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Rules-Based Order – More Than Words

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This commentary was first published on the Asialink website. It is part of a series of commentaries curated by the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, in collaboration with Asialink (University of Melbourne). Anthony Milner, Visiting Professor at AEI, is Co-Chair of the Australian Committee, together with Ric Smith AO.

Increasing tension between the status quo and emerging powers has sparked analysis and reflection over the long-term sustainability of the so-called "Rules Based Order", writes academic Lina Alexander.

It is widely believed that certain international rules have governed the relations among states. Also, security and economic institutions – at the global and regional level – have been established both to facilitate states to pursue their interests and at the same time to set out boundaries to preserve global stability and welfare. This cluster of laws, rules and guidelines – wherever they may be recorded or embedded – collectively constitute the so-called ‘Rules Based Order’. In the last decade or so, however, the sharpening tension between status quo and emerging major powers – exemplified in the United States-China relations – has provoked some reflections over the sustainability of the Rules Based Order (RBO). It is helpful to revisit the RBO by exploring three questions – focusing 1) on differences in views toward the concept, 2) on potential areas where the RBO might be be amended, and 3) on whether some RBO-related terms are useful to explain it better.

Differences in defining RBO

It is generally accepted that there is no single, uniform definition of the RBO. Nevertheless, extrapolating from the application of these terms in the domestic context, ‘rules’ is understood broadly as a set of broad governing principles accepted by states to shape their conduct. Amitav Acharya has classified definitions of order into two groups: descriptive/situational and normative. The descriptive/situational treats order in terms of the existing political, security, and social situations that at a particular time impact on state-to-state relations. The normative deals with the ideal, desireable construction – invoking order in the sense of peaceful condition and stability.

Essentially, differences can be found in at least three dimensions of the idea of a RBO: the vision; the underpinning factors; and the possibility of change. Regarding the vision, the ideal camp envisions RBO as a public good, yielding inter-state relations that provide security, stability, and welfare for all regardless of their sizes or material powers. For this to occur, RBO ideally has to be run by a “club of states” that shares common identity/values, e.g democracies.

On the underpinning factors, the normative side argues that for RBO to work, it is to be ideally sustained by a long-term normative processess in which certain governing principles eventually become states’ habit instead of constraining rules. It essentially criticizes the common practice of the Western counterparts where they shortcut the process by transferring domestic values into international rules and set up instruments for global policing and courts which often do not work effectively to regulate state behaviours.

Finally, the pragmatic rather views the existing RBO serving only the status quo’s interests. To a certain extent, this camp partly argues that the alleged revisionist may not actually be seeking change – because it gains benefits from the existing order. For instance, while many claim that China is challenging the RBO, it has actually relied heavily on the sovereignty principle to defend its interests vis-à-vis the Western powers. China still maintains its participation in various multilateral institutions and also emulates established practices in the way it designs its own Chinese-led multilateral mechanisms, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Amending RBO?

There are two areas where RBO amendment might be pursued.

First, the legitimacy aspect. Looking at the current multipolar system, the inclusion of non-Western civilizations into reshaping the international order is inevitable. As Acharya has argued, the involvement of these non-Western states into the revisioning process will increase the RBO’s legitimacy, resulting in stronger acceptance.

Here, the emerging middle powers can take the lead as honest brokers in amending the international order. I do not refer to a particular state, but rather to a coalition of middle powers working together. Middle powers have a distinct interest in becoming “stabilisers” and “legitimisers” of world order – and not challenging the status quo. Middle powers, although like all states in seeking to pursue their own interests, do not have the advantage of superior force and thus favor negotiation and cooperation in their quest for international stability. Their commitment to the orderliness and security in the world system makes them all the more willing to work on issues beyond their immediate interests.

The biggest challenge lies in the fact that some qualified middle powers are allies one superpower or another. Nevertheless, while being loyal to their patron, we know that at times they also strain the tolerance of their patron in defending their middle power interests. A fundamental middle power interest, of course, is to see the RBO adapt as necessary to ensure the welfare and security for all not for one major power.

A second challenge faced by middle powers is to convince both Western and non-Western states that when they talk about RBO, it is important to “walk the talk”. It is not enough to preach to others about what needs to be done. This expectation should be directed first to one’s self to set the example for others to follow.

Are terms like ‘Liberal RBO’, ‘Conservative RBO’, and ‘Consensus RBO’ useful in describing rules and principles?

These various RBO conceptions are informative, particularly to exemplify the importance of rules in creating global order. However, they also indicate the weaknesses of the RBO. The Liberal RBO is fading, particularly since the US as its key champion has repeatedly violated the principles that sustain the order. The Conservative RBO reflects this pessimism by saying that, in reality, it is power politics rather than rules that prevail. Rules only apply when the mighty want to (mis)use them to pursue their own interests. Finally, the Consensus RBO seems to bridge between the two but underlines that consensus is still in the making and has an uncertain future.

There are three things to do, if one is to be optimistic.

First, the superpower (and “going-to-be” superpower) needs to stop (mis)using the RBO concept simply to condemn others – or to contest which rules ought to prevail – while not really observing the existing rules.

Second, again, a coalition of middle powers should step up to take a bigger role as honest brokers to mediate the revision of the international order. While support from major powers is necessary, the majors must, clearly, accept and believe that international order can be sustained not only by hegemony, but by cooperation amongst all actors.

Third, middle powers should continue to champion a broad multilateralism rather than asserting themselves in exclusive groupings – groupings in which it is easier for smaller powers to be torn by the interests of major powers. It can be argued that it is everyone’s responsibility to make broad multilateralism the core habit or common norm. To get acceptance for this view will not be a quick and easy process, but it is not unfeasible to achieve it.

Lina Alexandra is researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. She is also a guest lecturer in the Graduate School of Diplomacy, Paramadina University, Jakarta.

Last Updated: 23/02/2021