There is much bleating in Australia about the obligation on states to comply with a rules-based international order. The bleating intensifies whenever the Foreign Minister reacts to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea or in relation to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.
The concept of a rules-based international order emerges from Western liberal ideals about how states should relate to each other by respecting their various sovereignties, recognizing land and maritime borders, and using multilateral means to maintain some kind of global stability.
Like the notion of international law itself, an international rules-based order is observed more often in the breach than in the observance. It is a fig-leaf hiding the arrogance of big powers like the United States which routinely ignores the idea of such an order – witness, for example, its abject refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Appeals to a rules-based order are conveniently – and only – trotted out when a power like the United States is being challenged by a rising power like China.
This is not to say that a rules-based order is not desirable. It is. But it in the “anarchical society” that is contemporary international politics, big power bullies assert their interests ahead of everyone else, come what may. This is what the American realist scholar John Mearsheimer refers to as “the tragedy of great power politics.” A vivid – and especially depressing – illustration of this is Donald Trump’s chaotic foreign policy founded on his “America First” mantra. The subtext of Trump’s sloganizing is: “To hell with the rest of the world.”
China is re-emerging as a great power in the Asia Pacific and soon will be a global power. Like it or not, this is the way of the coming world. China was never a part of the post-World War II confection of a liberal rules-based international order. The architects of liberal internationalism nearly all hail from the International Relations departments in ivy-league universities in the USA and the writings of a few scholars in British universities. Their intentions were (and are) admirable, if limited.
They never bothered to ask how their western cultural biases could be broadened – by referring for example to non-western philosophical traditions (e.g., Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism). All of these traditions have rich ethical contributions to make to a new and much needed cosmopolitan rules-based international order. But of these traditions most western scholars are mostly ignorant. Little wonder then that China is not all that impressed with a narrowly conceived internationalism that only sees the world through a very narrow and blinkered liberal-positivist philosophical prism.
Meanwhile China has been ringed by a “containment” strategy dreamed up by Washington and it allies (including some in Canberra). American has technologically sophisticated military installations stretching from South Korea through Japan and Taiwan, to Darwin (including ominous “real estate” like Pine Gap in the Northern Territory) that are all focused on keeping China within its borders. Hiding behind the arrogation of universalist claims for its liberal rules-based order, the American bully is trying to call China’s bluff as Beijing demands its rightful place in the sun. As Hugh White has pointed out, that bluff is now being called. China will not abide by a rules-based international order that it had no part in making and which remains an ideological smoke screen for America and its dependent allies as they dither and worry about how to respond to China’s rise.
Can we imagine a new, genuinely cosmopolitan rules-based international order? Now that is an interesting question!
Clearly great powers are a problem. Their determination to be top dog has been the attenuated tragedy of post-World War II international politics. Great powers are always dangerous. “America First!” is simply a crude statement of the reality of great power politics.
This is where a role for middle powers is emerging. Middle powers characterised by governance integrity and an unequivocal commitment to a just and humane world could, if formed into a bloc of like-minded states, begin to reshape the mindless power plays of international politics. That possibility is one of the few bright spots on the world’s foreign policy horizon.
Sadly, Australia is not qualified to be part of such a bloc. It totally lacks governance integrity. While we continue to subject Indigenous Australians to the margins of our society and economy, while we treat asylum seekers so brutally, while our scrooge-like contributions to overseas aid are so pitiful, and while we equivocate so stupidly on issues like climate change, we have no claim to be part of a global bloc that could – just possibly – begin a movement that could save the world.
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.