Op-Ed: When multilateralism crumbles, so does our rules-based order

This essay by Mark Medish originally appeared in The Guardian.

Mike Pompeo and John Bolton have led the charge against multilateralism, but they should be careful: might can win on a given day, but it will never make right.

The high water mark of multilateralism is probably behind us. In a speech late last year, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made approving reference to a “self-help world” in defense of Donald Trump’s “America first” policy. It’s hardly a new idea. As Thucydides said: “The strong do what they can; the weak do what they must.”

Since the end of the second world war, the rules-based system has been a long and imperfect work in progress. But the driving idea was that multilateral commitments to legal norms would be self-reinforcing and help to turn standards into practice. Multilateralism is a strategic bet on normative advances based on mutuality. The converse is certainly true: self-help will accelerate a collapse of shared legal standards.

That Pompeo misattributed the self-help doctrine to his predecessor George Marshall, who was of course a pioneer of multilateral cooperation, is beside the point: it reflects the Trump administration’s philosophy. The national security adviser, John Bolton, too, has led the charge against multilateralism, starting with an attack on the international criminal court, a US-led legal project. At the last G20 summit, Bolton reportedly banned his staff from using the phrase “rules-based order”.

One of the many signs of the decline of the rules-based order is the spate of cross-border arrests of business executives, journalists and other private citizens. These incidents are not new – indeed, I spent much time in the US government in the 1990s extricating American citizens detained abroad on various charges including espionage – but the higher frequency of detentions of business executives today is noteworthy.

Consider a few recent cases specifically in the context of increasing tensions between the US, China and Russia:

  • The US asked Canada to detain a top Chinese telecom executive for alleged sanctions violations.
  • China retaliated by arresting a number of Canadian citizens on various charges.
  • Russia arrested an American in apparent reprisal for a spying prosecution of a Russian in the US.

The legal merit of each case is different, but all suggest the tactical use of judicial powers to gain foreign policy or other leverage. The message seems to be, if you want the upper hand in a bilateral negotiation, go arrest that foreigner! Private citizens working across borders should take notice of what was once a more remote risk – becoming a pawn in a geopolitical game.

Between protectionist trade wars, unilateral sanctions proliferation, treaty withdrawals, mutual suspicion of espionage and other nationalist impulses, global commerce today is anything but business as usual. Law courts are increasingly viewed through the same lens of self-help.

Prior to this rash of detentions, a far more brazen series of cross-border attacks in violation of international norms dominated 2018 headlines:

  • The torture and assassination of US–based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Turkey.
  • The abduction of the Chinese head of Interpol, a multilateral legal cooperation agency based in France, by Chinese authorities.
  • The biological attack in the UK on the Skripal family by Russian operatives resulting in death and grave injury.

This trend calls for heightened vigilance and pushback against actions that undermine shared norms. Unfortunately, Washington’s nationalist signals have given broad license to the flouting of a multilateral rules-based order that was once a cornerstone of America’s policy – and a source of its unique influence.

Misgivings were fueled early in the Trump era when his flameout secretary of state Rex Tillerson, supposedly a “grown-up” on the team, explained of human rights: “Those are our values. Those are not our policies.” Tillerson could never live down his dangerous retreat from the longstanding US declaratory commitment on human rights. Other states, historically far less committed to human rights, have gladly joined this trend toward lawless self-help.

Unilateralists should be careful what they wish for. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Might can win on a given day, but it will never make right, and the relative balance of power can shift over time.

Mark Medish is the president of The Messina Group, a consultancy, and served at the the White House and US treasury under former president Bill Clinton

The Messina Group
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