For at least a couple of decades now, the words “liberal international order” have been used by mainstream strategic thinkers in the United States as a codeword for a world led by the United States.
Under that concept, all nations (ideally) operate in a rational manner, wedded to the rule of law and free from excessive “statism” in daily life and the economy — often with the involvement of multilateral institutions.
Putin gets blamed
For quite a while now, these same U.S. voices have professed great indignation about the venerable “liberal international order” being shredded.
They are crystal clear about who is to blame for that: none other than Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
There is no doubt that Putin plays all sorts of dirty games all over the globe and often uses what is left of international order and international law in the most cynical manner.
But that does not mean that Putin is the one responsible for shredding the liberal international order.
The problem with the very convenient “It’s Putin’s fault” argument is that it has never been Putin’s job to preserve or support that order.
Anybody who believes that only betrays his own naiveté or wishful thinking. The Russian, as well as the Chinese, government’s interest clearly lies in establishing a non-U.S. centric world order.
Somebody else is a far bigger culprit
The big problem with U.S. policymakers loudly broadcasting their disappointment with Putin’s supposed shredding of the liberal international order is their damning silence on the United States’ own role in tearing that order apart.
Whatever the deficiencies of Western powers in global affairs, one of their presumed advantages, at least according to their own advertising, is that they are rational and responsible powers wedded to upholding the rule of law.
It is on that basis, in the West’s own doctrine, that its actions on the global stage have legitimacy.
The U.S. suffers from collective amnesia
The truth is that it wasn’t Putin — or even Trump now — as much as George W. Bush and his reckless foreign policy cowboys — remember Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, all names that should live in infamy — who did most of the shredding of that liberal international order.
They committed acts of war that were clearly criminal in nature. Their only saving grace was — and is — that they have a U.S. passport.
The incredible legal gymnastics that they resorted to cover their tracks as best they could was continued under the Obama Administration, although in a much milder form.
Still, Obama did not break with his predecessor’s Bush league approach. Deliberately obscure mandates in Iraq simply changed topic, gone were the torture memos, in where drone strike memos.
In Russia’s and China’s shoes
Put yourself into the shoes of a Russian or Chinese policymaker for a moment – and ask any one of these four questions:
1. What could possibly be the Russians’ and Chinese incentive to act responsibly (and legally), after the United States, the chief sermonizer of goodness in world affairs, under Bush II’s (and also, in part, under Obama’s tutelage) had lowered its own behavioral standards so much?
2. Can the Russians and Chinese really afford not to behave in the same callous, reckless, mean and demeaning way as the Americans did in Iraq?
3. Are the Russians and Chinese supposed not to give in to the imperial temptation when they feel that need at a given moment and the U.S. government itself is showing little restraint?
4. Why should the Russians and the Chinese hold themselves to a higher standard in international affairs than the United States?
After all, it was the U.S. government — with its “wars of will” argument over a decade ago — that degraded the existing terms of reference for international behavior. That inevitably had effects on others.
If America can do it
The Russians and Chinese, with good reason from their vantage point, only demand equal rights to abuse the international system.
The way in which the Americans are proliferating the “it’s Putin’s fault” argument at the present time so mindlessly and so intensely — for all of Putin’s faults — does nothing to resurrect the international order.
Quite the opposite. It is yet another double standard, where other nations are held to a standard by the Americans the gross violation of which committed by themselves they have simply conveniently forgotten.
Collective amnesia may be a very self-serving way to try and wash one’s hands of one’s own crimes. But it is hardly a credible way to reestablish an order that prides itself on being rational and consistent.