PEOPLE have laid down their lives for love, freedom, justice, the fatherland, and more. But nobody has ever died clutching the banner of the Rules-Based International Order (RBIO). It’s time to junk that cliche and replace it with something more fitting.
That’s not only because the term is an Orwellian linguistic atrocity with all the emotive oomph of a PowerPoint slide. It’s also a shibboleth that, when used by American diplomats in particular, makes US foreign policy look hypocritical, from the Middle East to Africa, Asia and beyond.
As a catchphrase, the RBIO has in recent years replaced the older and slightly different (but also woolly) notion of a “liberal international order.” It surged once the administration of President Joe Biden took over, intent on signaling a return to a more principled foreign policy than that of Donald Trump. Biden and his diplomats talk up the rules-based international order so much that Stephen Walt at the Harvard Kennedy School, a scholar in the hard-nosed “realist” tradition, has mocked the turn of phrase as a “job requirement.”
The world is skeptical about this American shtick, especially in Africa, Asia, and South America, where countries are feeling — and often resisting — pressure by Washington to align with the West against Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow, meanwhile, have an easy time skewering America’s double standards. Russian President Vladimir Putin tells audiences in the Global South that the RBIO is just a veneer for American exceptionalism, so that the US can arbitrarily make the “rules” it wants and then “order” everybody else around.
That’s rich, of course, coming from the man who invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine and ordered the slaughter of its civilians and the abduction of thousands of its children, prompting the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant to have him tried for war crimes. And yet the accusation of American hypocrisy resonates in many capitals.
Washington all too often invokes the RBIO only against foes, such as Russia, while exempting itself and its friends, notably Israel. At the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague (an organ of the United Nations unrelated to the ICC), South Africa has brought a case accusing Israel of genocide in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The judges have deemed the charges plausible enough to issue the equivalent of an injunction while they reach their verdict.
The Biden White House, by contrast, sees no need to await the judgment of a tribunal that, one would think, embodies the RBIO as much as any institution on earth. South Africa’s case is “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever,” said a spokesman for the president’s National Security Council.
This points to the underlying problem. John Dugard, a South African professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a former judge on the ICJ, argues that the US pushes its RBIO so hard precisely because it wants to avoid unreservedly endorsing, and obeying, an older, simpler and clearer idea: that of international law.
That standard, which is universal rather than subjective like the RBIO, would be awkward for Washington. International law is based in part on multilateral treaties, many of which the US helped write. And yet America refuses to sign on to quite a number of them, including the Conventions on Cluster Munitions, on the Rights of the Child, and on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute that created the ICC, and more.
So, Washington can’t exactly make a legal case when scolding China, say, for bullying the Philippines in the South China Sea, since the US isn’t itself a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It can’t credibly join the ICC in accusing Putin of war crimes because it doesn’t recognize that court — and in fact sanctioned the ICC’s prosecutors when they looked into allegations of crimes by American soldiers in Afghanistan.
That’s why the Biden administration prefers the RBIO to international law, Dugard thinks. The RBIO doesn’t actually define rules as lawyers would. It has no tribunals or procedures for dispute settlement. Nor does it care whether countries opt in or out. Instead, the rules-based international order is malleable enough to hint at the existence of standards while allowing the US to assert its own national interests.
Defining national interests is a legitimate goal of foreign policy, and the US shouldn’t feel shy about using its prodigious (if declining) might to pursue them. That’s called realism in international relations. But as the tragedies of the previous century’s world wars and holocausts showed, it also behooves nations to temper power — their own and that of others — with norms and law. That’s called idealism. In the past eight decades, the US has been at its best whenever it spliced these two strands in its foreign policy, for its own good and that of the world.
My advice to Biden and other Western leaders is to send out a staff memo: Drop the rules-based international order in all speechifying, and instead pledge fealty to international law. Then hold Russia, China, and Iran accountable to that standard — but also Israel and, yes, even the US when necessary.
This shift won’t always be convenient for Washington, but it will improve its relations with the world, which will be better off as a result — more prosperous, free, and peaceful. Compared to that yucky-sounding rules-based international order, the new pitch could also have a catchier and more authentic ring. After all, what could be more American than law and order?