The writer is a professor of European Studies at Oxford university and a Hoover Institution senior fellow
As you read this, speechwriters around the world will be sitting down to write the words “rules-based international order” into their ministerial speeches to the UN general assembly, which opens on Tuesday. I have a message for them: please don’t. Think again and find a better phrase.
This commonplace of international discourse was trotted out by no less than 35 speakers in the first 20 plenary meetings of last year’s general assembly, with slight variations, but always using the “rules-based” formula. The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has described the country as “a doughty defender of the rules-based international system”. The moniker is so commonly used in internal British government documents that it has its own acronym: “the RBIS”.
The case against the phrase is twofold: substantive and rhetorical. Substantively, the problem is that it captures only a part of what we should be defending — and perhaps not even the most important part.
As governments and central banks try to steer the world economy away from the quagmire of a post-Covid-19 global depression, they are frequently observed to be “tearing up the rule book”. This is generally meant as praise.
A new book by the political scientist Vivien Schmidt persuasively argues that the first phase of the eurozone crisis was greatly exacerbated by doubling down on rigid, one-size-fits-all rules — what she calls “governing by rules and ruling by numbers”. It was only when policymakers started reinterpreting the rules by stealth that a more sustainable recovery followed.
A monetary union of democracies should not allow any of its members to sink into extreme economic misery, even if avoiding that outcome involves reinterpreting a rule or two. An underlying value or principle takes precedence over arbitrary rules, which are often the product of messy bureaucratic, diplomatic and political compromise.
Such rules should not be confused with international law, which a UK minister this week outrageously, foolishly and unacceptably said his government will “break in a specific and limited way”. International law has a very high value and must be upheld. But if what we mean by “rules” is actually law, then we should say law — a stronger, simpler and more precise word.
If we need a single overarching term, then the broader concept of “liberal international order” is more persuasive than RBIS, embracing as it does both international law and all the institutions and practices of international co-operation built up over many decades. Yet even that abstract phrase hardly speaks to the heart.
Here is the second, and most important point. We who wish to defend liberal democracy and multilateral co-operation are up against nationalist populists. Their highly coloured rhetoric, simplistic and mendacious though it is, appeals strongly to the emotions. Consider US president Donald Trump’s slogan, “make America great again”, the Brexiters’ “take back control”, or French politician Marine Le Pen’s “on est chez nous” (we are at home). In the terminology of classical rhetoric, they may be short on logos but they are long on pathos.
Even if you think rules-based international order perfectly captures the essence of what we are trying to defend, you must acknowledge that the phrase has very limited emotional appeal — except perhaps to some elderly schoolmasters. The brave people protesting in Belarus, Lebanon or Venezuela would never think to put such words on their home-made banners. They write “freedom”. Or “justice”. Or “truth”.
No one’s heart ever beat faster at the sound of the rules-based international order. It is one of those wooden prefabricated phrases that George Orwell denounced in his essay “Politics and the English Language”.
Once upon a time, western leaders used to be good at this. I have before me a copy of Winston Churchill’s handwritten corrections to the Atlantic Charter that the British prime minister and the American president Franklin Roosevelt put forth in 1941. Thus improved, the charter proclaims the stirring goal “that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want”.
“Dare more democracy!” cried West German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969. Twenty years later, US president George H W Bush, though he deplored “the vision thing”, gave us the single best description of what to aim for in a long-divided continent: Europe whole and free.
Today, in the age of Twitter, the language probably needs to be less grandiloquent (and more gender inclusive) than that of Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet it is always good to go back to primary values: freedom, justice, peace. Better still to include a strong transitive verb: defend freedom, make peace, stop murder. (Russia’s Vladimir Putin take note, #Navalny.) The rhetorical repetition of a simple phrase such as “work together” can also be effective.
To counter the deceptive brilliance of slogans such as “take back control”, we need something muscular, original and simple, appealing as much to the heart as to the head. A prize to the speech writer who comes up with it! History will remember you — or at least, your boss and your phrase.