Mises Wire

The “Rules-Based International Order” Is Dead. Washington Killed It.

The lack of self-awareness among the many American officials who are striking a moralistic pose in opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is striking.

For example, Foreign Policy has published a column by Col. Yevgeny Vindman, asking how the world can tolerate a country like Russia on the United Nations Security Council. His specific point was that any country that invades another country must not be allowed veto power in the United Nations. Responding to Vindman, however, Stephen Wertheim pointed out what should be obvious to everyone: that’s a “fair question” and one “that applies to 2003, too.”


In other words, the view that the current Russian invasion is somehow unique in its aggressiveness requires a complete rewriting of history and a willingness to ignore the reality of the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. If an aggressive power’s veto in the UN was perfectly fine in 2003, why is it suddenly not acceptable now? The reality, of course, is that the United States is powerful enough to invade whatever country it wants and still get away with it. A second-rate power like Russia can’t do the same, even when it basically mimics the acts of the United States.

Nonetheless, Washington continues to have the audacity to portray itself as a white knight that stands for a “rules-based” international order—an order supposedly built around respect for national sovereignty and multilateral enforcement of international law. But, it has become abundantly clear that these alleged rules mean nothing at all when the United States wishes to invade countries in preemptive and elective wars. For those who don’t wear the American selective-memory goggles, it is not clear that the US should be in a leadership position in a rules-based order that it is so obviously willing to flout.

There are implications here well beyond simply pointing out hypocrisy, and they extend to global trade, international law, and the prospects for a new Cold War. Multilateralism means nothing to the US when the notion gets in the way of the next US regime change scheme, and as a result, it is likely no coincidence that the US’s latest demand for a multilateral moral crusade has yielded little cooperation from the rest of the world. As has already become clear, few regimes outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been willing to go along with the US’s demands that the world’s regimes impoverish their citizens by cutting themselves off from Russian oil and wheat—and everything else. Much of the world, it seems—from Asia to Africa to Latin America—is no longer willing to get lessons in morality from Washington, and even less willing to make their populations go hungry in order to please Washington politicians.

This is likely to become an increasing issue for the global economy and for global international institutions moving forward.

Iraq 2003 versus Ukraine 2022

In 2003, the United States invaded a sovereign state in an elective and “preemptive” war. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—most of them civilians—were killed. Portrayals of Iraq as a threat to the US and its neighbors were exposed as lies.

In 2022, Russia invaded a sovereign state in an elective and “preemptive” war. Military and civilian casualties may someday rival those of Iraq, but given that Ukraine’s population is now twice as large as Iraq’s was in 2003, totals will need to grow considerably to be comparable to the carnage in Iraq.

Yet, the way the US regime, the US media, and US public treat these two invasions is truly a sight to behold. A few minutes on Twitter make it clear that Americans are still making excuses for the US’s blood-drenched Iraq invasion. Some claim that the deaths of Iraqi women and children should be ignored because the Iraqi regime wasn’t “democratic.”


Others portray the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq—a lowball figure being two hundred thousand out of a population of twenty-three million—as a negligible matter of a few “stray drones.”


Forgotten by these apologists are the times US troops opened fire on children and the US mercenaries who fired machine guns into crowds of unarmed Iraqis. Moreover, the US shelled and completely destroyed both Fallujah and Mosul. The bloodshed was remarkable, indeed. The US media, on the other hand, now hints the Russians are uniquely barbaric for using cluster bombs—but the US used these in Iraq. The US also purposely fomented a civil war through its needless de-Ba’athification policy, which rendered millions of Iraqis unemployed and abolished the nation’s few institutions designed to maintain local order.

Those caught up in the current anti-Russian frenzy denounce anyone who mentions these historical facts because they don’t fit Washington’s present narrative. But for most of the world, which isn’t as emotionally invested in the idea that the United States is the beacon of moral foreign policy, the last twenty-five years of US foreign policy make it clear that talk about a rules-based order is nothing more than talk.

Will the World Isolate Russia on Moral Grounds?

Even in the wake of the alleged massacres in and around Bucha, we’re hearing almost nothing at all from regimes outside the US’s inner circle of NATO and near-NATO allies. For example, in Fox’s piece on “world leaders” reacting to the alleged massacre, we quickly find that “the world” means a handful of countries like Japan, New Zealand, and NATO members. All the same regimes keep showing up in every piece about “the world’s” reaction.

Even within NATO, Turkey continues to engage in efforts to facilitate peace talks with Russia. There is still no sign that Latin America desires to throw its economies into recession by signing on to the US’s sanctions regime. No Latin American countries have yet been added to Russia’s list of “unfriendly countries.” As Mexico’s president has already made clear, Mexico’s interest is in maintaining friendly relations with all nations. India and China, of course, continue to trade with the Russians. In fact, the US-NATO axis only makes up one-third of global GDP (gross domestic product). The US is going to have to convince the rest of the world to cut themselves off from critical commodities in the name of joining the US’s rules-based order. But the US in no moral position to do so. 

Will the United Nations Eject Moscow?

One more key plank of the US strategy is now coming into focus. Within days of Vindman’s article in Foreign Policy calling for the removal of Russia from the UN Security Council, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky demanded the same, claiming that no country that invades another country can continue on the Security Council. Short of expelling Russia, Zelensky maintains, the council should dissolve itself. Needless to say, no similar demands were made when the US invaded Iraq, or when NATO devastated Libya. 

Zelensky, however, may have stumbled across a good idea. Now may be a good time to abolish the UN. The United States has spent the last thirty years turning the United Nations into a US-dominated institution designed to rubber stamp US military interventions, make excuses for US allies, and wag its finger at US enemies. This has long provided a patina of a rules-based international order, one that can also be ignored when it suits Washington. Thus, when the US failed to get its rubber stamp from the UN prior to the Iraq invasion, Washington denounced its opponents in the Security Council and instead embraced its eastern European partners like Poland and Ukraine, which apparently had no problem with invading and occupying countries unprovoked. (Ukraine sent at least 5,000 troops to help occupy Iraq.)

Prior to this, of course, the Security Council was deadlocked most of the time because the US and the Soviet Union would simply veto each other. Although both Washington and Moscow invaded other sovereign states during this time, neither was delusional enough to think other states in the Security Council could be ejected for such acts. That was then. 

Biden’s New World Order

This all continues to highlight how the world is descending into a postglobalization world of at least two blocs: the anti-Russian one and the neutral one. Biden has already claimed that Washington will lead the ”free world” in this “new world order.” But this “free world” is increasingly looking like the US, Europe, and a handful of other allies versus everyone else. Enlarging this bloc would depend on expanding soft power based at least in part on moral leadership, especially as the US continues to become a smaller and smaller part of the global economy. Thanks to the US’s blatant disregard for a rules-based order in recent decades, this looks increasingly unlikely. 

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