Babylon Makes The Rules-Based International Order

You know what clarifies the difference between the U.S.' order and international law? Syria. Guidance…

Babylon Makes The Rules-Based International Order
The United States of America on a Risk game board. Courtesy of Hasbro.

Written by Spencer Ackerman

Edited by Sam Thielman

IN THE LAST EDITION, we dug a bit into the "Rules-Based International Order," which is what the U.S. calls the geopolitical and geoeconomic order it has defined and enforced since the Cold War. Now, Rep. Jamaal Bowman is pushing a measure that gives me another opportunity to clarify how the Rules-Based International Order replaces international law with American Exceptionalism.

Bowman, a New York Democrat and democratic socialist, is once again offering an amendment to the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that terminates funding for the U.S. military presence in Syria after a year. Bowman made the same attempt in the last Congress, and he got 155 votes for it, including from 25 Republicans.

We'll return to Bowman's amendment in a moment. For now, put aside whatever you think about the U.S. remaining in Syria. The fact that the U.S. is in Syria in the first place shows the divergence between the Rules-Based International Order and adherence to international law, which is the concept that the term "Rules-Based International Order" is meant to invoke—and which, in practice, it usurps.

Stipulating the dual monstrosities of Bashar Assad and the so-called Islamic State, there is no way to square U.S. military operations in Syria, which have occurred in the air since 2014 and on the ground since 2015, with international law. There is no U.N. authorization for any such U.S. mission. Whatever Assad's hold on Syrian sovereignty in 2014, it is not seriously contested in 2023, and while the U.S. doesn't recognize Assad, the U.S. has predictably done nothing to formalize the sovereignty of its partners in Rojava. (There is no U.N. authorization for the U.S. to operate in Iraq, either, but after the 2014 fall of Mosul, the Iraqi government invited the U.S. back, and that's sufficient from the perspective of the U.N. Charter. Biden re-upped that invitation in 2021.) Bowman's measure will either succeed or fail, but neither outcome can redress this fundamental reality, because Congress isn't an international legislature.

As I often do when I want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding a matter of international law, I reached out to a longtime-source-turned-friend, Mary Ellen O'Connell, a professor of international law at Notre Dame. "The United States has never had a legal right to fight in Syria, let alone establish a belligerent occupation," O'Connell said. "In 2014, when U.S. forces first crossed into Syria, President Obama asserted in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that the U.S. was acting lawfully because Syria was 'unwilling or unable' to prevent ISIS from using its territory. The statement was inaccurate on the facts and had nothing to do with the law."

But none of that is a problem for the Rules-Based International Order. Once the U.S. decided it was going to operate in Syria, the Rules-Based International Order was fundamentally satisfied. U.S. allies who are and feel invested in the Rules-Based International Order went along with it. The U.N. Security Council's non-approval can be chalked up to Russian perfidy, and that may even have the benefit of truth. The U.S., since the end of the Cold War, has portrayed its and NATO's military operations as accomplishing what international law should accomplish, were the Security Council not a reflection of the various prerogatives of the great powers permanently seated on it. As a military matter, that began in Bosnia in 1995, a mission portrayed an exception for a case of active genocide. Now it's so firmly entrenched that eight years of U.S. military operations in Syria, outside the rubric of international law, are unexceptional.

All of which indicates "a view in Washington and a few allied capitals that the Western liberal states are entitled to make up the rules they want, and other states must obey the law that is," O'Connell observes. "In March 2021 China’s representative, in talks with Tony Blinken pushed back, saying, 'What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called “rules-based” international order.'"

China is similarly selective about heeding the United Nations. We shouldn't have any illusions about how brittle and corruptible international structures are, nor should we lionize them. I don't think there's any way of getting geopolitics out of international law, anymore than there's a way of getting domestic politics out of domestic law, since that's not how power works. The key is to build international structures that can best accommodate— peacefully accommodate, primarily —those political disputes.

Americans are going to want these structures the day that Chinese power overtakes American power and the U.S. is left sputtering about international law failing to authorize this-or-that-prerogative of Beijing's rules-based international order. For a year and a half, much of the world has resisted U.S. entreaties for broader international support of Ukraine. That resistance taught those willing to listen that quite a lot of the world does not see the Rules-Based International Order as fundamentally more legitimate than Russia's own defiance of international law. This is what we call "foreshadowing."  

The alternative to strengthening, recasting, reforming, etc. these international structures is the path that the Trump and now Biden administrations have pursued: a massive economic-military effort to constrain Chinese power and diminish it relative to American power for as long as possible. That choice will keep the possibility of a war with China alive, while, at every turn, policymakers will proclaim that they don't seek a war—often with sincerity. And all of this will happen while humanity faces climate extinction, a first-order emergency that cannot be addressed without international cooperation. This is what the Rules-Based International Order, as it occupies and displaces the concept of international law, truly has to offer.

A WORD ABOUT AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM. Occasionally I've heard some confusion about how I use the term, as I diverge somewhat from the standard usage. “American exceptionalism” more commonly refers to America having an exceptional civilizational destiny as a shining city on a hill or some other such metaphor; a beacon of freedom powered by virtue. But I think we understand things not by their self-conceptions, but by how they work in practice. American Exceptionalism, in practice, is a status quo, dependent not upon virtue but upon power, in which America sets the rules and is exempt from following them. Understanding it as a parochial bromide about how America is distinctly good in a fallen world is just a license for America doing as it will. We know American Exceptionalism by its works.

That's why Barack Obama was wrong to say he "believes" in American Exceptionalism the same way "the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism." All the pride you may have in your civilizational achievements won't exempt you from international law. Power is what does that. "Believe" in American Exceptionalism or don't—American Exceptionalism will exist as long as the dollar is the linchpin of international finance, and so forth. It's like how no one needs to believe in the physical, intellectual, etc. superiority of white people for white supremacy to function. White supremacy is a social order that grants white people superior access to material benefits. That social order is what generates ludicrous beliefs in the superior merit of the children of Yakub. American Exceptionalism, as I wrote in REIGN OF TERROR, functions as white supremacy on a global scale.

TWO MORE THINGS ABOUT BOWMAN'S AMENDMENT. In the context we've been discussing, the amendment sets the bar on the floor: one final year in Syria violating international law. The U.S. military—with 900 troops remaining around, uh, the oil fields—will have 12 months to wrap it up, and the Syrian Kurds will have 12 months to prepare for the end of U.S. military patronage, which would be more notice than Trump gave them in 2019 (and might give them in 2025 should he return to the White House). Since the mission in Syria is by definition indefinite —its mission is forestalling an ISIS reemergence, with an occasional side order of checking Iranian power—there is no non-arbitrary point by which the mission can end. Maybe imposing an end to the mission can provide the motivation necessary to resolve the crisis represented by the city-sized open-air al-Hol detention camp, a crisis that the U.S. can simply punt on and hope for a deus ex machina as long as it intends to occupy northeast Syria indefinitely.

Supporters of amendments like Bowman's—which, to be clear, I hope passes—often argue that if the U.S. thinks its interest in remaining in Syria is so strong, then Congress should actively debate a declaration of war. Such a declaration stands perhaps even less chance of passing than Bowman's amendment does, so I get the bluff-calling appeal of this argument. But I have to object that such a vote would still be a vote to violate international law...

ANTI-MATTER, QUITE POSSIBLY THE GREATEST zine to have ever emerged from hardcore, has returned, 30 years later, as a Substack. It's probably too much of a stretch to say that if it wasn't for Anti I never would have become a journalist or a writer. But when I picture my "career" trajectory as the domino meme, "buying Anti at a merch table" is probably one of the dominoes.

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I PLANNED ON DOING A DIVE THROUGH THE NDAA since it's on the House floor this week. But over the past five days, I've done an insane, exhausting amount of work for a project that is nowhere near ready to be made public. Believe me when I say that project is the most exciting thing I have ever been involved with—and I say that while I'm in the process of having my youthful comic-book dreams come true. So you can imagine not just my enthusiasm for this thing, but my anxiety over it possibly not happening. I promised you last year that I wouldn't half-ass this newsletter, and I'm trying to keep that promise. The NDAA is going to have to wait. Send good vibes. Even better than good vibes is money—buy a subscription!