Monday November 29, 2021

Rule-based order?

October 18, 2021

The US and its allies do not tire of telling all and sundry, especially China, to abide by the rule-based liberal order that the US-led West had established after World War II. This demand is based on three implicit assumptions. It betrays the West’s typical arrogance about the superiority of its cultural values, political ideology, and economic system, which underpin its internal and external policies.

Second, it is grounded in the implicit claim about the objective fairness of the system of inter-state conduct established by the West. Third, the demand upon others to abide by the so-called rule-based order assumes that Western countries scrupulously adhere to its basic principles and rules of behaviour. A close scrutiny reveals that all the three assumptions are open to questions and factually inaccurate.

There is no denying the fact that the Western civilisation in the aftermath of the Renaissance achieved remarkable progress and stole a march over other civilisations in different branches of knowledge, especially in sciences, technology, politics, philosophy, economics and international law. These advances enabled Western countries to establish their global hegemony so that by the end of the 19th century, most of the world was directly or indirectly under their control through their colonial rule in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The 20th century witnessed the continuation of the West’s supremacy and the rise of the US. The world, however, is now being radically transformed by the emergence of new major powers, especially China whose dramatic growth in economic and military power has posed a daunting challenge to the supremacy of the US-led West.

It is inevitable that as this process of global transformation unfolds, it would not only influence progress in science and technology, but also lead to changes in political organisation of states, economic management at the national and global levels, and international law to reflect new ground realities. Therefore, it is nothing but a reflection of the West’s arrogance for it to demand that its cultural values and political and economic models must be adopted by others despite international cultural, political and economic diversity.

In his book ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order’, Professor Huntington recommended that the West should refrain from such an approach. He argued that “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers from three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.” American dismal failure to impose its cultural values and political model on Afghanistan is the latest example of the futility of such efforts by Western countries.

The international order established by the US-led West after World War II through the UN, IMF, World Bank and related institutions basically aimed at regulating international affairs in a manner which suited its interests. Distinguished scholars including Stephen G Brooks, G John Ikenberry and William C Wohlforth in an article titled ‘Lean Forward’, published in Foreign Affairs in 2013, pointed out, “After all, today’s rules and institutions came about under its (the US) auspices and largely reflect its interests, and so they are in fact tailor-made for soft balancing by the United States itself.”

According to them, the US had used its global dominance “to structure the world economy in ways that serve its particular interests.” The essential point is that far from being fair and even-handed, the existing global political and economic order is heavily tilted in favour of the US and other Western powers, which helped establish it in the first place.

It is inevitable, therefore, that as the economic and military power of China and other non-Western countries grows, they will seek to modify the rules of the existing world order so as to make them even-handed and to provide to the emerging great powers a fair opportunity for their rise and the accommodation of their interests. On the other hand, since these rules were laid down to give an advantage to the Western powers led by the US, they are likely to resist these attempts to modify them. This factor lies at the heart of the growing rivalry and frictions between the US-led West and China.

Washington is employing all the levers of hard and soft power at its disposal through repositioning of its forces in the Indo-Pacific region, strengthening of alliances and building up new ones, and a sustained media campaign to contain the expansion of China’s power. The ultimate outcome of this titanic struggle is shrouded in the uncertainties of an unpredictable future. However, one thing which can be said with a fair degree of confidence is that the world order in future would be culturally, politically and economically more diverse than what the West would like to see.

Finally, the assumption that Western countries abide by the rule-based order, which was established by them, is simply false, especially in dealing with major problems of international peace and security as well as important issues affecting their economic progress and prosperity. The US and other Western countries like the UK and France have flagrantly violated the principles of the UN Charter and the recognised rules of inter-state conduct whenever it suited their narrow national interests.

They have been guilty of gross interference in the internal affairs of other states, overthrown foreign governments that they did not like, assassinated foreign leaders, and even invaded foreign countries at will. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the latest example – but not the only one – of blatant acts of aggression and violation of the principles of the UN Charter by some Western countries. So it is nothing less than hypocritical for them to lecture others to abide by the so-called rule-based order.

The demand by the US-led West upon China and other emerging powers to abide by the rule-based order is a thinly veiled attempt by them to safeguard their narrow national interests and their global political, economic and cultural dominance. The emergence of new world powers like China will inevitably lead to demands for the transformation of the present world order to accommodate their legitimate interests.

The West’s refusal to show necessary flexibility in response to these demands would usher in an era of international frictions and conflicts to the detriment of international peace and prosperity.

The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.