Where Is America’s ‘Rules-Based Order’ Now?

No sooner had a nearly unanimous United Nations Security Councilpassed a resolution demanding an “immediate cease-fire” in Gaza last month than the United States and Israel acted as if it were a meaningless piece of paper. Israel, unwilling to accept a U.N. mandate, continued bombing the overcrowded southern city of Rafah and besieging Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Shortly after the vote, Biden administration officials called the resolution, No. 2728, “nonbinding,” in what appeared to be an attempt to deny its status as international law.

It was a confounding approach from an administration that allowed the resolution to go through with an abstention after vetoing three earlier ones. It also triggered a predictable bout of hand-wringing over the value of international law. At the State Department press briefing after the resolution passed, the department’s spokesman, Matthew Miller, said the measure would neither result in an immediate cease-fire nor affect thorny hostage-release negotiations. One reporter asked, “If that’s the case, what the hell is the point of the U.N. or the U.N. Security Council?”

The question is valid, but it’s also misdirected. U.N. resolutions that are written without enforcement measures obviously cannot force Israel to stop what its leadership insists is a justified war necessary to remove Hamas and prevent another Oct. 7 massacre. But it’s just as obvious what entity can make Israel stop, and isn’t: the United States.

Whatever the Biden administration may have thought it was doing by permitting the resolution to pass and then undermining it, the maneuver exposed the continuing damage Israel’s war in Gaza is doing to the United States’ longstanding justification for being a superpower: guaranteeing what U.S. administrations like to call the “international rules-based order.”

The concept operates as an asterisk placed on international law by the dominant global superpower. It makes the United States one of the reasons international law remains weak, since a “rules-based” order that exempts the United States and its allies fundamentally undermines the concept of international law.

American policymakers tend to invoke the concept to demonstrate the benefits of U.S. global leadership. It sounds, on the surface, a lot like international law: a stable global order, involving the panoply of international aid and financial institutions, in which the rules of acceptable behavior reflect liberal values. And when U.S. prerogatives coincide with international law, the United States describes the two synonymously. On the eve of Russia’s illegal 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of a “moment of peril” for “the foundation of the United Nations Charter and the rules-based international order that preserves stability worldwide.”

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