By Richard Falk
Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has made U.S. adherence to a ‘rules-based-international-order’ the core of American foreign policy. It is being used as a sword against China, Russia, and some other countries that have antagonized Washington for a variety of reasons. It seems to be an aspect of what Biden must have in mind when he speaks about ‘building back better.’ Of course, part of this new wave of American ‘liberal internationalism’ is to get out from under the dark legacy of chauvinistic nationalism and transactional relations with foreign governments that Trump presidency left behind.
Biden wants in contrast to reaffirm U.S. claims to be a benevolent global leader almost as if he is living in the years after World War II. Trump was as confrontational toward China as Biden/Blinken but he validated his hostile and bombastic diplomacy by exclusive efforts to advance the U.S. policy agenda of self-serving national interests. Implicitly, he was telling American Cold War allies including the European democracies that they would have to pay their fair share if they wanted the American NATO alliance to continue providing for their security. The Biden approach seems willing to buy back global leadership by investing whatever it costs to maintain the American global security system of 800 based around the world, navies in all oceans, and an edge in the distinctive weaponry resulting from innovations in cyber technology, robotics, and AI.
There is some foreign policy overlap between two presidencies; Biden like Trump has conceded that regime-changing interventions and prolonged occupation of a hostile society in the global South has compiled a record of costly failures. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in a few months, overriding Pentagon warnings, was a sign that there would be fewer ‘forever wars’ in the next few years. A second convergence with the Trumpism is to maintain an inflated military budget and to push foreign arms sales, thus ensuring retaining the dubious distinction of being by far the world’s leading annual spender on military preparedness and the dominant player in the lucrative global market place for weaponry.
Where Biden/Blinken diverges most strikingly from Trump/Pompeo is with respect to ideological and normative claims, relating to solidarity with democracies and a robust commitment to human rights. Even before Biden moved into the White House he made clear that his primary motivation in foreign policy would be to lead the democratically oriented governments in an ideological against the autocrats of the world, a division that promised to be divisive and to risk the second coming of the Cold War division of the world into friends and enemies. Worse than the rivalry with the Soviets, this new conflict patterning risks hot wars and diverts resources and energies at a time when other urgent needs, above all, climate change, deserve to be the focus of security concerns. In this important sense, Biden is living dangerously in a long gone past.
Furthermore, when the signifiers of democracy and human rights are examined critically, it turns out that in practice they are more about hostile propaganda than expressive of coherent commitments to democratic forms of governance or respect for human rights. The distinguishing criterion of diplomatic affinity for Biden is the willingness to be a compliant alliance partner, nothing more, nothing less.
In light of this what are we to make of this diplomatic language that sounds so idealistic? If it is carefully considered even from a sympathetic perspective, it is nothing more than a way of calling attention to normative bipolarity. It draws an imaginary line between democrats and autocrats, with the U.S. and its NATO allies leading the democracies and China and Russia leading the autocracies. In existential terms there are some full-fledged autocrats that are welcomed into the democratic tent despite their autocratic resume—for instance, Modi, Mohammed bin Salmon, Sisi, Bolsonaro, and for that matter Netanyahu.
When Israel flagrantly defied the rule of law in its recent military operation against Gaza the United States used its leverage to block calls for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council and blandly told the world that Israel ‘had the right to defend itself’ overlooking its provocative acts (evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, right-wing settlers marches protect by Israeli police shouting ‘Death to the Arabs,’ and interference with al-Aqsa worshipers at the height of Ramadan), which seemed intended to incite Hamas to attack with its primitive rockets, which would provide Israel with just enough legal cover to launch a massive military operation that caused 20 times the number of civilian deaths in Gaza than were Israelis killed by the Hamas rockets.. It has credibly conjectured that the domestically embattled Netanyahu sought the crisis with the Palestinians as a way to remain in power as the Israeli public has always backed the leadership if Israel was military engaged.
Living in a ‘Rule-Governed International Order’?
Against this background, one would have expected Biden and Blinken at least to couple their enthusiasm for alliance diplomacy with language that indicated respect for international law and support for a stronger United Nations. This is such an obvious oversight that it must be assumed to be deliberate. And it leads us to wonder further what sort of alternative ‘rules-governed international order’ was being put forward. One hypothesis is that Blinken was guilty of a repeated slip of the tongue, and what was intended all along was ‘a ruler governed world’ by ‘guess who?’Diplomatic practice in this early period of the Biden diplomacy makes this reformulation more than a semantic joke.
When it comes to China or Belarus their behavior justifies an opportunistic sounding the alarm due to their alleged failures to abide by the rules of international law. True, China declared an adverse judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration a few years with respect to its island resource disputes with the Philippines in the South China Seas. Rather than making China an outlier, such a show of contempt for the decision of an international tribunal makes it seem like it has learned to behave like other members of the geopolitical club. The United States recently flaunted international institutions when it officially repudiated a decision by the International Criminal Court that claimed the legal authority to investigate well-evidenced allegations of U.S. international crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. The reason to emphasize inconsistency in the Blinken claim that they play is to show that the commitment to a rule-based international order is based on moral hypocrisy, and should be perceived for what it is, hostile propaganda.
This pattern of seeing with one eye is even more blatant when it comes to human rights—when the silences scream and the screams are contrived to mobilize hostility. Do we hear from Washington about Duterte’s gangster tactics of governance in the Philippines or the denial of rights to Muslims in India, especially Kashmir? In contrast, the far lesser grievances of the populations of Hong Kong or Tibet become a major concern of Washington and the treatments of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang are inflammatorily portrayed as ‘genocide.’
The compliant Western mainstream media dutifully followed the unwritten guidelines as to erasures and trumpets, while Pentagon planners and think tank militarists urge Congress to increase arms expenditures, and seem to relish prospects of a confrontation in the waters surrounding the Chinese mainland, especially highlighting Chinese threats to the security of Taiwan and U.S. resolve to engage militarily in response. This war-mongering ethos is evident in the call for weapons rather than a plea for avoiding incidents that could lead to uses of force by establishing joint crisis management schemes.
This emphasis on a ‘rules-governed’ world implicitly makes the polemical claim that the United States plays by the rules whereas our adversaries do not. But what can this mean? The United States has projected more deadly force outside its borders than has any state in the course of the last 75 years. It has also intervened repeatedly over the years in disrupting democracies and using its geopolitical prerogatives to block and sanction democratic forms of governance if they refuse U.S. tutelage or display proclivities that can be castigated as ‘socialist.’ The Snowden revelations suggest that the United States has invested more heavily than any government on the planet in developing intrusive surveillance capabilities. The U.S. record of manipulating foreign elections is notorious, and has long been a well-known part of the CIA’s portfolio.
Several conclusions emerge:
- Blinken’s stress on the virtues of a rules-governed world should not be confused with making a U.S. commitment to conduct its foreign policy in accord with international law:
- When this rule-governed language is used to criticize the behavior of others, the misleading claim is implied that the U.S. plays by the rules, but its adversaries don’t;
- Blinken should be pressed to clarify the concept and to explain why he refrains from references to international law and the UN Charter when describing U.S. foreign policy;
- It should be emphasized by foreign diplomats and international jurists that the only legitimate rules-governed international order is international law, even when critical account is taken of its hegemonic record and its selective enforcement. And more progressive civil society initiatives should use international law, where possible, as a counter-hegemonic tool on behalf of global justice.
*Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)