By Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies (*) – CODEPINK
The world is reeling in horror at the latest Israeli
massacre of hundreds of men, women and children in Gaza. Much of the world is
also shocked by the role of the United States in this crisis, as it keeps
providing Israel with weapons to kill Palestinian civilians, in violation of U.S.
and international law, and has
repeatedly blocked action by the UN Security Council to impose a ceasefire or
hold Israel accountable for its war crimes.
In contrast to U.S. actions, in nearly every speech or interview, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken keeps
promising to uphold and defend the “rules-based order.” But he has never
clarified whether he means the universal rules of the United Nations Charter
and international law, or some other set of rules he has yet to define. What rules could possibly legitimize
the kind of destruction we just witnessed in Gaza, and who would want to live
in a world ruled by them?
both spent many years protesting the violence and chaos the United States and
its allies inflict on millions of people around the world by violating the UN Charter’s prohibition against the threat or
use of military force, and we have always insisted that the U.S. government
should comply with the rules-based order of international law.
But even as
the United States’ illegal wars and support for allies like Israel and Saudi
Arabia have reduced cities to
rubble and left
country after country mired in intractable violence and chaos, U.S. leaders have
refused to even acknowledge that aggressive and destructive
U.S. and allied military operations violate the rules-based order of the United
Nations Charter and international law.
President Trump was clear that he was not interested in
following any “global rules,” only supporting U.S. national interests. His National Security Advisor John
Bolton explicitly prohibited National Security Council staff attending the 2018
G20 Summit in Argentina from even uttering the
So you might expect us to welcome Blinken’s stated commitment
to the “rules-based order” as a long-overdue reversal in U.S. policy. But when it comes to a vital
principle like this, it is actions that count, and the Biden administration has
yet to take any decisive action to bring U.S. foreign policy into compliance
with the UN Charter or international law.
For Secretary Blinken, the concept of a “rules-based order”
seems to serve mainly as a cudgel with which to attack China and Russia. At a May 7 UN Security Council
meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that instead of accepting the
already existing rules of international law, the United States and its allies
are trying to come up with “other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive
formats, and then imposed on everyone else.”
Charter and the rules of international law were developed in the 20th century
precisely to codify the unwritten and endlessly contested rules of customary
international law with explicit, written rules that would be binding on all
States played a leading role in this legalist
international relations, from the Hague Peace Conferences at the turn of the
20th century to the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in
1945 and the revised Geneva Conventions in 1949, including the new Fourth
Geneva Convention to protect civilians, like the countless numbers killed by
American weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza.
President Franklin Roosevelt described the plan for the United Nations to a joint session of Congress on his return from
Yalta in 1945:
“It ought to spell the
end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of
influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been
tried for centuries – and have always failed. We propose to substitute for all
these a universal organization in which all peace-loving nations will finally
have a chance to join. I am confident that the Congress and
the American people will accept the results of this conference as the beginning
of a permanent structure of peace.”
But America’s post-Cold War triumphalism eroded U.S.
leaders’ already half-hearted commitment to those rules. The neocons argued
that they were no longer relevant and that the United States must be ready to impose order on the world by the unilateral threat and use
of military force, exactly what the UN Charter prohibits. Madeleine
Albright and other
Democratic leaders embraced new doctrines of “humanitarian
intervention” and a “responsibility
to protect” to
try to carve out politically persuasive exceptions to the explicit rules of the
“endless wars,” its revived Cold War on Russia and China, its blank check for
the Israeli occupation and the political obstacles to crafting a more peaceful
and sustainable future are some of the fruits of these bipartisan efforts to
challenge and weaken the rules-based order.
Today, far from being a leader of the international
rules-based system, the United States is an outlier. It has failed to sign or
ratify about fifty important and widely accepted multilateral
treaties on everything from children’s rights to arms control. Its unilateral sanctions against
Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and other countries are themselves violations of international law, and the new
Biden administration has shamefully failed to lift these illegal sanctions,
ignoring UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ request to
unilateral coercive measures during the pandemic.
Blinken’s “rules-based order” a recommitment to President Roosevelt’s
“permanent structure of peace,” or is it in fact a renunciation of the United
Nations Charter and its purpose, which is peace and security for all of
In the light of Biden’s first few months in power, it
appears to be the latter. Instead of designing a foreign policy based on the
principles and rules of the UN Charter and the goal of a peaceful world,
Biden’s policy seems to start from the premises of a $753 billion U.S. military
budget, 800 overseas military bases, endless U.S. and allied wars and massacres, and massive weapons sales to repressive regimes.
Then it works backward to
formulate a policy framework to somehow justify all that.
Once a “war
on terror” that only fuels terrorism, violence and chaos was no longer
politically viable, hawkish U.S. leaders—both Republicans and Democrats—seem to
have concluded that a return to the Cold War was the only plausible way to perpetuate America’s militarist foreign policy
and multi-trillion-dollar war machine.
But that raised a new set of contradictions. For 40 years,
the Cold War was justified by the ideological struggle between the capitalist
and communist economic systems. But the U.S.S.R. disintegrated and Russia is
now a capitalist country. China
is still governed by its Communist Party, but has a managed, mixed economy
similar to that of Western Europe in the years after the Second World War – an
efficient and dynamic economic system that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in both
So how can these U.S. leaders justify their renewed Cold
War? They have floated the notion of a struggle between “democracy and
authoritarianism.” But the
United States supports too many horrific dictatorships around the world,
especially in the Middle East, to make that a convincing pretext for a Cold War
against Russia and China.
“global war on authoritarianism” would require confronting repressive U.S.
allies like Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, not
arming them to the teeth and shielding them from international accountability
as the United States is doing.
So, just as
American and British leaders settled on non-existent “WMD”s as the pretext they
could all agree on to justify their war on Iraq, the
U.S. and its allies have settled on defending a vague, undefined “rules-based
order” as the justification for their revived Cold War on Russia and
But like the emperor’s new clothes in the fable and the WMDs
in Iraq, the United States’ new rules don’t really exist. They are just its latest smokescreen for a
foreign policy based on illegal threats and uses of force and a doctrine of
“might makes right.”
We challenge President Biden and Secretary Blinken to prove
us wrong by actually joining the rules-based order of the UN Charter and
international law. That would require a genuine commitment to a very different
and more peaceful future, with appropriate contrition and accountability for
the United States’ and its allies’ systematic violations of the UN Charter and
international law, and the countless violent deaths, ruined societies and
widespread chaos they have caused.