Even before he was elected, US president Joe Biden and his foreign policy advisers claimed to champion a “rules-based”, “liberal” “international order”. Indeed, Biden’s presidency has been a rolling seminar on the subject. Time and again, Biden, secretary of state Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and centrist-progressive security minds have insisted that the commander-in-chief is restoring a noble tradition of post-war American statecraft after the anomaly of Donald Trump. Whereas other powers broke rules, flouted norms, violated human rights, enforced economic protectionism and lorded over spheres of influence, America was different. Democratic and never-Trump Republican “adults” would return Washington to Moralpolitik and revive “global leadership”. Biden vowed: “America is coming back like we used to be. Ethical, straight, telling the truth… supporting our allies, those good things.”
Now that Israel, America’s intimate ally, has retaliated to Hamas’s pogrom of 7 October with a massacre in Gaza, it is past time to leave this overblown rhetoric behind. This is especially so, given that Washington has chosen not to bring significant pressure to bear on Tel Aviv to moderate its onslaught. The interim judgement of the International Court of Justice in January 2024 should mark the point where talk of a “rules-based liberal order” embodied by America should fail the laughter test. True, the ICJ judgement is not simply a slam-dunk verdict against Israel. Not yet. But it finds there is a case to answer over the allegation of genocide. That excess carnage, genocidal or not, is enough to rebuke the story Biden tells.
Before 7 October, there were already signs that Biden’s restorationist vision was more nostalgic, have-it-all-ways theology than prudent strategy. Biden’s trade representative repudiated a ruling of the World Trade Organisation on steel and aluminium imports, on “national security” grounds. Biden himself convened global “Democracy” summits, but deference and loyalty rather than government type determined the invitation list. His administration mulls seizing Russian central bank assets, despite the Treasury secretary noting it would be illegal. Sullivan promised the US would move “decisively” against any Russian deployment of troops to Cuba and Venezuela, in the long tradition of denouncing spheres of influence while asserting them. To stay in the ascendancy, America orders the world by exempting itself from the rules that it commands others obey.
Now with the agony of Gaza, the gap between preachment and practice yawns more fully. Confident that Vladimir Putin’s Russian army could be declared guilty of genocide in Ukraine in 2022, in 2023 Sullivan discovered the White House does not want to play “judge and jury” over similar charges against the Israeli Defence Force. So what is it to be? Upholding liberal values as moral tutor? Or non-judgemental solidarity with allies?
As America’s recent engagements with Saudi Arabia and Israel demonstrate, a steadfast commitment to allies and upholding liberal values do not always go together. They can violently conflict. When forced, Biden chooses allies and strategic presence over the “values” he invokes. Washington is too scared to coerce partners that defy its will, be they Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Israel. It is too reluctant to test the influence it claims to have. It is also too scared to abandon the region, or use the threat of abandonment. Instead, America loiters, earning the charge of complicity without exerting much influence. Its partners sense the hesitancy and exert reverse leverage on Washington. As President Bill Clinton once muttered, “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?”
Yet some adherents of “liberal order” respond that the idea of liberal order cannot fail, it can only be failed. Consider the reaction of Jeet Heer of The Nation, who tweeted: “It’s pretty clear now that Israel & the USA will now start to wage a war to dismantle the liberal international order the USA created after WWII. Far from being the heir of FDR, JFK and LBJ, Biden will continue the project of Trumpism.” It is not, to Heer and others, the lofty rhetorical standards that are the problem, but the Biden administration’s failure to live up to them.
Note here the Disney version of history. There was, allegedly, a liberal order championed at least into the 1960s by good Democrat presidents, and Biden is betraying it. But consider Heer’s exemplars of liberal international order: president Franklin Roosevelt authorised a biological weapons programme; John F Kennedy oversaw the “Bay of Pigs” coup debacle; and Lyndon Johnson presided over the carpet-bombing campaign of Rolling Thunder. Each policy can be attacked or defended. But if they count as “liberal international order”, the term is meaningless.
The liberal critique of Biden, which faults the president for not living up to his own rhetoric, only encourages the delusion that got us here: that a far-sighted, benign hegemon can tame the world into liberal values, and that the world outside the West is a group of one-dimensional ethicists wishing to be “led”. But is it not rather the whole proposition of “liberal order” that fails interrogation? America is generally more benign than other leading states – its statecraft at its best has been creative and made the world better, from the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, to the Nunn-Lugar programme to eliminate post-Soviet nuclear arsenals. But “benign” and “lawful” are different propositions. And the notion that the superpower consistently binds itself by “rules” and liberal constraints leaves out too much reality, from coups to torture to conniving with dictators to sheer rule-breaking caprice. This is not because of some inherent wickedness. It is because the world is a treacherous place that shoves states towards ruthless power politics. Appeals to bend to the will of the “international community” ring hollow in such a world, especially for Israelis and Palestinians, who in dark hours the world abandoned.
Even an all-seeing, bolder philosopher king would struggle to pick their way through the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics and double-dealing “friends” without compromising or violating principles, norms and laws. Egypt presents a choice between uniformed dictators and Islamists. Ties with Turkey, indeed the Lausanne settlement of a century ago, were built on conferring immunity for the Armenian genocide, and Biden’s recognition of that historical event damaged relations with Ankara. Containing Iran means collaborating with authoritarian Gulf monarchies. As for Israel, George HW Bush was the last president to attempt to oppose illegal settlements by coercion and was outflanked domestically and beaten by Clinton for his trouble. Leaving the region, an option worth entertaining, would likely trigger more bloodletting. Pious homilies about rules-based democracies duelling with anti-American dictatorships are of limited value here.
Perhaps the severity of the choices and the roughness of allies and clients is why today’s Middle East features so little in prominent arguments for reviving the rules-based international order. Perhaps it is why the Biden administration refused, in the end, to revise America’s fundamental policy settings in the region, instead affirming that the region was “quieter” and hoping it would remain so. Perhaps it is why resurgent liberal hawks, whose moralism is pronounced in Ukraine, have increasingly little to say about Israel’s conduct in Gaza.
Talk of the need to revive the liberal order encourages a fool’s errand, the search for alternative moral torchbearers. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, liberal order nostalgics looked to the German chancellor Angela Merkel as the supposed champion of rules-based order, before Ukraine highlighted the disaster of German overdependency on the Russian gas that fed the beast in Moscow. Today, it is South Africa, who took Israel to court, that some are casting as the new bearers of “moral authority”, along with the so-called “global South” they are said to lead.
South Africa, however, is no more an exemplar of Moralpolitik than America. It indulges the atrocious when it suits. Only the week before litigating, President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted the bloodstained Sudanese warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo . As for the non-Western “Rest”, try telling Ukrainians about their internationalist virtue. Despite their history of colonial victimhood, much of the romanticised global South proved flexible on human rights and sovereignty when their interests were at stake. Those nations accommodated Russia’s predatory campaign in Ukraine by hedging in order to maintain energy and security ties with Moscow. They don’t want anyone’s “global leadership”. They want to secure hard interests, here and now. It is not a liberal world. There is much that Joe Biden cannot control. What he and his mandarins can control is how they understand and frame America’s choices. Biden’s rhetoric thus far – undisciplined, missionary, universalist and unforced – sets standards anyone would flunk. As well as being ahistorical, this pious language overstates US power, deflects attention from hard trade-offs and priorities, and generally makes diplomacy harder. And because it is at odds with the exposed realities of the region, the language does little to build support at home. It plays into the hands of Donald Trump, who instead of euphemising American power brazenly threatens to wield it. Rather than reheating the old script, Washington should try something else, and rebuild foreign policy around a blunter, more realistic acknowledgement of the world as it is.