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‘Rules-based order’ means U.S. supremacy, no more and no less

THE PHRASE “rule-based order” (RBO) is one of the most hackneyed in the West’s political lexicon, although “international” is increasingly included these days. It sounds good, can mean different things, and may be easily weaponized. It recalls Humpty Dumpty, who, in Lewis Carroll’sThrough the Looking-Glass, told Alice that “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.

On March 18, 2021, when the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, met the State councilor, Wang Yi, in Alaska, he said his government was “committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order”, by which he meant advancing American hegemony.


On June 14, 2021, when the 30 NATO countries convened in Brussels, they decided to adopt a more-confrontational approach toward China, to the delight of the visiting US President, Joe Biden. In their joint communique, they announced that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”, which pointed to Blinken having overseen the drafting.

On Jan 21, 2022, when the UK’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, addressed the Lowy Institute, in Sydney, she hurled abuse in all directions, with the same justification. Having said that Russia “hasn’t learned the lessons of history”, that Iran’s nuclear program “has never been more advanced”, and that China “has been conducting military flights near Taiwan”, she declared, “the rules-based international order has to be defended”, meaning the named countries had to be brought to heel.

In Australia’s “2016 Defence White Paper”, moreover, the phrase “rules-based order” appeared no less than 56 times. In particular, it was used to validate the country’s military involvement outside the region, especially in the Middle East, where intervention was necessary in order to support what the paper called the “global rules-based order”.

Quite clearly, the ‘rules-based international order’ is a chimera, meaning whatever the US and its followers want it to mean at any given time.”


The RBO phrase dates back to the 1990s, when, after the Cold War, it emerged as a rival to another US favorite, the “liberal international order” (LIO). In recent times, it has been widely used by those countries that tie themselves to US foreign policy and espouse the “holier than thou” brand of political posturing. Although some politicos, usually the less-subservient, still make use of LIO in their rhetoric, others try to have it both ways, with, for example, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, referring in 2021 to the “liberal, rules-based order”.

The RBO terminology is invaluable for the unscrupulous, and it can be used to justify any policy, even if it offends human rights. It has been invoked, for example, by the likes of Truss to justify the seizure of the assets of private Russian citizens living in the UK, because their country, by invading Ukraine, had not complied with the RBO. This is despite the UK’s Human Rights Act (1998) providing people with the right to enjoy their property “peacefully” (Art.1, Protocol 1).


Although the UK’s Equality Act (2010) makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone because of their nationality (Sect.9), Russian citizens have been punished simply for being Russians. They have been treated as fair game even though they played no part in planning or prosecuting the Ukraine conflict, and notwithstanding the UK being at peace with Russia, and enjoying diplomatic relations with it. Some were accused of having ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, although Truss, as a former justice secretary, should have known that, unlike some dictatorships, the English common law does not countenance the concept of “guilt by association”.

“Although innocent people are being victimized for reasons that could not stand up in a court of law, the various organizations that normally wax lyrical about human rights violations, such as Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association and Human Rights Beyond Frontiers, are all eerily silent.”

Yet although innocent people are being victimized for reasons that could not stand up in a court of law, the various organizations that normally wax lyrical about human rights violations, such as Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association and Human Rights Beyond Frontiers, are all eerily silent, content to turn a blind eye to an ongoing travesty of justice that should have been right down their street.

The human rights organizations have fallen into silence. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

The numerous victims of Truss’ summary punishments include Roman Abramovich, the popular owner of the Chelsea football club, who, apart from doing much for English soccer, has also generously supported London charities during the coronavirus pandemic, and whose only “crime” was his links to Putin. Indeed, the injustice he faces was highlighted when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, asked that he be spared sanctions, given that he was trying to help restore peace. This, however, cut no ice with trigger-happy Truss, who was determined to savage every Russian in sight, declaring “nothing and no one is off the table”.

She even slapped sanctions on one unfortunate individual, Eugene Shvidler, whose “offense” lay not in having ties with Putin, but with Abramovich. With talk growing of a vacancy at No 10 Downing Street, Truss is desperate to hone her image as the new “Iron Lady”. She is, however, blissfully unaware that the real thing, Margaret Thatcher, deplored political persecution of whatever type, and always stoutly defended the rights of the individual.


Indeed, it is surprising that Britain’s much-vaunted judiciary has not stepped in to protect these unfortunate victims of state-sponsored theft and intimidation. After all, its senior judge, the president of the UK Supreme Court, Lord (Robert) Reed, is so concerned about such matters that he resigned from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal on March 30, claiming he could no longer remain “without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values”. Given Truss’ own departure from “values”, he will presumably now also be considering his presidency of the Supreme Court, as his presence gives the appearance of endorsing “an administration which has departed from values”.

What, moreover, should have been the last straw for Reed was the news that at least one of Truss’ victims, Petr Aven, who says his business has been “completely destroyed” by her sanctions, has been unable to instruct lawyers to help him, as his bank account has been frozen, and the lawyers themselves are afraid of getting involved. This, unfortunately, is not surprising, as the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, on March 2, sought to frighten British law firms by announcing that, if they tried to help Russians from being hit by sanctions, they could themselves end up facing penalties. This, as Reed must have appreciated, was appalling, coming from the leader of a country that prides itself on being the “cradle of the law”.

This, however, is a vivid illustration of the “rules-based international order” at work, and it is not a pretty sight. It is not only contemptuous of traditional notions of fair play, but also a direct threat to the rule of law. If property rights mean anything, it is that legitimate assets cannot be arbitrarily grabbed from innocent people by a government for arbitrary political reasons and without due process. Although the US, which fires off sanctions like confetti, had hoped to incorporate Ukraine into NATO and encircle Russia, it clearly knew no better, but its partners have no such excuse. The UK, at least, with its proud traditions, should have been fearless in defense of human rights, as also should the European Union, whose hypocrisy is no less stark.


On Feb 19, for example, the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, claimed that Russia was attempting to rewrite “the rules of the international order” (euro speak for RBO), and then, knowing the US was listening, accused both Russia and China of preferring the rule of the strongest to the rule of law, intimidation instead of self-determination, and coercion instead of cooperation. This, of course, was sanctimonious nonsense, as she had only recently presided over a series of measures offensive to human rights. These included the sequestration of the property of individual Russians, including Roman Abramovich, who was adjudged guilty of having “very good relations with Vladimir Putin”, a crime unknown to EU law.

As if this was not bad enough, von der Leyen also closed down two Russian media outlets, RT and Sputnik, and sanctioned editors, because of fears over the Russian viewpoint on the conflict also being heard by EU citizens. This was contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which stipulates that “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected” (Art.11). In other words, von der Leyen, always so happy to preach to others about their alleged shortcomings, is prepared to ditch the EU’s professed values at the drop of a hat, and to persecute innocent individuals and muzzle the media. Although some may argue this shows the RBO operating at its best, others will conclude it shows rank hypocrisy.


On July 16, 2021, moreover, when the US imposed sanctions on seven Chinese officials, Antony Blinken accused them of having “systematically undermined” Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. It is ironic, therefore, that, because of the iniquitous sanctions the US imposed on the then-secretary for security, John Lee Ka-chiu, in 2020, it is itself now interfering, albeit indirectly, with the forthcoming chief executive election, in which Lee is standing. The tech giant Google, afraid of possible legal consequences for facilitating the campaign of a sanctioned candidate, has removed Lee’s election channel from YouTube, hampering his access to the public. Instead, however, of putting Google’s mind at rest and supporting the electoral process, Blinken has done nothing, making him complicit in the same sort of electoral interference that he previously accused the seven officials of engaging in.

It is clear, therefore, that the RBO, in which the likes of Blinken, Truss and von der Leyen all rejoice, is rotten at the core, and is being used as a tool of oppression. Far from upholding bona fide rules, it provides cover for the promotion of double standards, with elementary human rights being trampled underfoot whenever they get in the way of their political objectives.


Just when it seemed the humbug could get no worse, the US again showed otherwise. On April 26, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Kritenbrink, refused to rule out military action against the Solomon Islands if it allowed China to establish a military base there, even though it has three military bases of its own in nearby Australia, one in Western Australia and two in the Northern Territory. As the US has repeatedly condemned Russia for refusing to recognize that Ukraine, as a sovereign state, should be allowed to join NATO and decide its own future, it beggars belief that it should now threaten the Solomons, also a sovereign state, for wanting to do whatever it thinks best in its own national interest.

Quite clearly, the “rules-based international order” is a chimera, meaning whatever the US and its followers want it to mean at any given time. It is being used as a smokescreen, to legitimize the indefensible and justify the suppression of basic rights. Whatever else it may be, it is clearly no friend of the international rule of law, which prioritizes decency, justice and respect for the rights of others, and nobody should be under any illusions.

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR. This piece also appears in the China Daily.

Photo at the top by Giammarco on Unsplash

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