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Why US hegemony is incompatible with a ‘rules-based international order’

A bad argument for invading the Solomon Islands reflects the inherent conflict between America’s dominance and its purported liberal values.

Analysis | Washington Politics

There is no shortage of bad ideas circulating in U.S. foreign policy discourse. On occasion, however, a particularly poor argument can be helpful insofar as it reveals something noteworthy about the assumptions and ideology that produced it.

With an article in The National Interest entitled “Don’t Rule Out Intervention in the Solomon Islands,” Julian Spencer-Churchill provides such an example. The piece — which makes the case that Australia and the United States ought to consider military intervention to topple the government of the Solomon Islands in the wake of the small nation’s adoption of a security pact with China — presents an inartful mix of threat inflation, outright factual error, and regurgitations of basic international relations theory, and is not particularly worth engaging with in and of itself.

Yet Spencer-Churchill’s argument is useful in that it draws out some important contradictions in the strategy of liberal hegemony that drives U.S. foreign policy, and the “rules-based international order” it supposedly upholds.

The piece begins with a brief recitation of the origins and importance of self-determination and state sovereignty to the international system. This is immediately followed by a claim on behalf of the “coalition of democracies” to a right to violate these principles more or less at will.

This coalition, Spencer-Churchill writes, has “legally and morally valid justifications for intervention in a foreign country” first, “when there is a dire security threat that emerges within its sphere of influence” and second, “because liberal democracies have an unprecedented understanding of the world population’s aspirations for human rights-based rule of law and innovation-based prosperity for middle-income countries.” The policies of liberal democracies, he asserts “are moving in concert with the broader direction of history.” The citation for this last statement is a link to a brief summary of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History.”

The first claim bears a notable resemblance to Russia’s justifications of its ongoing aggressive war against Ukraine. Such claims of “dire security threats” can be asserted by great powers with little evidence and no need for ratification by any third party, and, as Spencer-Churchill demonstrates, it is easy to gin up a grave security threat out of developments that pose no significant danger.

The second claim is even more striking. In essence, Spencer-Churchill argues that all peoples self-evidently desire liberal democratic capitalism, and therefore capitalist democracies like the United States have a right to deliver this system to them by force, whether asked for or not.

This contention, of course, is nothing new. It has helped sell numerous U.S. military interventions since the Second World War and itself is only a refinement of the “civilizing missions” of earlier European imperialisms. Yet, in a year when the United States has rallied global opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the name of upholding the rules-based international order, state sovereignty, and self-determination, the absurdity of Spencer-Churchill’s claims is shown in stark relief. 

In Spencer-Churchill’s formulation, the United States and its allies serve as the guarantors of a rules-based international order, but also enjoy license to violate these rules under broad circumstances of their own determination. While it is not often laid out so bluntly, this is largely how American foreign policy has operated for over seven decades. The United States points to a liberal order as the justification for and result of its predominant military power and global influence, and will invoke that order in the face of other parties’ abuses, but will accept no restraints on its own freedom of action. 

This is well demonstrated by Washington’s habitual rejection of international treaties produced by the United Nations system (the creation of which, of course, was led by the U.S. itself). The U.S. will nonetheless wield these treaties against the behavior of other nations, as it does with China’s maritime claims and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States has neither signed nor ratified. 

When proponents of liberal hegemony acknowledge this tension, some argue that it is necessary, even beneficial to the project of building a stable, liberal world order. The international system is anarchic and actors worse than the United States abound, ready to fill any power vacuum left vacant by Washington or its close allies. Such an order needs a powerful state to enforce it, and sometimes it may be necessary to bend or even break rules in defense of higher principles.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, journalist Tom McTague made such a case, examining the “idea that convinces U.S. leaders that they never oppress, only liberate, and that their interventions can never be a threat to nearby powers, because America is not imperialist.” McTague recognizes that this – the notion that the U.S. is driven by universal values and acts in the universal interest – is both a “delusion” and “lies at the core of [the United States’] most costly foreign policy miscalculations.” Yet McTague asserts that this delusion is necessary to sustain America’s commitment to upholding global order and keeping more malicious powers at bay.

Never mind that some of the heroic interventions McTague cites — like the Korean War — were in fact atrocity-ridden debacles that could not credibly be presented as defenses of democracy at the time they actually took place, his larger case is also unpersuasive. Outside of the U.S. and Europe, what he calls the “necessary myth” of American benevolence has been hemorrhaging credibility, and the hypocrisy at the heart of the liberal international order is not a means to its perpetuation, but rather to its steady undoing.

Decades of lawless interventions in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America have left nations of the Global South deeply and rightly skeptical of the United States as an upholder of international law. Younger Americans increasingly reject U.S. exceptionalism and global military dominance as well. 

As America’s relative power declines and we move toward an increasingly multipolar international system, the contradictions inherent in Washington’s version of the liberal order will become even harder to ignore. A United States that faces more and greater challenges to its power will likely turn to increasingly coercive means to defend that power, rendering its “liberal” guise increasingly threadbare. 

It is clear that, going forward, the laudable goal of creating a global order based on international law and mutually agreeable rules of conduct is incompatible with U.S. hegemony — or for that matter, the hypothetical hegemony of any other power. Any state possessing a preponderance of power will, as the U.S. has, reject external restraints on that power. Any “rules-based order” put forward by a hegemon will be wielded in service of hegemony, not the other way around.

PEARL HARBOR (May 1, 2017) Commander, U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. speaks to Sailors and Marines during an all hands call aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Larry S. Carlson)
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