If there is a mantra for United States foreign policy under the Biden administration, it is the idea of a “rules-based international order.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a major speech delivered at the Asia Society on May 26 on US-China relations, cited the phrase or variations of it 16 times in his hourlong address. He was making the point that the only way nations can survive wars, health emergencies, famine, weather disasters and many other planetary-wide crises is through a universal agreement on the rules of global engagement. In the specific case of Beijing and Washington, he sees “rules-based order” as the sole pathway to a productive and peaceful relationship.
Where do these rules come from? Here Blinken revealed a fact of life that only a few American statesmen over the last seven decades have willingly acknowledged. He said that “the system of laws, agreements, principles, and institutions that the world came together to build after two world wars to manage relations between states, to prevent conflict, to uphold the rights of all peoples” were attributable to two extraordinary pacts — or, “the founding documents,” as he called them — the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These two accords, he said, “enshrined concepts like self-determination, sovereignty, the peaceful settlement of disputes.”
He added: “These are not Western constructs. They are reflections of the world’s shared aspirations.”
By American standards today, this statement might be considered bold and courageous. While it is true that US presidents give pro forma remarks every September at the UN General Assembly’s annual opening debate, otherwise they rarely talk about the organization. The last formidable US leader who cited the UN as a truly critical component of US security interests — in his inaugural address, no less — was President John Kennedy more than 60 years ago. He called the UN our “last, best hope.”
Indeed, as most historians have noted, the US has had a long history of going it alone on the international scene. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Washington was either isolationist or unilateralist. It famously rejected all international organs, especially the League of Nations, humankind’s first globalwide security institution. Finally, in 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt overcame this dogged, even obstinate, “go it alone” tradition and convinced the country to join the United Nations — a body that Roosevelt himself designed, formulated, promoted, advocated for, paid for with government monies and twisted arms to get.
Even then, America proved to be only intermittently supportive of the body. Sometimes it fully embraced the organization, for example, in fighting the Korean War in 1950 or settling the Suez crisis in 1956 or throwing the Iraqis out of Kuwait in 1990 in the first Gulf War or these days applying sanctions on various rogue nations. But more often it has bypassed the UN, for instance, through covert operations to oust governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, or in its public dispatch of troops to the Dominican Republic, Panama or Iraq. A right-wing claque in the US, too, has often denounced the UN as an enemy, fearing its “black helicopters” might seize our country. And a similar reactionary chorus has insisted that Washington should never give a “permission slip” to the UN to block our incursions abroad. In more recent years, Donald Trump’s America First policy has echoed these themes of distrust and belligerence toward “outsiders.”
So for Blinken to so openly praise a UN roadmap is unusual. Yet the rules of the UN are, in and of themselves, surprisingly uncontroversial — mainly commonsensical. They include: nonintervention in the domestic affairs of member states; the right of a nation to self-defense; a ban on aggressors; the upholding of human rights; and numerous UN-sponsored treaties governing international transportation, oceanic travel, airline safety, sustainability, nuclear test bans, nuclear nonproliferation, global warming and others.
What gives the authority and punch to these provisions is that each of the 193 nations in the General Assembly officially ratified the UN treaty through its legislature or parliament, binding themselves to these international laws and standards. And that arrangement has worked, most important of all, to prevent the outbreak of a third world war for almost 80 years.
Of course, this is not a perfect arrangement. Five nations, who are permanent members of the Security Council and who alone possess the veto — the US, Britain, Russia, China and France, reflecting the power realities in 1945 — in effect, still run the UN. Nonetheless, the General Assembly, where all nations have an equal vote, still plays a role through its resolutions, which, while not binding, carry immense moral authority around the world. Still, for an American administration to publicly salute the precepts of the UN Charter as the basis for its own foreign policy objectives is notable. Blinken said so without apology, excuses or embarrassment. His speech represents a departure, even a standout declaration, about the nature of this government’s approach to global affairs.
Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.