When Europe, the US and some neighboring countries chafe at China,
they use the term "rules-based order". So how does the US score on
the parameter of a rules-based order?
Studies in international politics show that the international
community is an orderly anarchy. Unlike nations, there is no
machinery to govern the international community, which, however, is
largely in an orderly state.
The basis for supporting the international order is changing
though. In general, from the Peace of Westphalia to World War II, a
power-based order existed in the world. Based on their national
strengths, European powers, which dominated the international
order, identified their sphere of influence in the world by using
wars or peace treaties. The change in strength was the main cause
of wars between great powers.
The international order after WWII turned to a rules-based one
which was closely related to the US - because of its superior
strength, the US regarded the whole world as its "sphere of
influence" and promoted the "rules-based" international order. With
the support of other major powers, the US helped establish global
political, financial, economic and cultural order by having a
leading role in the establishment of global organizations such as
the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary
Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and
The US vigorously advocated free trade and regarded it as the soul
of GATT because it was conducive to expanding the influence of the
US-led international rules. The US also had a comparative advantage
in industrial goods and the services industry, especially finance.
It helped the US take the moral high ground and highlighted the
responsibility which comes with leadership of the
To support allies, the US endured unilateral trade discrimination
from some countries and regions such as Europe, Japan, South Korea
as well as the island of Taiwan. This was the primary reason for
the low overall tax rate in the US. In a reciprocal gesture and
coupled with the need to occupy a large American market, these
countries and regions exported goods to the US at lower
With the sharp increase in the number of countries, the growth of
developing countries, and competition from some big countries, the
impact of the US on some international rules declined. Along with
this, the US interest in some international organizations was
eroded and Washington is increasingly unwilling to fulfill some
international obligations and haggling more and more until it
retreats. As a result, the US owes the UN millions in arrears,
while it demands its allies to increase military spending.
For an international system that clearly doesn't bring it many
benefits, the US attitude is clear: withdrawing, for instance, the
Paris climate agreement, and ending the Bretton Woods system; not
participating in but signing other bilateral agreements, a typical
instance of which is the International Criminal Court; not
participating but interpreting it in a way that benefits itself
such as with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea;
requiring special treatment at first and withdrawing when demands
were not met, such as with the International Court of Justice;
withdrawing from organizations where US influence is decreasing
such as UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council.
Historically, the US has always been pragmatic about the
international order. Isolationism that haunted Washington, Monroe
Doctrine that prevailed for more than half a century, Woodrow
Wilson's "Fourteen Points" and Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms"
are important instances.
Incumbent US President Donald Trump is not interested in agendas
such as world leadership and values. His policy of "America First"
is aimed at returning to the pragmatic tradition in an uninhibited
manner, with the aim of compensating the "victims of globalization"
in the country and holding back strong
To achieve this, he selectively uses different policy tools: In the
traditional manufacturing sector, he emphasizes "fair trade;" in
the services industries such as finance and high-end manufacturing
that the US has an advantage, he emphasizes "free trade" and
abandons "fair trade;" for US industries that could not gain
benefits either through "free competition" or "fair competition,"
he does not hesitate to use political and legal means to prop up US
companies and suppress rivals. Forcing manufacturing to return to
the US, encouraging other countries to invest in the country and
persecuting Huawei are the very policies against this
In this regard, the US has precedents before Trump. US suppression
of Japan includes the Plaza Accord in 1985 and "voluntary quota"
for the export of automobiles to the US in 1991. Amid the Asian
financial crisis in 1998, the US accused the Malaysian government
of adopting capital controls and supporting enterprises. During the
2008 global financial crisis, the US blatantly invested in Wall
Street and the auto industry on the grounds of "too big to fail".
Having double standards for international and domestic affairs is a
major trait of the US, and both the Democratic and the Republican
parties are the same. This is ironic for the superpower that
emphasizes "international rules".
In short, international rules are not neutral. The current
rules-based order is dominated by European countries and the US
that have their roots in Christian civilization. Countries from
other civilizations are only participants and recipients.
Nowadays, emerging economies represented by China have become the
main contributors to the global economic growth. They are no longer
satisfied with simply "receiving" and also demands contributing and
reaping benefits, which is undoubtedly justifiable. However, the
existing rules-based order has proven difficult to adapt to this
change. Therefore, this order will diverge to meet the needs of
cooperation and competition among civilizations.