which we live.
And it's a good thing that a "rules-based international order" does not exist because the nature of such an order depends on the nature of the powers that oversee that order. We can be certain that a Chinese-led "rules-based international order" would be very different from the current U.S.-led world order — just ask the Tibetans, or the Uyghurs, or the citizens of Hong Kong.
Those foreign policy elites who promote a "rules-based international order" consider themselves citizens of the world and govern that way. To them, "nationalism" is dangerous, "climate change" is the existential threat we face, disarmament is always good, sovereignty is old-fashioned, open borders are imperative, all problems are best solved multilaterally, and "America First" is parochial — and, well, deplorable.
But, as the late, great Angelo Codevilla pointed out in his last book, America's Rise and Fall among Nations, except for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, every president since Theodore Roosevelt has either promoted or succumbed to the notion of a "rules-based international order," and American foreign policy has suffered as a result.
That is why we haven't won a major war since World War II, and lost wars in Southeast Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That is why George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton talked about a "peace dividend" as they scaled back our nuclear arsenal. That is why when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, President Obama and secretary of state Kerry were "shocked" that Putin would act like a 19th-century power. That is why every post–Cold War president, including Trump, expanded NATO mindlessly despite repeated Russian protests. And it is why we are about to expand NATO again and become more deeply involved in a regional war in Eastern Europe that at its origin impacted no vital national security interest of the United States.
It used to be the case that American blood would be shed and America's treasure would be expended when the nation's vital interests were at stake. George Washington wisely advised us to refrain from forming sentimental attachments to any other nation. Secretary of state John Quincy Adams warned us against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Yet, very soon, this administration will pledge the blood of America's sons and daughters and the treasure of America's citizens to defend the independence of Finland and Sweden, just as past administrations have pledged America's blood and treasure to defend the independence of Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and 23 other nations in Europe.
And now we may fight for an abstraction, a myth — the "rules-based international order." If the Russia-Ukraine war escalates to a Russia-NATO/Ukraine war, who wants to be the person to tell a father or mother of a dead American soldier, sailor, or airman that his loved one died to "uphold the rules-based international order"?
Image via Max Pixel.