Washington’s confected alternative to international law, the so-called “rules-based international order”, is now exposed as nothing more than a hypocritical protection racket in free fall
Scott Burchill is Honorary Fellow in International Relations at Deakin University
Cross-posted from Pearls and Irritations
Last week the French government joined the German government in claiming that the Genocide Convention does not apply to Israel. Because the convention was created in response to the Shoah, Israel should have legal immunity for any war crimes it commits, including the genocide which it is currently conducting against Palestinians in Gaza.
Paris has also suggested that regardless of the verdict in the genocide case brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by South Africa, it would ignore any decision that was unfavourable towards Israel.
This follows Washington’s dismissal of the South African brief as “meritless” and the Biden Administration’s successful efforts to block a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations. Ottawa has similarly rejected “the premise” of South Africa’s case against Israel, while Canberra doesn’t want to commit to anything either way.
Some of this can be explained by war guilt: Germany perpetrated the Holocaust and France has a long history of antisemitism. The United States is Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East, as well as being its largest aid donor and leading supplier of military technology. Canada, like Israel and Australia, was founded on settler-colonialism, and these states tend to form special protective bonds with each other.
However, more is needed to explain the open and enthusiastic support in Western capitals for the atrocities Israel has visited upon the Palestinians.
A cosy relationship has been established between Western governments over the last 50 years. It’s analogous to an exclusive club with binding rules and procedures. If faithfully followed, club membership provides states with a range of benefits, including an international protection racket.
Some enter the club pre-socialised to follow the rules and reap the rewards which flow from partnerships built with other members. They are often talent spotted in advance by lobby groups such as the Australia America Leadership Dialogue.
New entrants, including political parties which come to power with an agenda of reform and change, may need to be gently persuaded into the game of elite collaboration. First and foremost, they must abandon the principles and concerns they expressed in opposition. When the benefits of club membership are explained, and the costs of defiance are demonstrated, few demur for long.
Most are reluctant to foreswear the official dinners, swanky summits, new friendship groups (AUKUS), and the promise of lucrative consultancies after politics based on networking and contacts established while working for the public dollar. The cosmopolitan transit lounge lifestyle can be highly addictive for ambitious politicians.
Members of the Western club support each other diplomatically, immunise each other against international law and justice, and are guilty of and complicit in atrocious crimes justified by outright falsehoods.
They also help to conceal each others’ human rights abuses from their domestic constituencies, relying on corporate and state-owned media to frame issues “correctly”, always casting the West in a benevolent and ethical light. From time to time protection is also extended to pro-Western friends outside the club (Saudi Arabia).
The result of this is two different standards of behaviour: one for the West, another for the rest.
For example, there is no such thing as state terrorism committed by club members: it is always self-defence even if no such thing exists to maintain an illegal occupation. It is others who “sponsor” and “practice” politically-motivated violence (Iran, Cuba). The West is always the innocent victim of terrorism, never its perpetrator. Criticism of member states is not allowed, though attacks on non-members is always encouraged because they are jealous of our inherent goodness and can never rise to our exalted moral heights (Iran, Russia, China).
Club members can violate the sovereignty of outsiders at will (US and Israeli attacks on Syria) and illegally occupy other people’s land (Israel on the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza) but non-members will be demonised and sanctioned for doing anything similar (Russia in Ukraine). Military friends of the West can keep their stolen land too without facing any sanctions at all (Turkey in northern Cyprus).
Western states are not subject to international law let alone brought before the ICJ: and they will never see their leaders, past or present (Bush, Blair, Howard), dragged before the International Criminal Court (ICC) which neither Israel nor the United States has even ratified: hence its unofficial title, the International Caucasian Court.
Israel and its supporters in the West are outraged that at the ICJ, they are being condemned and judged in ways which are normally only directed by them against official enemies and despots from the Global South. Given the history of mid last century, it is especially galling for Israel to be charged with the heinous crime of genocide, an accusation made worse by the fact that it is South Africa, a state which gave definition to the term apartheid, that is mounting the case against it.
That Israel has been accused by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem of practising apartheid will not be lost on anyone observing the case currently before the ICJ in The Hague.
Like most exclusive clubs, the governments of the West operate on the principle of bonding by exclusion: we know who we are by defining who is not one of us.
This is why Israeli President Isaac Herzog sought to cast Israel’s attack on Gaza as a response to the existential threat the world faces from “Iran-backed Jihadist groups”:
“This war is a war that is not only between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war that is intended, really, truly, to save Western civilisation, to save the values of Western civilisation.” In other words, don’t complain about our methods or look too closely at them: we are doing this for a higher cause, for all of us in the club. We must destroy the barbarians at the gate.
It’s not certain how comfortable the West is going to feel about the implementation of its values upon the wretched and underneath the rubble of Gaza. But it is clear that the credibility of the West in the Global South is now in tatters.
Problems emerge when the gap between elite and public opinion about an issue becomes so stark it has to be filled by opinion management. In the absence of available coercive options, carefully crafted presuppositions establish both the limits of legitimate political expression about the subject and what is considered, in Antonio Gramsci’s words, “common sense”.
Israel’s latest attack on Gaza dramatically illustrates the political difficulties which elites face when this division becomes too wide to close with propaganda.
This problem goes much deeper than opinion polls about a ceasefire in Gaza which puts governments in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia increasingly at odds with public opinion in their respective countries (unlike Spain, Belgium and Ireland).
Ultimately, it’s public consultation about government policy, or more accurately the absence of it, and the closed, exclusive relationship policy elites in the West establish amongst and between themselves.
Western Governments will either remain supportive of or indifferent to the slaughter of civilians in Gaza until they start feeling pressure from outraged constituents who are bypassing the self-censorship of Israel’s crimes by gatekeepers on commercial and state media platforms. Public information in the West is being increasingly sourced from podcasts, online interviews and independent news services.
The propinquity of elections in the West will elevate the significance of public sentiment about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, forcing leaders to make invidious choices between wealthy and influential lobby groups on the one hand, and growing moral revulsion amongst the electorate.
And we should not underestimate the threat public opinion also poses in autocracies and dictatorships. Neither Cairo’s refusal to resettle Palestinians expelled from Gaza in the Sinai, nor Riyadh’s pause in normalising relations with Israel, can be separated from elite concerns in those states about how “the Arab street” would react.
The scale of Israel’s destruction of Gaza is part of an attempt to re-establish its military deterrent in the region, which was embarrassingly exposed by a few hundred lightly-armed militants on 7 October. It segues with attempts by most settler-colonial states to physically erase the indigenous population of the land whose ongoing existence challenges the legitimacy of the state.
However, actions like the destruction of Gaza always have unintended consequences. The colonial nature of Eretz Israel, evidence of genocide brought before the World Court, accusations of apartheid by human rights monitors, and demonstrations around the world opposing ethnic cleansing and and war crimes in the strip were not supposed to happen as they have, if at all.
For the West more generally, public opposition to the complicity of their governments in the slaughter of innocent civilians is only likely to intensify. That disgust might also encourage citizens in the West to look more critically at the consequences of their own colonial settlements and the need for justice and reparations for indigenous victims. Until very recently, these questions have been carefully omitted from the agendas of club members. As difficult as it is going to be, thanks to Israel these issues will now have to be confronted.
In the future, every criticism of Russia, Iran and China will be undermined by uncomfortable comparisons with the club’s support for genocide in Palestine. Washington’s confected alternative to international law, the so-called “rules-based international order”, is now exposed as nothing more than a hypocritical protection racket in free fall.