A photo of Joe Biden, President of the U.S.A.
A photo from U.S. President Biden's Twitter on November 21, 2022. Credit: Joe Biden / Twitter

For the past several years, Western powers and their allies have claimed they want to protect the “rules-based international order” (RBIO). The phrase came into common usage in respect to China’s actions in the South and East China Seas but has become ubiquitous with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The West argues that China’s and Russia’s actions threaten the RBIO. Therefore, the entire world has a stake in maintaining that order and so should be united in its condemnation of these states’ behaviours. 

The speeches of Canadian officials are littered with the phrase. The Western world represents law, order and justice in the international system, the story goes. Its opponents represent the forces of chaos and injustice. It is “democracies vs. autocracies” and the West has to win, though the US is open to welcoming non-democratic states so long as they join the coalition against China. Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (CIPS) uses the phrase constantly and accuses China of violating and trying to alter the rules of the system to further its own interests. 

There is just one problem with this narrative: it is fundamentally wrong. Indeed, the reality is almost exactly the opposite of what the RBIO’s proponents assert.  No faction in world politics violates the RBIO more spectacularly or consequentially than the Westparticularly the United States.

 The US illegally invaded Iraq, laying the foundation for the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Its “war on terror” has killed hundreds of thousands. It institutionalized torture while protecting its torturers from legal consequences. It has undermined the International Criminal Court (ICC). It has used illegal sanctions to brutalize many countries and has overthrown and undermined many states. The US facilitates Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians. It supports numerous other major human rights abusers. Other Western states– notably Britain and France -are responsible for their own litany of violence and complicity.

READ MORE: ‘Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy’: From UN Peacekeeper to U.S. Sentinel State

The non-Western world understands these facts. Anger at blatant Western hypocrisy is one of the reasons that most non-Western states have not joined Western sanctions against Russia. The West has no right to claim the “moral high ground” and many states are irritated at being pressured to uphold a RBIO that, in practice, means the US makes the rules for others and then violates them with impunity.

If the West has no credibility when it claims to support the RBIO, are Western leaders just self-delusional when they make the claim? Or are their words meant primarily for domestic consumption, to mislead their publics into greater future conflicts? The answer is probably a combination of these factors, but the latter explanation has the greater weight.

The US has launched an economic and technological war against China. It is trying to box China in politically. It has China surrounded with hundreds of military bases.  It seems determined to needlessly provoke a conflict with China over Taiwan that could devastate the entire world. It is doing all of this to maintain American global domination

By casting the world in Manichaean terms, Western leaders build fear-driven, compliant publics that will go along with a great deal of violence. Western leaders weaponize concepts like “democracy” and “human rights” -concepts they cast aside when inconvenient – to demonize the enemy of the day. We have seen this before, as in the buildup to the Iraq War. The near hysteria in the US over a Chinese balloon and the fearmongering in Canada over Chinese election interference illustrate the same points. Legitimate concerns are blown out of proportion. The public is manipulated through the exaggeration of threat. States that have little to fear are stirring up as much fear as they can. 

These are ominous developments. The most violent, warmongering, rule-breaking states in the world -led by the US – are casting their opponents as warmongering rule-breakers. They deal with their obvious hypocrisy by refusing to acknowledge it and ignoring what the rest of the world sees. 

Russia is guilty of starting a vicious war. China has been aggressive in Asia. However, how Western policy may have contributed to these situations is a taboo subject. In the West, self-examination is discouraged. Only uncritical “groupthink” is acceptable. Thus, the world is stumbling towards what may be two nuclear confrontations –largely because the US refuses to accept it must share global power and because countries like Canada are so committed to a status quo that has worked to their advantage that they are unwilling to challenge American hubris.

The global environment is in crisis. International cooperation is more important than ever. But Western states would rather see the world burn – literally- than compromise the power they seized by unspeakable violence over the past 300 years and have maintained through rigging the world’s political and economic systems. 

Most of the world really does want to follow a “rules-based international order.” It is a tragic irony that the phrase has become a statement of Western hypocrisy.

Shaun Narine

Shaun Narine is a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB.