America and the Rules-based orderRBO

Use Trump’s leverage

Danielle Pletka
Senior Fellow
American Enterprise Institute

“When the rules are being abused to advance principles antithetical to our own…then the rules are not really rules anymore.”

The challenge in answering any question about the rules-based order is almost biblical in nature. The "rules", such as they are, can be adapted to accommodate all but the most blatant of violations. Even among the democratic authors of the rules-based order, the interpretation of those rules is highly political. As a result, many have many have labelled the Trump administration — scourge of the political establishment — as a violator of that order. Evidence is irrelevant.

Nonetheless, the pious among us have welcomed a Biden "return" to that "order". What will that mean? Rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO), notwithstanding its manifest failures in the last year? Rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), notwithstanding the presence of some of the world's worst human rights violators among its leadership? Rejoining the Paris climate agreement, notwithstanding its unrealistic goals and false premises? Mouthing support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while tolerating disinvestment in that vital treaty by the majority of members and hostile behaviour by "ally" Turkey?

A "restoration" of the "rules-based order" ultimately will have very little to do with Donald Trump’s departure and much more to do with the willingness of its adherents to stand up to the most problematic players on the global stage — China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Their predations have chewed away at the post-Second World War, post-Cold War order in ways that many are only beginning to appreciate.

Ideally, the American role on that stage should remain as it has been — to uphold the peace of the global commons, to make the world safer for the ideals of democratic capitalism that have brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to billions of people, and to work closely with its allies to address shared challenges. But the consensus in the United States on that role has eroded sharply in the last 12 years, and will likely continue to erode in the Biden administration. In 2016, both presidential candidates opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement; likewise the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. Both ran on commitments to turn away from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to remain on the sidelines in Syria. The 2020 race was little different in terms of concrete action around the world, although Joe Biden pledged to continue the Trump administration's welcome decision to call out Beijing on its increasingly aggressive posture, as well as its growing manipulation of the rules of economic engagement.

In many ways, Trump has bequeathed a huge amount of leverage to the Biden administration, whose main priority should be to use that leverage to best advantage. Rather than blindly re-embracing that which Trump abandoned (often rudely, but for sensible reasons), the new president should use the US return to the establishment-approved road to negotiate improvements, whether at NATO, the United Nations (UN), or in the myriad global talk shops so beloved by the Democratic Party. Similarly, Biden should walk cautiously back towards dealing with Iran, using the sanctions regime currently in place to extract vital changes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran deal inked by Biden's former boss.

Most importantly, the United States must more artfully coalesce its allies around a China policy that contains and begins to reverse the economic and strategic threats that an aggressive and dangerous Xi Jinping poses to us all. These are shared problems, whether in Chinese domination of 5G, territorial claims in the South China Sea, the grotesque attack on the Uyghurs, crackdowns in Hong Kong, or efforts to intimidate Australia and Taiwan. Might that require some "rule-breaking"? Maybe. When the rules are being abused to advance principles antithetical to our own — when North Korea and Iran, for example, use the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to build their nuclear arsenal, and when China uses the World Trade Organization (WTO) to advance a predatory economic program — then the rules are not really rules anymore.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow in foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on US foreign policy generally, and the Middle East specifically. Until January 2020, Ms Pletka was the senior vice president of foreign and defence policy studies at AEI. Concurrently, she teaches US Middle East policy at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is also the co-host, with AEI's Marc Thiessen, of the podcast, What the Hell Is Going On?