Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

China Wants a 'Rules-Based International Order,' Too

| Mar. 31, 2021

The question is who gets to write the codes—and whether the United States will live up to its own.

A ready ability to use the phrase "rules-based international order" seems to have become a job requirement for a top position in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus. One need look no further than Secretary of State Antony Blinken's opening statement during his recent meeting with top Chinese officials. "Our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order," he said. The alternative, he continued, "is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us." China, he seemed to be saying, is not only out to dismantle the U.S.-led order but also out to bring back the days of "might makes right."

But the distinction between the United States' supposed commitment to a system of rules and China's alleged lack thereof is misleading in at least three ways. First, it overlooks the United States’ own willingness to ignore, evade, or rewrite the rules whenever they seem inconvenient. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that Washington sometimes thinks it is perfectly okay for might to make right and for winners to take all. The collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States took full advantage of a weakened post-Soviet Russia, is a perfect example.

Second, as Harvard University's Alastair Iain Johnston has shown, China accepts and even defends many principles of the existing order, although of course not all of them. That situation may change in the future, of course, but even a vastly more powerful China would undoubtedly seek to retain whatever features of the present order serve its interests.

Third, statements such as Blinken's imply that abandoning today's rules-based order would leave us in a lawless, rule-free world of naked power politics, unregulated by any norms or principles whatsoever. This is simply not the case: Scholars of widely varying views understand that all international orders—global, regional, liberal, realist, or whatever—require a set of rules to manage the various interactions that inevitably arise between different polities....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“China Wants a 'Rules-Based International Order,' Too.” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt