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Perspectives on “rules-based international order”

Three fault lines – nostalgia, challengers, and alternatives – seem to divide views on the global politics catchcry.

Photo: Muhammad Ahmed/Flickr
Photo: Muhammad Ahmed/Flickr
Published 31 Jul 2018   Follow @MConleytyler

I have a game I like to play when listening to speeches on international affairs. I make myself a bingo grid featuring the phrases most overused currently, and mark them off. (I once unwisely offered to play with Julia Gillard’s speechwriter but not, thankfully, during one of her speeches.) “Creative Middle Power”, “Top 20 Nation”, and other catchcries have all had their time; now “rules-based international order” is having its moment in the sun.

Some speak of the rules-based international order with a definite hint of nostalgia.

I was involved in a conference last week on Australia and the rules-based international order, organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ANU Coral Bell School, and Attorney-General’s Department: two days of discussion that would have broken my bingo card.

I don’t think we reached consensus: as the ANU’s Kirsten Sellars has observed, the rules-based international order is something “the more we discuss it the more elusive it becomes”. However, I was able to delineate some of the ways the term is being used.

At its base, the narrative around the rules-based international order implies three steps: there was previously something identifiable as a rules-based international order; there is a county or countries that are uniquely or fundamentally challenging this order; and this leads to negative results for Australia. 

Listening to the many perspectives shared, I found myself dividing different views of the rules-based international order along three fault lines according to the following questions:

  • Are you nostalgic?
  • Who is the challenger?
  • What’s the alternative?

So how do you feel?

The first question is around emotional valence. Some speak of the rules-based international order with a definite hint of nostalgia. The old order suited Australia perfectly. As former intelligence analysis chief Allan Gyngell reminds us, the rules were made by Australia and its friends. This might have looked different to others; for example, to colonised peoples where the order didn’t apply.

It is also fair to say that the rules-based international order may be more orderly in memory than it was at the time. Did we have a rules-based order in the sense that all powers signed up and complied? Others have noted the need to guard against hypocrisy: maybe the order was not always rules-based to the extent that current nostalgia suggests. There might be an element of yearning for an imagined simpler past.

Who is the challenger?

The second question identifies threats to the order. China? Russia? Donald Trump’s America? All of these can be painted as challengers.

This divides those that are more focused on the order – the US-led strategic status quo – versus those who are more focused on the rules and the maintenance of orderly relations. The former sees non-Western powers as the threat; the latter are more focused on the US.

We are faced with the paradox that at this moment China is working to maintain various rules – for example, around world trade, the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran deal – that the US is walking away from.

The question is thus whether you’re more worried about changes in power relativities, or more worried about rules.

What’s the alternative?

The last revealing question is what, to your mind, is the alternative to a rules-based international order? Is it chaos? Is it an order of pure coercion?

For many international lawyers, the alternative is international law. They regret the shift from promoting an order built on law to one built on rules, which is a more slippery concept. International law specialist Shirley Scott describes it as a capitulation.

One perspective is to see the rules-based international order as a constant. Academic Nick Bisley suggests that we always have an order based on a spectrum of power and rules. So we always have a rules-based international order, and it is always only patchily complied with: the question is who is setting the rules and the process by which they are doing it.

The continuing discussion of the concept, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s speech on the rules-based international order at Chatham House this month, means that this won’t and shouldn’t be the last event on this topic.

We will be grappling with questions around the rules-based international order for many years to come. But perhaps now I’ll be able to identify the different varieties of views on my bingo card.

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