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What America's seizure of websites says about the 'rules-based' order

Rules are by definition things that apply universally, so it’s hard to convince the world to respect them if you consistently violate them.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This article first appeared in the Nonzero Newsletter and is republished with the authors’ permission.

This week Peter Beinart, writing in the New York Times, took aim at one of the Blob’s favorite terms: the “rules-based order.” The Biden administration often invokes the term, typically in reference to the threat allegedly posed to that order by China. The problem, Beinart notes, is that no one ever bothers to explain what rules constitute the order—what rules America is supposedly abiding by while its adversaries violate them. “Since the ‘rules-based order’ is never adequately defined, America’s claim to uphold it can never be disproved,” Beinart writes.

This sort of skepticism about boilerplate “rules-based order” rhetoric has been growing lately, and that’s a welcome development in foreign policy discourse—maybe even a sign that the Blob’s days of hegemony are numbered. The trend dates back to the Trump administration, when observers noted that some of the Blobsters most loudly complaining about Trump’s failure to uphold the “rules-based order” had championed things like invading and bombing countries in violation of international law. When Biden took office, and staffed his foreign policy team with exactly this kind of rules-based-order scold, it was an open invitation for Beinart and other Blob critics to turn up the heat.

And yet—so much more heat is needed! The average member of the foreign policy establishment, to say nothing of the average American voter, has no idea how hypocritical America’s sermons about following the rules look from abroad. As it happens, an object lesson in this hypocrisy took shape on the same day Beinart’s piece was published, when the US Justice Department announced that it had disabled 36 Iran-linked websites. Let’s take a look at this exercise in American rules enforcement and try to imagine how it might look from perspectives other than America’s. Three kinds of rules, in particular, are implicated in the Justice Department’s website takedown:    

1. Rules against election interference. As Joshua Keating notes in Slate, the legal basis for seizing 30 of those websites was a Trump-era executive order authorizing sanctions against foreign actors that have interfered in American elections. So is one of the rules in the “rules-based order” that influencing a foreign election—with propaganda, misinformation, whatever—is forbidden? If so, America is due for a scolding. The political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke writes in her book Covert Regime Change:“Throughout the Cold War, the United States recurrently sought to influence foreign elections by covertly providing funding, advisory assistance, and propaganda to help its preferred candidates win their elections… All told, US-supported parties won their elections in twelve out of sixteen covert campaigns.”

And of course, if the “wrong” candidate wins an election, the US can always intervene after the fact. Like when it helped depose Iran’s elected leader in 1953, replacing him with a brutal dictator who ruled until the 1979 Iranian revolution, which ushered in an Islamist regime that, not surprisingly, has been able to get political mileage out of anti-American rhetoric ever since! Also not surprisingly, this regime apparently feels justified in using its websites to influence—even “interfere in”—American elections.

During the Obama administration, Biden himself was supportive of something that bore at least some resemblance to a coup against a democratically elected leader. American officials went to Ukraine, egged on protestors who wanted to oust its pro-Russian president, and meanwhile maneuvered behind the scenes to select a new head of government—who took the reins after the country’s elected president, with armed opponents roaming the streets, fled the country to ensure his survival. Apparently the Biden foreign policy team (notably including Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was centrally involved in the Ukraine affair) doesn’t consider deposing elected presidents as serious an assault on democracy as spreading propaganda during an election.

2. Rules against terrorism. Three of the websites were taken down on grounds that they belonged to Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group that in 2009 was deemed a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department.

Why the terrorist designation? Because the Katai’ib Hezbollah militia was part of the Iraqi insurgency and killed US troops. Of course, the troops were there because the US had violated the mother of all rules—the one against attacking countries that haven’t attacked you, the rule that, more than any other single rule, the United Nations was founded on. But let’s leave that fact aside and look at why Iran might consider it ironic that the US would deem lethal insurgents terrorists.

Didn’t the US, during the Obama administration, arm insurgents in Syria who killed lots of people, no doubt including civilians? And quite possibly including Iranian troops (who, unlike American troops in Iraq, were in Syria at the behest of the government—a fact that, however brutal the Syrian regime, still makes a big difference under international law)? 

Also: When Israel arranges to have Iranian nuclear scientists murdered, isn’t that kind of like terrorism? So shouldn’t the US sanction Israel—or, at least, signal that it doesn’t approve of such terrorist acts, just to clarify that its broader collaboration with Israel on anti-Iran measures doesn’t mean it supports rule violation?

Oh, wait! That would be awkward, since its collaboration with Israel on anti-Iran measures does mean it supports rule violation. During the Obama administration, the US and Israel together launched a cyberattack that made Iranian centrifuges spin out of control, which presumably violates some rule or other. (Unless the US wants to declare that it’s OK if Iran launches a cyberattack that makes America’s centrifuges spin out of control.)

And a technical question: When in January of 2020 the US assassinated Iran’s most important military leader, was that terrorism or was it more like an act of war? Either way, since it had no plausible justification under international law, shouldn’t presidential candidate Biden have done more than just fret that the killing would be “escalatory”? Shouldn’t he have said it threatens the “rule-based order”?

3. Suppression of speech. The question of whether free speech is one of the “rules” in the “rules based order” opens up a can of worms—questions about whether by “rules based order” you’re referring to the “liberal international order,” and, if so, which specific meaning of “liberal international order” you have in mind. But for present purposes it’s enough to say that members of the Biden team have been known to complain about censorship in places like Russia and China.

So it’s worth asking: What does it do for the credibility of these sermons when we take down a bunch of websites of foreign origin because of their content? Keating, in Slate, does a good job of assessing this question. After acknowledging that some of these websites conveyed disinformation and did other objectionable things, he concludes, “Disinformation and election interference are serious problems, but a world in which governments all reserve the right to tightly control the information that can reach their citizens from outside their borders is exactly the sort of world that governments like Russia, China, and Iran want to create.”

Note Keating’s hidden assumption: that effectively promulgating international rules means abiding by them. Rules, after all, are by definition things that apply universally, so it’s hard to convince the world to respect them if you violate them. In other words: Keating takes the word “rules” seriously. No senior figure on the Biden foreign policy team—certainly not National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan or Secretary of State Antony Blinken, both of whom love to rhapsodize about the “rules-based order”—has shown any inclination to do that.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden addresses National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, April 9, 2015. (DoD News photo by EJ Hersom)
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