Talk of a 'rules-based international order' seems to ring hollow

The tragic death toll of innocents in Gaza – asnd also in Israel – justly occupies the world’s attention, and led to an extraordinary virtual meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation’s foreign ministers on Sunday. With a membership of 57 states and representing nearly 2 billion people, the OIC sees itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world” and as such issued an appropriately hard resolution after the meeting.

It condemned “in the strongest terms the barbaric attacks launched by Israel, the occupying authority, against the Palestinian people and their land and holy sites” and demanded the “complete and immediate stop of these attacks that have affected innocent civilians and their properties, in gross violation of international law and United Nations resolutions on the question of Palestine”.

The same day UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that “the fighting must stop immediately”. Just as with the Association of South-East Asian Nations’ recent meeting on Myanmar, however, there is a question mark about what actions will follow words, welcome as they may be.

All three organisations – the OIC, the UN and Asean – are very worthwhile endeavours with considerable achievements to their names. But these have been principally as a result of their great convening powers, and lie more in the fields of community- and consensus-building and co-operation than in confrontation.

We know this. At the same time, however, the loss of life, of children in particular, is so egregious and one-sided that there is near unanimity that the horrors must be stopped. The Biden administration’s block on a Security Council statement calling for de-escalation and condemning Israel’s evicting Palestinian families in East Jerusalem appeared to be seriously out of step not only with global opinion but with members of his own party.

Great powers will act, as they always have, as though they have the right to bend or break these norms occasionally

“The US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire,” tweeted Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”

It is not just the current White House and its much-vaunted stance on “values”. The credibility of these international bodies in general is on the line. As is the whole notion of “the rules-based international order”. For what does this “order” mean if it has no power to stop Myanmar’s military junta killing civilians, on top of the ethnic cleansing it had already perpetrated on the Rohingya? What are those “rules” and to whom do they apply if the Israeli authorities can get away with committing what many, including the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, consider to be war crimes in Gaza?

Some argue that the “rules-based international order”, a term much usedby the Biden administration but also by US allies in Europe and Australia, not only does not exist, but that it shouldn’t. Prof Patrick Porter, author of The False Promise of Liberal Order, wrote that: “If faithfully observed, the idea that the world should revolve strictly around laws and their enforcement would quickly destroy a country’s ability to have a foreign policy.” He spoke of the time Amnesty International demanded the Canadian government arrest former US president George W Bush, while he was on a visit, for his part in torture.He spoke of the time Amnesty International demanded the Canadian government arrest former US president George W Bush, while he was on a visit, for his part in torture. “Canada, surprisingly, resisted the temptation, deciding that it had other interests at stake in its relationship with a neighbouring superpower – such as survival.”

You don’t have to go as far as Mr Porter to have sympathy for the view that the US has set the “rules” and then “ordered” everyone else to obey them – while granting itself dispensation to flout them whenever it wants. Thus Russia is condemned for its annexation of Crimea and China for its actions in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, but America’s long history of supporting coups against democratically elected leaders is fine, as is the open hypocrisy of insisting China adhere to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea even though the US has never signed up to it.

Harvard’s Stephen Walt recently suggested that there is an international order – we are evidently not in a state of global anarchy and chaos – but “the issue is not the United States’ preference for a ‘rules-based’ order and China’s alleged lack of interest in it; rather, the issue is who will determine which rules pertain where.”

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 11: Protesters demanding an end to Israeli aggression against Palestine march in the street in Midtown Manhattan on May 11, 2021 in New York City. Recent violence between the Israeli military and Palestinians in Jerusalem has left dozens dead as activists around the world denounce attacks on the city's Al-Aqsa Mosque. Scott Heins/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
Protesters demanding an end to Israeli aggression against Palestine march in the street in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. AFP

Either way, just about everyone would surely agree that we need some international norms, either codified legally or backed by sufficient agreement to have the force of law. Geo-political realists would also accept that great powers will act, as they always have, as though they have the right to bend or break these norms from time to time, especially in what hegemons regard as their “near abroad” or “sphere of influence”.

But Israel and Myanmar are middle powers, not great ones, and yet their current leaders act as if their bluffs will never be called. They seem to have few inhibitions about contravening the “rules” of the “international order”. In the case of Myanmar, the armed forces constitute so extensive a military-industrial-commercial complex that they probably could withstand reverting to isolation. On the other hand, while the OIC cannot realistically be expected to do too much against Israel, the pressure that the country's greatest ally and supporter, America, could exert is considerable.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows no sign of relenting, though, announcing on Sunday the bombing of Gaza would continue at “full force”. Doubtless we will hear of other heart-rending stories such as the eight young Palestinian cousins killed at the weekend, a father losing his wife and four of his five children as a result. Israelis who want peace and security will suffer too.

So while all this is going on, let us hear no more hollow words about the “rules-based international order”. It either does not exist, or it is a piece of sanctimony enforced so grotesquely unequally that it belongs on the dustheap of values, not falsely promoted as a universal panacea for peace, justice, freedom, fairness and good governance.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National

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Updated: May 19, 2021 11:04 AM

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