The Guardian • Issue #2047


Rules-based international order: Whose rules?

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2047

Having rules and keeping them sounds like a good thing. Rules keep our roads safe. All our sports have rules. Rules mean other people don’t just do what they like when they like. So if rules are usually good, a rules-based international order should be good too. As with all other kinds of rules, the questions to ask before we accept the rules are: Whose rules is the order based on? Who enforces the rules? How are the rules enforced?

You’re not going to win any prizes for guessing that international rules serve the interests of the USA. It’s our planet’s main superpower despite having less than five percent of the world’s population. The US has the world’s largest economy, spends more on its military than the next four countries, and through its transnational corporations, has business interests and employees almost everywhere.

It has 800 military bases in 80 countries. Through one-sided sanctions, it can punish other countries from doing business in ways it doesn’t like – for example if Australian companies decide to trade with Cuba, the supposedly free-market loving US will come down upon them like a sack full of hammers, in support of their 63-years-and-counting blockade.

With all this power, you might wonder why the US bothers supporting any kind of rules other than “do what we like.” Well, its power is not infinite – just ask the Vietnamese. The US uses the “rules-based order” to extend its power, and to lean on and bully other countries to cooperate where it would be a hassle to force them to do it.

There are carrots as well as sticks, in terms of access to US markets (some readers may remember when John Howard accepted some concessions on wheat imports in return for Australia’s full support of the disastrous and criminal Gulf War in 2003).

Countries that do the United States’ bidding dress the subservience as an “alliance,” and claim it’s something we choose. Of course, Australians never ever get to vote on this. We get to choose between the two major parties that both think the “alliance” is a fact of nature.

The rules-based order is rationalised as a good trade-off, cooperation with the US in return for peace and security. Right-wing Lowy Institute writes that the Rules-Based International Order is “often credited with having delivered 70 years of peace and security,” providing we’re willing to overlook Vietnam (where the US dropped more bombs than had been dropped in all of WW2 in a single year). Or Korea. Or Afghanistan. Or … you get the picture.

The Rules-Based International Order has been in the press lately because it’s threatened. Apparently China is threatening the Order by being an “indispensable nation” but hostile to “liberal values.” These are the values that are important to the United States except when they aren’t. China is a direct challenge to the so-called order because it provides a living alternative to the profit-based system of capitalism.

President Xi Jinping recently said: “We should work together to reform and develop the global governance system and make the international order more just and equitable as we advance humanity’s modernisation in an environment of equal rights, equal opportunities, and fair rules for all.”

There’s nothing there that an Australian politician couldn’t comfortably say. The difference is in actions. Australia is about to spend millions on making runways modified for American B-52 bombers, and billions on buying nuclear-powered submarines from them.

The Peoples Republic of China, on the other hand, acts in the interests of the Chinese people. No wonder the US thinks it’s out of order.

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