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30 July 2021

Welcome to the rules-based disorder

Why geopolitics no longer operates under a common set of rules.

The US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman met her Chinese counterparts in the Chinese city of Tianjin on 26 July. Her message was that the United States and China can avoid falling into a spiral of great power competition and conflict if they accept the common rules governing their relationship. “The US wants to ensure that there are guardrails and parameters in place to responsibly manage the relationship,” a senior American diplomat told Reuters. “Everyone needs to play by the same rules and on a level playing field.”

This message appears to contradict everything we have heard from Washington in recent years. “Play by the same rules”? How can that be if the priority of American policy on China has been to write the rules governing world politics, and to do so before China has any chance to do the same? “We make up 25 per cent of… the economy in the world,” Joe Biden said in November 2020. “We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25 per cent or more, so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.”

So which is it? Does everyone play by the same rules? Or do some set the rules? And if some set the rules, why should the others follow them? In June 2018, when a photographer famously captured Angela Merkel leaning over Donald Trump in rightful indignation, sources in the room say that both she and Emmanuel Macron were trying to convince a sceptical US president to accept a reference to the “rules-based international order” in the final statement of the G7.

Trump resisted because he believed, not without reason, that the great advantage of being strong is the ability to break the rules. The compromise rehearsed at the G7 in Quebec that year – after Trump proclaimed that he wanted to change, rather than affirm, the rules – was to speak of “a rules-based order,” rather than “the rules-based order”. The difference was down to a grammatical nicety and an agreement was tantalisingly close, but in the end Trump retracted his endorsement of the joint statement.

Trump is not alone in his defiance of the “rules of the road” that have governed world politics since the end of the Cold War. In her hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on 25 February this year, the new Democratic US trade representative Katherine Tai was asked whether the goal of a trade agreement between two developed economies should be the elimination of tariffs and trade barriers. She disagreed. “Maybe if you had asked me this question five or 10 years ago, I would have been inclined to say yes,” Tai responded. The rules have changed.

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We would do well, then, to drop the pablum of “playing by the same rules”. That is not what world politics is about. The rules are not given and they are anything but neutral. The game is considerably more complex, as the main players compete not under a common set of rules but in order to define what the rules are. The system is open to change, its rules may be influenced or determined by the choices and actions of the different participants and, as a result, tilted more in favour of some of them rather than others. And as the US has shown, they can even change their mind about which rules are best.

[See also: Why Joe Biden’s presidency is faltering]

I remember a discussion I had in Beijing with Chinese officials in which I tried to explain the American position on technology transfer. I have never seen an angrier debate. In Washington it might seem obvious that companies should not be asked to transfer their intellectual property to Chinese companies or authorities. For the Chinese officials in front of me, it was a free choice: you could always leave the Chinese market. Is one set of rules more natural or rational than the other?

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And yet, as elegant as it may sound initially, the concept of a game whose purpose is to set its own rules is ultimately incoherent. Who gets to decide which changes to the rules are acceptable? As soon as the rules are contested or up for debate, the game is replaced by the jungle or the gladiatorial arena – a battle royale in which anything goes. If one side succeeds in imposing the rules, are these rules or dictates?

The Russian strategist Sergey Karaganov told me that he once asked the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security advisor to President Carter, why he was so fond of describing world politics as a game of chess: “In a game of chess there are two players, and yet in your mind there is only one.” The final goal of power is to disguise its nature as power – as the senior official in Washington put it, America is just playing by the rules like everyone else. Normally, only the powerful, and only for brief periods, believe this is how politics works.

There is a third model, however, different from both the chess board and the jungle: the video game. In a video game it is primarily through play that we discover the rules, and rarely are the rules spelled out for us before we play. Sometimes a weapon may be used as a ladder to climb over a wall, but you could easily play many rounds of the game before discovering that possibility. This is a more accurate image of world politics, where nothing is clear before you test the ground.

The ongoing confrontation between Washington and Beijing is not a game that is being played under a common set of rules. Nor is it return of the jungle or the arena. There is a kind of order to the engagement. Both sides experiment with different moves. They might impose certain trade tariffs or sanctions, while investing in key technologies such as semiconductors or batteries. They spread ideas and narratives, trying to convince a global audience that their system is better at delivering lives for their people. Allies are sought according to their strategic value, like pieces in the old strategy game Risk. Even climate change has been gamified. As US secretary of state Antony Blinken put it in April, ahead of a White House virtual climate summit, “it is difficult to imagine the United States winning the long-term strategic competition with China if we cannot lead the renewable energy revolution.”

[See also: The West isn’t dying – its ideas live on in China]

It certainly feels like a game, and there seem to be some rules. Both Washington and Beijing look deliberate and calculating, spending most of their energies trying to understand the inner logic of the global system and how it can be used to their advantage. But no one knows very well what the rules are, not in advance anyway. Some moves might turn out to be misguided. One of the traits of our time is the running commentary on every geopolitical move, with analysts endlessly identifying what they see as errors, much like sports commentary. In a typical day, a geopolitical analyst like myself will point out how this move by Washington is bound to backfire, how Beijing cannot learn from past mistakes, how Berlin has lost it, or how everything will be decided in the critical third period of extra time. But these analysts all disagree on everything.

Perhaps the rules-based order has been replaced not by the jungle but by something like a rules-based disorder. A video game, or, more ponderously, a vast technological construct that has so completely replaced the natural world of the jungle or the arena that geopolitical powers must now face each other within a global system that has been considerably automated and seems able to dictate outcomes, rewarding or punishing those agents that fail to understand how it all works. Think of the rhythm of financial crises, global investment and economic flows, technological progress and power. How do you ensure your country and your companies will be the ones controlling the key sources of power in the future? The process by which an actor comes to master the way power and technology work is almost indistinguishable from the process by which one learns how to play a game. The game takes place in a large, unknown space. In the course of the game, the main players will explore this space, map out its geography, unravel its secrets. Welcome to the world game.

Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe Minister from 2013-2015 and is the author of the forthcoming book Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis (2021)