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Western foreign policy: 'For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law'

The West's analysis of why its rules-based world order is crumbling always conveniently ignores the main reason - its double standards when it comes to following those rules
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and US President Joe Biden at the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi on 9 September 2023 (AFP)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) and US President Joe Biden at the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi on 9 September 2023 (AFP)

Distinguished scholar Walter Russell Mead recently sounded a solemn alarm about the “disintegration” of the so-called rules-based world order.

Sadly, his analysis in the Wall Street Journal demonstrated poor cognitive empathy and reflected dystopian views. Both have long been characteristic of western foreign policy scholars.

Mead complained that “the world is less stable than in February 2022” while, allegedly, “western leaders don’t yet seem to grasp the immensity of the task before them”. Sadly, there is much more that western leaders are not grasping, especially inside their own countries.

He curiously started his j’accuse by targeting the United Nations. “[It] was supposed to be the crown jewel of the rules-based order," he wrote, "but lately the power and prestige of this perennial underperformer has sunk to new lows.”

He would have better served his readers if he had properly explained such “underperformance”. He could have begun by emphasising that the UN’s weakness is primarily down to the five permanent members of its own Security Council - US, Russia, China, the UK and France, also known as the P5 - paralysing the institution for decades with their disagreements. 

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UN vetoes

Almost all of the secretary generals in the UN's history were forced to be notaries of the P5's decisions. The only one who attempted to really run the UN in the name of all its members, the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the 1990s, experienced the humiliation of seeing the renewal of his UN tenure vetoed (14 to one) in 1996.

Guess which country vetoed him? Of course, it was the then champion of democratic multilateralism, the US under President Bill Clinton. The sooner Mead and his readers become aware that the UN works only if the P5 allows it, the better.

On the other hand, Mead was correct when he claimed: “There was a time when people would have cared what the UN had to say about international crises ranging from the string of coups across Africa and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict to the alleged Indian involvement in the assassination of a Khalistan activist in Canada.”

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Leaving aside what people and the UN might have thought and said when Serbia, Iraq and Libya were attacked by the US and Nato in 1999, 2003 and 2011 respectively, there is a very sensitive test case that could be performed in the examples he quoted. 

If today, one UN member state were to table a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia, there could be a veto. But this would certainly not come from Russia or China.

And it hardly needs to be said that if a similar test were to be conducted regarding Israel’s almost 60-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, there would certainly be more than one veto. But, again, not from Russia or China.  

If Canada should be so reckless as to table a resolution in the Security Council condemning India for its alleged involvement in the assassination of a Khalistan activist in Canada, most probably four of the five Security Council permanent members (US, UK, France and Russia) would be deeply embarrassed due to their own national interests.

The question of whether or not they would use their veto is probably academic, as the resolution would almost certainly never reach the voting stage.

What we are witnessing here is not the underperformance of the UN, as Mead asserts, but a clear example of how the organisation works - i.e. it is prevented from acting in the safeguarding of its founding values by its major stakeholders.

Double standards

Mead has, probably inadvertently, shed light on the real reason why the rules-based world order is disintegrating, and it can be summarised in two words: double standards.

The case of the Indian activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, assassinated in Canada, allegedly upon the orders of the Indian government, is a stark example.

The killing caused embarrassment because the Biden administration and the global West are trying to enlist India in their campaign to contain China. In other words, India is too important to be criticised at this stage, and so the widely claimed values of the rules-based order do not apply this time.

In other words, India is too important to be criticised at this stage, and so the widely claimed values of the rules-based order do not apply this time

For the biggest democracy in the world, a sort of “Mohammed bin Salman” or “Israel” rule applies. It is, in the words of one early 20th-century Peruvian president, quite simple: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

Unsurprisingly, on the India issue, Mead and many other western opinion makers have failed to acknowledge the elephant in the room - that the real problem is not whether India ordered an extra-judicial killing on Canadian soil, but that the West - predominantly the US - has been carrying out with seeming impunity thousands of extra-judicial killings across the world over the last two decades.

The West’s reaction has masterfully and acrobatically skipped any hint that it is involved in extra-judicial killings.

Someone might claim that those killed by westerners were "terrorists" and that the target list was implemented through due process according to western laws.

Leaving aside for a moment that those killings were carried out outside western countries’ jurisdiction and that no authorisation was requested from the countries where such killings took place, there is an additional and disturbing issue: if India effectively carried out the killing, it did so by following its national laws, which identified the target as a terrorist.

Is anybody implying here that the anti-terrorism laws of India, the biggest democracy on earth, are not valid or less relevant?

Licence to kill

Regrettably, it has become customary for the West to conceive “its” world order rules as granting the US and a select number of its allies a licence to kill their own citizens and others outside their own national jurisdictions.

If those killed were only the terrorists, it could at least be tolerable. But there were and continue to be thousands of innocent bystanders killed, whose families are given no compensation. In essence, for each terrorist killed at least 10 more are generated.

Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of him after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on 1 October 2021 (AFP)
Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of him after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on 1 October 2021 (AFP)

If the world order rules are valid for all but a selected number of countries, nobody should be surprised - and Walter Russell Mead should not be either - if that order is disintegrating.

If the Indian government did authorise the killing, it would be a despicable act, and one to be condemned without reservation. But if some countries arrogate to themselves, ignoring international law, the right to decide who on their terrorist lists should be assassinated and where and how, how we can be shocked and upset if rising powers, such as India or Saudi Arabia, invoke similar rights, claiming their own security?

Who is entitled to decide which security claim is valid and which is not? Ideally, the UN Security Council, if its decision-making process was not so paralysed.

Mead also blames the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which he calls a “shadow of its former self”; and the failure to achieve a global understanding on trade terms is certainly a collective failure.

Mead might have been better off avoiding saying that “a free-trade agenda… was an integral element of the rules-based order from the Bretton Woods negotiations”, seeing as one of the first material breaches of the “rules-based world order” occurred on 15 August 1971, when the US disrupted the Bretton Woods agreements by unilaterally ending one of its main pillars - the convertibility of US dollars into gold.

'Political decadence'

A correct focus is put also on another pillar of the rules-based order: arms control and disarmament negotiations, which are “off the agenda”.

Predictably, Mead mentions China’s massive nuclear build-up, Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and Iran nearing the nuclear threshold. Once again, for the record, the US military budget is still bigger than those of all the other major world powers combined.

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The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty committed all of its signatories not to develop military nuclear programmes on the condition that the major nuclear powers, at the time the US and the USSR, would drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals. The US and Russia still own thousands of nuclear warheads. And of course, the only nation in history to drop an atomic bomb in anger has been the US.

Lastly, as to Iran, Mead would have done well to remind WSJ readers that, on this issue, the US can only blame itself. Firstly, it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and, secondly, it complicated in vain the negotiations to re-join the deal in 2021. 

Mead also seems concerned by the “ignominious collapse of French power across Africa”. It would be worth asking him why, in 2023, more than seven decades after decolonisation, there should still be a French power in Africa. 

Only in his last sentence does Mead recognise that the rules-based world order is also “undermined by political decadence and institutional decay from within [western democracies]”. Too little too late, as usual. 

If Walter Russell Mead had dedicated more focus to this aspect and to the many elephants in the room magnified by a pathological double standard, he would have better served his readers and, above all, the overall debate on this important issue. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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