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As an organising principle for western foreign policy, the “rules-based international order” has long suffered from some disastrous flaws. It is a phrase that means nothing to a normal person. As a result, it is a deeply uninspiring concept. People might go to war to defend freedom or the motherland. Nobody is going to fight and die for the RBIO.

Nonetheless, senior western policymakers seem to be in love with the concept. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, is fond of appealing to the rules-based international order when he visits China. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, has put the RBIO at the centre of UK foreign policy. His likely successor, Sir Keir Starmer, a former lawyer, will be just as committed to the idea.

In opposing Russian aggression, Blinken argues that the US is standing up for a world based on rules rather than raw power. That is an attractive idea. But rules are meant to be consistent. And America’s own actions are undermining vital parts of the rules-based order.

The past fortnight has brutally exposed these contradictions. The 100 per cent tariffs that the Biden administration has imposed on Chinese electric vehicles are virtually impossible to reconcile with international rules on trade. As a paper for Bruegel, a think-tank, puts it: “The tariffs . . . quash any notion that the US intends to abide by World Trade Organization rules.”

America’s response to the prospect that the International Criminal Court will bring war crimes charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was also telling. Rather than supporting the court’s effort to enforce international law, Blinken told the US Congress that the administration would consider imposing sanctions on the ICC.

Of course, the US can deploy arguments to justify these moves. It is possible to argue that the ICC has exceeded its jurisdiction or wrongly intervened in an ongoing conflict. The US also insists that China has broken international trade rules for decades.

But, as the saying goes, in politics when you are explaining, you are losing. In large parts of the world, America’s claim to be upholding the rules-based international order is treated with derision. So what can be salvaged from this mess? One answer is for Blinken and co to talk less about the rules-based international order and more about defending the free world. That is a more accurate and comprehensible description of what western foreign policy is actually about.

The US, the EU, the UK and other democracies such as Japan, South Korea and Ukraine are currently struggling to contain the territorial and political ambitions of authoritarian countries — above all, China and Russia. A world in which those countries are more powerful will be less safe for free people and countries.

Unlike the defence of a rules-based order — which implies absolute consistency — the defence of the free world involves accepting some necessary inconsistency. During the cold war, the US and its allies made some tactical alliances with undemocratic regimes, as part of the broader effort to contain and ultimately defeat the Soviet Union.

In today’s world, the US is once again making uncomfortable trade-offs as part of a larger struggle with the major authoritarian powers. America’s tariffs on Chinese EVs make little sense as a defence of the rules-based order. They make much more sense when seen as an effort to prevent China dominating the industries of the future.

As it seeks to combat China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US has accurately accused Beijing of violating the UN convention on the law of the sea. The difficulty is that the US itself has not ratified that particular convention. So why not accept that America’s primary motivation is not upholding international law for its own sake — but is instead about preventing a crucial trade route from coming under the domination of an authoritarian power?

And what about Israel? A lot of what Biden is doing can be explained by domestic politics. But an instinct to defend democratic allies also underpins his dogged support for Israel. America’s refusal to contemplate the idea that Netanyahu may have committed war crimes in Gaza is discreditable. But it is easier to understand US discomfort with a process that sees the only democracy in the Middle East placed in the dock, while the leaders of Syria and Iran escape prosecution for their crimes.

Dialling down the rhetoric about the rules-based international order should not mean abandoning international law altogether. That would be a recipe for global anarchy. It would also be unwise and impractical. There is a lot of international law and finding yourself on the wrong side of it can be very disadvantageous. Vladimir Putin — and perhaps soon, Netanyahu — will find that their travel plans are severely restricted by ICC warrants.

Russia and China always argue that their actions are consistent with international law — even when they blatantly are not. The US will sometimes have to do the same thing. International lawfare is part of the emerging struggle between democratic and authoritarian powers.

That does not mean that the two sides are on the same moral level. As in the cold war and the earlier struggles of the 20th century, the world’s democracies do not need to apologise for being ruthless in defence of free societies.


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