America and the Rules-based orderRBO

A dangerous myth

Patrick Porter
Professor of International Security
& Strategy, University of Birmingham

“To balance China, or tackle climate change, [the United States] must accommodate inhumane partners.”

The rules-based order should hardly feature in US foreign policy, beyond minimal hypocritical gestures. The notion of a rules-based order — one where rules and liberal norms replace power politics as the determinant of behaviour, binding the superpower and everyone else — is part of America's repertoire. It is also impossible, ahistorical, and hubristic. It needs to be tempered by American realism.

We live in a harsh, treacherous, and conflicted world; a world of ultimate solitude. In such a world, great powers cannot consistently follow or enforce rules. Instead, they create order and preserve ascendancy by stretching or breaking rules, by turns indulging, ignoring, or punishing others' misdeeds, and practising dark compromise. They want rules for others, while conferring on themselves exemptions, in everything from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Without a supreme, enforcing umpire, rules are interpreted by the players — a creative and partisan affair.

Consider our mythologised order. In 1945, the moment of its creation under the banner of the United Nations (UN), America co-created institutions and laws, but also created order with atomic bombings, and legitimised Japan's new democracy by covering up Emperor Hirohito's complicity in war crimes. In Europe, the United States spirited Nazi war criminals, scientists, spies and military officers out of prosecution and into new employment in intelligence, missile programs, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) command. At the San Francisco summit that created the UN, US military intelligence intercepted international delegates' cables. Behind the show, the United States as the new hegemon took up ancient practices: overwhelming violence, surveillance, overseas domestic interference.

This is not in itself a criticism. Applied prudently, American compromise worked, always at a price. Its greatest achievements rested on the accommodation of rule-breaking, illiberal forces. President Richard Nixon's opening to China, expressed in the Shanghai Communiqué, and the increase of stability and overall reduction in brutal struggle in Asia, involved winking at Pakistan's genocide in Bangladesh — chronicled by former American diplomat Archer Blood. Containing communism in Asia involved tolerating protectionist states under martial law. Cooperation with Russia in the George W Bush era involved silence over the devastation of Chechnya. The Dayton Accords froze war in the Balkans while locking in ethnic divisions. For every Shanghai Communiqué there is a Blood Telegram.

As with all hegemons, America's statecraft went off the rails when it regarded itself as a far-sighted, unique leader, transforming the world in its image. In Russia, economic shock therapy helped immiserate the country, creating a sinister oligarchy. Triumphalist economic doctrines — with capital, markets, and plutocrats unfettered — created avoidable suffering and worldwide meltdown in the Global Financial Crisis. While working-class jobs were offshored, there arose a wealth-hoarding, under-taxed elite class, as revealed in the Panama Papers. Messianic visions of military power and regime change, and the underestimation of resistance, led to a bacchanal of waste and chaos. Abroad, freedom declined for consecutive years from 2006, according to Freedom House. Iraq imploded, terrorism got worse, drone attacks energised radicals and killed bystanders, and Libya hosted open-air slave markets. At home, policing was militarised while disillusioned veteran communities suffered high suicide rates and "despair deaths". The Economist downgraded the United States to "flawed democracy". America became war-prone, overstretched, and polarised. Yet, this is the order for which restorationists invite us to be nostalgic.

The choice is not between a restored order and Trumpian chaos. This obscures Washington's actual choices. To balance China, or tackle climate change, Washington must accommodate inhumane partners. To prevent the emergence of a larger, Sino–Russian adversary, it should broker a compromise-based coexistence with Russia. To reform capitalism, it should recognise that the economic order has changed before, and can change again. To end endless war in the Middle East, it must live with continuing disorder there. To stabilise nuclear relationships, it will need to curb its ambitions for regime change.

For the rules-based order is not a fact. It is a theology of restoration that frames foreign policy as a morality play. It craves "global leadership", but American supremacy after 1945 was the product of an atypical, impermanent power hierarchy, long gone. Presuming its good intentions are obvious, it loses sight of security dilemmas. For nervous adversaries, benign "global leadership" looks too much like a dangerous preponderance of power. But this theology cannot fathom resistance, and makes adjustment harder. Above all, in advancing "rules" as the organising idea, it presupposes the United States as a supreme rule-enforcer with a mandate from heaven or history. History is not kind to such conceits.

A world of harsh power politics is a grim prospect. It is also the only world in which we have ever lived. To survive in that world, America needs fewer high-minded manifestos, and more and cannier realpolitik.

Professor Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham; Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London; and Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump.