Americans Should Not Seek a World Without Rules. Just Ask the Middle East

Faisal Al Yafai

Earlier this month, America’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, stood up in Washington and used his first major speech to attack an international institution that the United States isn’t even a part of. “We will not cooperate with the [International Criminal Court],” he said. “We will not join the ICC. For all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

That was puzzling because previous presidents, back to George W Bush, have occasionally cooperated with the court – which was set up in 2002 to investigate war crimes around the world and bring perpetrators to justice – even if they have refused to ratify the Rome Statute.

But the key sentence came later in the speech, because the focus of Bolton’s speech – and the increasing direction of the Trump presidency – is rather different. The United States, he said, “does not recognize any higher authority than the US constitution.” That sentence was key because it goes to the heart of a wider debate in international relations, and the nature of the constraints that can be placed on powerful countries.

In essence, Bolton appears to believe that the US, by virtue of its great military power, should operate in a world without rules. But most Americans would not welcome such a world, and America would be one of the main victims of it. Just ask the Middle East. No region better understands the immense dangers of a world without global rules, because no region has suffered as much from a lack of them.

Seen from the US, this attack on the court makes a certain amount of sense. Bolton is particularly infuriated because the court has signaled that it may open an investigation into allegations of war crimes allegedly committed by US forces in Afghanistan. This is where the issue gets a bit more complicated.

The lofty world of international law also has to exist with the gritty realpolitik of international relations. And a cornerstone of international relations is that the US, with the overwhelming military power that allows it to be the world’s policeman, cannot itself easily be constrained. There is no military force capable of policing the police force, or, to paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal, of guarding the guards.

That presents a problem when, as certainly happened during the “war on terror,” the US oversteps global norms. When Barack Obama came into office he banned the use of torture by any government agency, ending the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques used in Guantanamo Bay and other places. But while Obama was willing to go that far, he refused to prosecute any Bush-era officials. When it comes to policing its own citizens, there is only so far that the US can go.

In one sense, that is also what Bolton is seeking to do, protecting his compatriots. Yet he is – if the allegations are true – protecting the worst of his own citizens, something that most Americans would object to.

Seen from the Middle East, however, the situation looks rather different. If in the past the region was able to project power beyond its borders and enforce rules for other countries to live by, today, the Middle East has more often felt the effects of a world without enforceable rules.

The invasion of Iraq happened because there was no way to force the US and the UK to adhere to international rules. The occupation of Palestine continues because there is no way to force Israel to adhere to international rules. The repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria has occurred because there is no way to force the Assad regime to adhere to international rules.

The problem is not that the rules don’t exist; it’s that there is no way to enforce them. In order for a genuine rules-based world order to emerge, countries, especially powerful ones, will have to give up a measure of sovereignty. They will have to agree to be bound by the same rules as everyone else.

So far, there appears to be little appetite for that, neither from the US nor from other big countries like Russia, China and India (none of which have joined the ICC). In fact, Bolton’s attacks on the ICC move the argument in the opposite direction. The long-term consequences of breaking up institutions like the ICC is a global retreat to a world where great powers make the rules.

That is not a recipe for peace – as the long wars of the 18th and 19th century in Europe attest – but for a world of endlessly shifting alliances and asymmetric warfare. It is a reality the Middle East is living through right now.

That retreat is also taking place elsewhere, and America and the West are on the losing side of it. When Russia simply annexes territory in Ukraine and defies the world to stop it, or when China, inch by inch, changes the rules of the game in the South China Sea, they are taking steps toward a world without global rules, where only the strongest rule.

That is not a world that Americans should welcome, for two reasons. The first, a lofty vision of countries, big and small, playing by the same rules; the second, the grittier reality of shifting balances of power. America may not want its power constrained today – until the day its power can no longer constrain others.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP