In the new rules-based disorder, every leader has the power to define the rules they prefer. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
Since Donald Trump’s election and his performance as US president, many commentators, including members of Trump’s own team, have expressed regret about the weakening of what was traditionally and even officially called the “rules-based international order.” Trump has consistently shocked his allies with his refusal to recognize any rules other than those he imagines himself and articulates in the form of 3 am tweets.
This includes attributing blame to those who don’t respect his rules, as when he blamed poor forest management rather than climate change for the devastating fires in California and promised to withdraw federal funding. Then there was Trump’s behavior in France for the commemoration of the World War I Armistice. It illustrated to the Europeans that even the elementary rules of diplomatic protocol left him indifferent.
Following the end of World War II, nations wishing to play a constructive role in geopolitics were expected to acknowledge the rules-based order, even if they didn’t always respect every rule. When Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) promised to modernize Saudi Arabia’s economy and transform the Arabian Desert into Silicon Valley East, everyone assumed that the crown prince understood the importance of at least paying lip service to the rules-based order.
The Khashoggi affair has demonstrated Mohammed bin Salman’s failure to understand what that order might be. Could it be that MBS plays a game with a different, competing set of rules? That is what The Guardian suggests when it informs us that “senior members of the House of Saud, including the crown prince, are partly blaming Turkey for the global revulsion, which they say could have been contained if Ankara had played by ‘regional rules.’”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Instructions that guide not only the actions of the players of a game, but also determine the range of permitted reactions of the spectators
The Saudis are upset because of the spectators’ “global revulsion” that followed their efficient act of elimination aimed at neutralizing a threat. All went well until Turkey cheated and broke the local rules. The Saudis complained that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “betrayed the Kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation.”
In other words, one regional “rule” appears to be that no crime exists that cannot be erased from the public record with cash. The rule also contains a specific guideline: the degree of the crime will determine the amount of the payment, which in the case of carefully organized premeditated murder falls into the category of “significant.” Within the framework of Saudi wealth, “significant” usually means billions of dollars.
Calling that payment “compensation” should strike most people as bizarre. Normally compensation is a response to accidents, unforeseen occurrences, “collateral damage,” not to an organized assassination of a public figure. A more appropriate term might be “hush money,” taken not from the Gulf region’s rulebook, but from the Sicilian mafia’s law of Omertà.
This scandal reveals something deeper. Mohammed bin Salman’s failure to understand the norms of international behavior stems from the fact that he is a pure product of his region. “Unlike many other high-ranking Saudi princes, he did not receive an education in the West,” we learn from Biography.com. Despite his proven talent at seducing intellectual luminaries from the West such as Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and Thomas Friedman, MBS sees the world through a despotic tribal sheikh’s lenses. The rules of that type of order were written long ago, as the clever Scheherazade understood back in the Islamic Golden Age.
Encouraged by Trump and Kushner, MBS had reasons to believe the rules-based international order didn’t apply to him. The Guardian cites a regional source: “He’d seen Abu Ghraib, renditions, death penalties, and he felt comforted by Trump. He could not understand why this was happening to him.” Even Barack Obama assassinated American citizens to defend the national order, so why shouldn’t he?
The New Statesman succinctly described Trump’s project “to dismantle the multilateral, rules-based system that holds the world together, and instead reorganise the Americas and Europe as tributary economies to the US corporations.” Thanks to Trump’s example, ignoring the rules has increasingly become the modus operandi and the proudly displayed badge of glory of leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro (soon to take office). Flouting the rules wins elections because, with the right kind of manipulation and marketing, it is now possible to mobilize enough voters who seek reassurance in the idea of a decisive leader who dares to rise above the constraints of both institutions and the law.
The Khashoggi affair has, ironically, cast Erdogan into a role of moral leadership in the Middle East. Although he has never been a defender of Western style “freedoms” (of expression, of the press, of political assembly), his strategy is clear: “Ankara has been aiming to isolate Prince Mohammed through weeks of pointed rhetoric that has appealed to the Saudi King to rein in his son, and restore more conventional ways of doing business.” In other words, Erdogan — who is also at loggerheads with Donald Trump over sanctions — not only personifies the thirst for justice in the face of murder, but he appears as the defender of the threatened rules-based international order.
The question remains open: Can those who truly believe in a rules-based order defend it? To do so, they need to redefine what it is and how it works. It would be presumptuous to believe the Erdogan could lead that effort.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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