When states says that they support the rules-based international order, they are pledging their support for American empire. No more, no less.
Since the lamentable Russian Federation invasion into eastern Ukraine, there has been much talk about defending democracy, international law and the rules based international order from the collective West led by Washington. For Washington and its allies, this war is presented as a moral enterprise against uncommon evil. For the credibility of the so-called rules based international order, Russia must pay. For Washington, its British Lieutenant, and other members of America’s praetorian guard, they claim lofty liberal ideals on Ukraine. No stone is being left unturned in supporting Kyiv with a staggering supply of weapons, tactical intelligence, training, and other forms of aid. If the rules based international system is to be defended, the US is willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. As always, Washington believes the ‘price is worth it.’
We all know that international law exists, and we can point to something called the UN Charter. However, if we look deeper into the phenomenon of international law, we find curious realities. For one, international law despite its liberal universalist intentions, is opaque. The words are clear, and they are in fact well understood by all involved. It is just that when it truly matters, international law is ignored, manipulated, and undermined by nation-states. While there are genuine intentions to help improve the ways in which international law might operate and bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice, powerful nation-states selectively navigate the international system of treaties, protocols, and committees. If it is in their interest to uphold certain principles then they will, if not, it will find any number of ways in which to ignore, dismiss, or sidestep troublesome obligations. The chances of any Russian government official going on trial at The Hague is the about same as for any US government official, that is, precisely zero. Neither Moscow nor Washington recognises the International Criminal Court (ICC). The risks of prosecution for crimes against humanity (and worse) can be clarified.
- If powerful nations are guilty of the same (or similar crimes), there will be no prosecutions for these actions.
- If smaller nations are accused of crimes under international law, investigation (or prosecutions) depend on their relationship with more powerful nations e.g., are they useful allies, enemies or irrelevant?
- If powerful nations agree amongst themselves to investigate and/or prosecute certain individuals for specific crimes, then investigation/prosecutions might occur.
In each of these scenarios, the universality of international law is undermined. Great crimes can be committed; however, they can also be ignored. Some might be punished, but others guilty of the same crimes, are not. This is not an accident; it is the first golden rule of international affairs. Since Nuremberg, Western nations and others will loudly accuse their enemies of terrible behaviour, even crimes against humanity, but rarely if ever seriously act on this rhetoric. To act, the crimes need to be uniquely excessive and therefore warrant at least some collective action by the Security Council, or cynical as it may be, the threat of prosecution provides some strategic/political benefits for the accuser. Powerful nations shield themselves and their closest allies, knowing full well that others will do the same.
The rules based international system
For the rules based international system to work, international law can never be applied universally. Instead, hypocrisy and complicity must be embraced. This is the second golden rule of international affairs. As Gareth Evans noted, the principal architect of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and a prominent apologist for the Indonesians on East Timor as Australian Foreign Minister (1988-1996), the ‘world is a pretty unfair place.’ At least on this, Evans is correct.
For those nations loudest in their condemnation of Russia, such as Australia, there is little space for self-reflection or about the universality of international law. For example, in December 1975, Indonesia launched its official invasion of East Timor on the pretext of protecting its national security. Despite widespread knowledge that this was going to happen, nothing was done to stop the Indonesians. Before this date, Indonesia had engaged in an ongoing destabilisation campaign inside the Portuguese colony arming and supporting Timorese political and paramilitary factions. In 1976, Indonesia illegally incorporated East Timor into Indonesia as a province. Until 1999, and even after the 1999 UN Independence referendum, the Indonesian military, security forces and proxies committed all manner of crimes against humanity in Timor. At each stage of this tragedy, Washington, London, Canberra, and others were aware of what was happening.
Estimates of the Timorese death toll attributable directly and indirectly to the actions of the Indonesian military and security forces range from over 100,000 up to 200,000 people. There is no question about the crimes, the names of the perpetrators, or about command responsibility. All these actions were illegal under international law, all the atrocities worthy of prosecution. But there is no call from Washington, London, or Canberra for justice. In fact, each (and others) supported and assisted the Indonesians with money, with weapons, with aid, military training, and most importantly, with endless diplomatic cover. It did not matter that the Indonesians launched a war of aggression, nor did it matter that Indonesian military and security forces committed a litany of crimes against humanity and, yes, perhaps even genocide. In relation to the proportion of the total population, the death toll in East Timor (1975-1999) is surely the greatest demographic destruction to occur in the second half of the 20th century.
What if Washington had adopted a different attitude toward East Timor in 1975? For one, Indonesia would never have invaded let alone occupied the territory. If Washington had invoked the rhetoric of international law and human rights for the East Timorese in 1975, Canberra would have followed the US line. Yes, Australians coveted the Timor Gap, and closer relations with Jakarta, but opportunistic Australian complicity was made possible by American support for the Indonesian military. The Indonesian military was an important strategic partner of Washington, they mattered. The Straits of Malacca mattered. Foreign investment in Indonesia mattered. Timorese oil and gas mattered. The East Timorese themselves though, did not matter. Australia was complicit throughout the Indonesian occupation, and for its silence then (and now) about the atrocities. No weasel words can get around this fact.
Australia’s adherence to international law itself is selective, we support Kyiv because the US is deeply involved. If they were not involved in a proxy war against the Russian Federation, we would never dream of sending military equipment. In relation to East Timor, the US supplied military equipment and foreign aid, as did Australia, and others, not to the Timorese but to the Indonesians. From Korea, to Vietnam, to Iraq and Afghanistan, Canberra is steadfast in its commitment not to international laws, but to what is now called the rules-based international order. A phrase used by Washington and its backers. What then does this mean exactly? Despite the jargon, this phrase is code for US global leadership. In turn, US global leadership is code for US hegemony. The international system, such as the UN and international law continues, but when it comes down to it, Washington must be in charge. This is the system where the US picks and chooses which international laws and institutions it will bend, intimidate, or manipulate to its preferences. A system where the US reserves the right to enforce international laws or ignore them completely. Just like what occurred in relation to East Timor. Others though will be expected to adhere religiously to the rules of the game. For freedom to reign, the game must be rigged. As US economist Michael Hudson noted, if African and developing countries wish to pay debts, they need to earn US dollars, if the US wishes to pay debts, it prints its own currency. It is good to be a hegemon.
If you are shocked that both sides of Australian politics enthusiastically support Ukraine but could not be less interested in the arrest of Indonesian officials and security forces for crimes against humanity in East Timor, you shouldn’t. If you are shocked that both sides of Australian politics cling to AUKUS, and that the Albanese Labor Government is not demanding Julian Assange to be freed and brought home, you shouldn’t. To act any other way would upset our most powerful friend. The US relationship is important, international law, crimes against humanity or the life of an Australian journalist, not as much. For Australia’s pro-US lobby, otherwise known as the Department of Defence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, our intelligence services, the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party, there is almost no level of subservience to the US which they could not justify.
When Australia says it supports the rules-based international order, we pledge our support for American empire, no more, no less.