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The United States and the Rule of Law in a Polycentric World

Ramesh Thakur - 11th November 2014
The United States and the Rule of Law in a Polycentric World

In the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides writes that justice applies only to relations among equals and in dealings with others, the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. In the post-Cold War unipolar moment, US exceptionalism was manifested in Washington exempting itself from norms and laws that it was prepared to enforce on others. Accusations of double standards on some major issues like nuclear weapons and the Israel–Palestinian conflict are of long standing. But with the relative shift of wealth and influence to the rising powers, the ability of the US-led West to persist with selective application of norms and laws will be called into increasing question. This makes it all the more surprising that in a six-month period, the US managed to pick quarrels with three of the BRICS – China, India and Russia – regarding standards of behaviour where each could instantly point to US violations of the same norms. This undermines prospects of forming coalitions with them on issues of common concern or against third countries. Coverage of the events by the US mainstream media, far from questioning critically, tends to reinforce the double standards. To adjust to the rising powers in a polycentric global order, the US must confront three choices: downgrade the importance of and ignore laws and norms, basing actions on material interests and relative power; elevate laws and norms over immediate material interests; or when others violate norms that are too difficult for the US itself to follow, respond according to a calculation of relative strategic interests and stakes, not abstract standards of behaviour.

Policy Implications

  • The US should identify and respect (unless they undermine US vital interests) the core security and economic interests of the likely major powers in the coming decades, threats to which will provoke pushback instead of capitulation to US demands.
  • As the era of US full spectrum dominance fades, Washington must begin to prioritise its own interests with respect to issues, subordinating the merely desirable to the key vital interests; and with respect to countries, so that minor European countries do not jeopardise the triangular strategic relations with Russia and China to push the last two closer together in an anti-US coalition.
  • The traditional balance of power policy of trying to preclude other major powers from coalescing against the US as the balancer should be followed but also updated to issue-specific coalitions.
  • The US should refrain from criticising and sanctioning other major players for violation of norms and laws that it itself is unable to uphold;
  • The US should use the remaining years of global primacy to create a world in which it will be comfortable living when no longer the dominant actor.
     
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