The Rules-based International Order

May 10, 2021

The “rules-based international order” is now a recurrent theme in policy statements by senior officials of the Biden administration.

Secretary Blinken, meeting with his Chinese counterparts in Anchorage on March 18, 2021, started the talks by saying that the rules-based international order is not an abstraction; that it helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively, and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules; that the alternative to a rules-based order would be a far more violent and unstable world for everyone.

In recent interviews in London and Kyiv, he said “… we are determined to uphold the so-called rules-based international order that we’ve invested so much in over so many decades and that has been good for us and good for the world, and I think even good for China.” 

For Secretary Blinken, his use of the adjective “so-called” could only mean “commonly named”, and not “falsely or improperly so named” as Merriam-Webster defines the two meanings of the word. But others seem to prefer the latter.

The phrase “rules-based international order” has also been mentioned in G7 communiques since Russia’s suspension from G8 following the annexation of Crimea.

For example, G7 Foreign Ministers’ Saint Malo Communiqué of April 6, 2019 says, “The G7 is united by its shared values and commitment to a rules-based international order. That order is being challenged by authoritarianism, rising inequalities, serious violations of human rights, restrictions on media freedom, and other continued violations of international law and norms. We are convinced that our societies and the world have reaped remarkable benefits from a global order based on rules and underscore that this system must have at its heart the principles of inclusion, democracy and respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, diversity, and the rule of law.”

Last Wednesday’s G7 Foreign and Development Ministers’ communiqué also reiterated the commitment to strengthening open societies, shared values, and the rules-based international order. Moreover, the communiqué strongly criticized Russia and China for their violations of the rules-based international order.

The question is, “what is the rules-based international order?”

The phrase, according to the West, is the body of rules, norms, and institutions that govern relations. Among those are treaties, international law, formal structures and institutions and values that have developed around and through these such as support and promotion of democracy, equality, and human rights.[i]

The problem is, the US and its Western allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other have different perceptions of the international order. While Russia and China put the emphasis on international law and the UN Charter, the US and its Western allies favor an expanded set of rules.

In a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) paper of April 2019 titled “Which Rules? Why There is No Single ‘Rules-Based International System’”, Professor Malcolm Chalmers says,

“In recent years, however, a rightful acknowledgement of the importance of rules has too easily been inflated into the shorthand assumptions that there is a single, universally acknowledged rules-based international system, that the world is now divided between those who obey the rules (ourselves) and those who do not (the others), and that all that is now required for international peace and stability is for everyone (now including President Trump) to return to compliance with the System.

“This obscures the reality of how today’s rules-based systems have developed and are sustained. International rules evolve, and sometimes dissolve, in response to the decisions of their participating states, and particularly those of their most powerful states. The best rules-based systems add predictability to relations between states, reducing transaction costs and serving the mutual interests of their members. But rules, per se, do not have a positive quality. Rather, their worth depends on the extent to which they serve the interests and values of the states which sustain them…” [ii]

In an analytical paper titled “China Wants a ‘Rules-Based International Order,’ Too”, Professor Stephen M. Walt says,

“But the distinction between the United States’ supposed commitment to a system of rules and China’s alleged lack thereof is misleading in at least three ways. First, it overlooks the United States’ own willingness to ignore, evade, or rewrite the rules whenever they seem inconvenient. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that Washington sometimes thinks it is perfectly okay for might to make right and for winners to take all. The collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States took full advantage of a weakened post-Soviet Russia, is a perfect example.”[iii]

Last week’s “Virtual UN Security Council Open Debate on Multilateralism” revealed once again the differences over the definition of “the rules-based international order”.

During the debate, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the UN “the banner of multilateralism”. He said, “To pursue multilateralism, we must follow the basic norms governing international relations built around the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, uphold the authority and stature of the UN, and ensure its central role in international affairs.”

He called for engagement in win-win cooperation, not zero-sum games. He said what is needed is dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect among all countries, not bullying or hegemony. He put the emphasis on a “law-based international order” and did not even use the phrase “rule-based international order”. He said, “International rules must be based on international law, and must be written by all. They are not a patent or a privilege of a few. They must be applicable to all countries, and there should be no room for exceptionalism or double standards.” Although he did not name any country specifically, it was obvious who he had in mind in the context of exceptionalism.

In response to Western emphasis on democracy as a tenet of the “rules-based international order”, he said every country has its unique history and culture and needs to take a path of development suited to its own realities.

Again, without naming the US, he said that sanctions and other enforcement measures should be used only after all other non-enforcement means are exhausted and for the purpose of seeking political settlement. “All unilateral moves that circumvent the Security Council are illegitimate and must be abandoned,” he continued.[iv]

Secretary Blinken firstly underlined respect for international commitments, particularly the legally binding ones such as the UN Charter, treaties and conventions, UN Security Council resolutions, international humanitarian law, and the rules and standards agreed to under the auspices of the World Trade Organization and numerous international standard-setting organizations.

Secondly, he said that human rights and dignity must stay at the core of the international order.  He referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without explicitly mentioning the plight of China’s Uyghurs, he said “asserting domestic jurisdiction doesn’t give any state a blank check to enslave, torture, disappear, ethnically cleanse their people, or violate their human rights in any other way.”

And thirdly, he emphasized that the UN is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of its member-states. Again, without making a specific reference either to Russia’s annexation of Crimea or Chinese policies in the South China Sea he said, “A state does not respect that principle when it purports to redraw the borders of another; or seeks to resolve territorial disputes by using or threatening force; or when a state claims it’s entitled to a sphere of influence to dictate or coerce the choices and decisions of another country.” 

He also admitted that “some of our actions in recent years have undermined the rules-based order and led others to question whether we are still committed to it.  Rather than take our word for it, we ask the world to judge our commitment by our actions.”[v] 

Secretary Blinken’s admission is a step forward and follows the example of President Obama’s gesture of conciliation to Iran when he admitted, in his famous Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, US involvement in the 1953 coup which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov vented his pent-up frustration with Washington. Like Mr. Wang Yi, he also underlined the importance of universally recognized norms of international law and the role of the United Nations as the key platform, the backbone of the modern global order, where all independent states are represented.

He said, “Unfortunately, not all of our partners are driven by the imperative to work in good faith to promote comprehensive multilateral cooperation. Realizing that it is impossible to impose their unilateral or bloc priorities on other states within the framework of the UN, the leading Western countries have tried to reverse the process of forming a polycentric world and slow down the course of history… The West’s goal is to oppose the collective efforts of all members of the world community with other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive formats, and then imposed on everyone else. We only see harm in such actions that bypass the UN and seek to usurp the only decision-making process that can claim global relevance.” In this connection, he mentioned Washington’s plans for a “Summit for Democracy” and the “French and German idea to create an Alliance for Multilateralism”.

He rejected what he called Western leaders’ allegations that Russia and China are trying to “change the rules-based order”. He said the “rules-based order” is being advanced as a substitute for international law. [vi]

So now, it is “rules-based international order” versus “law-based order”.

Hopefully someday, respect for human rights, freedom of speech, rule of law would also become unchallenged tenets of a “rules-based international order”. At present, even a renewed commitment to multilateralism and a “law-based order” by the three major powers, as enshrined in the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, would be step forward.









About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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