The at­tack on the rules-based or­der

When na­tions be­gin to break their own rules and ig­nore agreed cus­toms, in­stead of re­fresh­ing them and build­ing on them all the time, civil­i­sa­tion sick­ens at its roots.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

Across the in­ter­na­tional scene there is much talk and much con­cern about the de­cline of the rules-based or­der. The most quoted im­me­di­ate ex­am­ples are Rus­sia’s flout­ing of in­ter­na­tional law, China’s sim­i­lar dis­re­gard, at least in some ar­eas, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s at­tack on world trade rules and gen­eral dis­like of most mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions, Syria’s de­struc­tion of its own cit­i­zens, Myan­mar’s the same, paral­y­sis at the United Na­tions, civil­ian slaugh­ter in Ye­men and the ero­sion of global arms con­trol agree­ments and much more be­sides.

Th­ese are the ob­vi­ous symp­toms, although dig­ging deeper there are even more omi­nous signs. But be­fore we come to those what do we re­ally mean by the rule-based or­der?

It is a set of rules by which most na­tions abide, of promises and un­der­tak­ings to which most na­tions ad­here. It is a set of in­sti­tu­tions, at­ti­tudes and cus­toms which have evolved over the last 75 years, dur­ing and since the Sec­ond World War, but which ex­press the ex­pe­ri­ence of cen­turies past and draw on the bit­ter les­sons of mod­ern con­flict.

It has its roots in cul­tural dis­ci­plines, both hu­man­is­tic and re­li­gious and in the body of be­liefs which we la­bel hu­man rights and hu­man obli­ga­tions—the “rules” which give life mean­ing.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has cre­ated th­ese dis­ci­plines, and has sup­ported them up to now with a range of mul­ti­lat­eral bod­ies and treaties, to fos­ter what is good in hu­man na­ture and to con­trol and re­strain what is bad. When na­tions and peo­ples be­gin to break their own rules and ig­nore agreed cus­toms, in­stead of re­fresh­ing them and build­ing on them all the time, civil­i­sa­tion sick­ens at its roots. When na­tions lose con­trol of their own in­ter­nal mi­nori­ties and non-state ac­tors take cen­tre stage, the sick­ness deep­ens even fur­ther.

There is no ul­ti­mate al­ter­na­tive to the rule of law within na­tions, and com­pli­ance with a set of rules of be­hav­iour be­tween na­tions, or to self­dis­ci­pline, solemn promises kept, cus­toms re­spected and bind­ing treaties ad­hered to— no al­ter­na­tive, that is, ex­cept the rule of fear backed by ter­ror and in­ter­na­tional an­ar­chy.

And where that leads, the full global hor­rors of the war-filled 20th cen­tury tell us loud and clear.

The deeper dan­gers lie in the dis­tor­tion of democ­racy it­self. Our for­bears in the last cen­tury learnt painfully that democ­racy is all about re­straint and the prin­ci­ples which should guide good gov­er­nance. They learnt that when mass “peo­ple power” is aroused and ruth­lessly mo­bilised, the out­come is any­thing but demo­cratic. Prin­ci­ples go out of the win­dow, jus­tice is cor­rupted, in­ter­na­tional agree­ments are smashed and in the name of the peo­ple, the peo­ple’s free­doms are drained away, and with them the ac­cept­able norms of be­hav­iour be­tween coun­tries.

So the stakes could hardly be higher. The re­main­ing gen­uine democ­ra­cies are the world’s most pre­cious as­sets, In­dia be­ing by far the big­gest. Their preser­va­tion be­comes the cen­tre of the strug­gle to keep an agreed rules-based world or­der in place.

Yet to­day the num­ber of gen­uine and prin­ci­pled democ­ra­cies is on the de­cline. The word is still used to cover up jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the use of power, of­ten in plainly il­lib­eral ways. The most vis­i­ble and hor­rific fo­rum in which this is oc­cur­ring is the tur­bu­lent Mid­dle East and North African re­gion. There, the em­pow­ered mass of street opin­ion has over­thrown es­tab­lished hi­er­ar­chies and mo­bilised mili­tias on ev­ery side, bring­ing not sta­ble demo­cratic rule, but a thou­sand splin­ter­ing shards of vi­o­lent cells, fac­tions and tribes, ac­com­pa­nied by the ter­ror­ist bar­barism which al­ways re­turns in the end where or­dered gov­ern­ment fails.

Nor should it be as­sumed that the rule-smash­ers are only in what used to be called the de­vel­op­ing world. Eu­rope has its full share of pop­ulist and na­tion­al­ist move­ments, of course call­ing them­selves demo­cratic, but in prac­tice fol­low­ing a path to po­lit­i­cal dis­ar­ray and dis­or­der out of which much darker things grow. Even in Brit- ain, sup­pos­edly the home of mod­ern democ­racy and par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment, dan­ger­ous forces have been un­leashed which work di­rectly against bal­anced and tol­er­ant at­ti­tudes.

For ex­am­ple, the ref­er­en­dum on Brexit has spawned ugly phrases like “the will of the peo­ple”, mis-la­belled as democ­racy, but in fact straight for­ward ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism which threat­ens to ig­nore all mod­er­ate and mi­nor­ity view­points and in­sist on ma­jor­ity de­mands pre­vail­ing “in the name of the peo­ple”. The late Mar­garet Thatcher ab­horred ref­er­enda. How she would have had con­tempt this dan­ger­ous phrase to which the Brexit ref­er­en­dum de­bate has given fresh cur­rency— and for those on whose lips it is con­stantly be­ing found. From the all- rul­ing “will of the peo­ple” it is only one step to con­tempt for tire­some treaties and al­liances which con­strain sovereign in­de­pen­dence, and from there down to a harsher world with­out rules or re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at all.

So the bat­tle for pre­serv- ing gen­uine democ­racy, and for hon­esty and good faith be­tween na­tions, has to be fought again and again— more so than ever in to­day’s age of to­tal ac­cess to mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion and un­prece­dented in­for­ma­tion streams (real and fake), and the volatile and frag­mented pub­lic opin­ion it prop­a­gates.

The democ­ra­cies of the Com­mon­wealth have a key part to play in this strug­gle. The mod­ern Com­mon­wealth net­work, of which In­dia is the jewel, the out­stand­ing part, must close to­gether in a com­mon front in up­hold­ing law, democ­racy and free­dom in new world con­di­tions. The cause must be ad­vanced not just with promises of eco­nomic pros­per­ity but with prin­ci­ples, with mo­ral pur­pose, with deep-rooted law, agreed rules, cus­toms and norms of in­ter­na­tional be­hav­iour, and with the in­sti­tu­tions strong enough to up­hold th­ese es­sen­tial val­ues.

The care­less mood, so ev­i­dent world­wide, that dis­ci­plin­ing rules do not mat­ter any­more, must be stopped in its tracks. To gen­er­a­tions that be­lieve it is none of their busi­ness and that, in the pop­u­lar song’s words, “any­thing goes”, it must be ur­gently and per­sua­sively ex­plained that in such a world ev­ery­thing will soon be gone. And by then it will be far too late. Rt. Hon. Lord How­ell of Guild­ford served as Min­is­ter in the Ed­ward Heath, Mar­garet Thatcher and David Cameron ad­min­is­tra­tions. Lord How­ell has main­tained a close en­gage­ment with gov­ern­ment for­eign pol­icy, en­ergy poli­cies and the Com­mon­wealth. He is a for­mer Trea­sury econ­o­mist. He was for ten years the Chair of the House of Com­mons For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee and one of the chief ar­chi­tects of UK-Ja­pan re­la­tions. He was awarded the Or­der of the Sa­cred Trea­sure by the Em­peror of Ja­pan in 2002. Lord How­ell is Chair of the House of Lords In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee and Pres­i­dent of the Royal Com­mon­wealth So­ci­ety. He is the UK mem­ber of the Com­mon­wealth Gov­er­nance Re­form High Level Group. His forth­com­ing book, The Class of ’79, com­par­ing the po­lit­i­cal cer­tain­ties of the last cen­tury with the chaos of to­day, will be pub­lished in spring.

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