Allies and partners of the United States in Asia use ‘rules-based order’ rhetoric as shorthand for a US-led regional order. This has been a notable feature of the Indo-Pacific discourses, which have tended to establish binaries between rule preservationist states on the one hand, such as Australia and Japan, and rules-breaking rising powers on the other. While not always explicit, China is viewed as the main challenger to the ‘rules-based order’.

This ‘rules-based order’ phrase sits alongside another popular phrase in international politics—that of the ‘liberal international order’. Problematically, there is a tendency to conflate these two concepts. International order is not especially liberal. It is built upon sovereignty as the so-called ‘constitution of international society’—and while sovereignty can provide for liberal domestic orders, and liberal states can push for liberal norms internationally—sovereignty and associated concepts of self-determination have always provided a shield for autocrats.

It is also not the case that international rules are liberal, or that predominantly rules preservationist states are liberal. There is question, then, as to whether states such as Australia and Japan should promote a liberal international order given that many in the Indo-Pacific theatre are not liberal.

Further, if promoting ‘rules-based order’ rhetoric, rules preservationist states need to demonstrate their commitment to international law, institutions and obligations more consistently, otherwise a lack of compliance and charges of hypocrisy will undermine the narrative.

One of the most important trends shaping international politics is the decline in democracy and liberal freedoms across the world. In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom spanning democratic countries such as the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. This retreat in freedom looks set to continue across the region. Consolidated democracies have not been immune from these global forces and trends.

While Australia focuses significant attention on foreign interference in electoral politics, challenges to democracy also come from within. Vital qualities of democracy such as press freedom are being slowly eroded away, for example in the recent raids on journalists’ homes and offices.

Australia’s Prime Minister used the phrase ‘negative globalism’ in a speech to the Lowy Institute after Australia had been criticised at the United Nations for its poor record on climate change. Drawing a distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ globalism—wherein globalism is negative if it entails criticism of Australia for failures to conform with international responsibilities—demonstrates a troubling emergence of populism entering foreign policy discourses.

Recently, comparative research that describes resistance against democracy promotion among authoritarian states has been labelled ‘autocracy promotion’. This research identifies the ways in which tools of democracy promotion have been ‘hijacked’ or co-opted by authoritarian regimes as part of an autocratic ‘pushback’ that challenges global liberalism.

The research has identified many ways in which authoritarian states have cracked down on democracy promotion activities, including using state-controlled media to condemn Western democracy promotion as undermining sovereignty, blocking foreign aid and expelling Western democracy promoters, or limiting their permissible activities, tightening control over speech and media, and restricting foreign embassies and organisations contact with local NGOs.

The democracy backlash has also been externally directed, as autocratic states have sought to delegitimise the activities of Western states and NGOs on a global scale. This has included critiques by states such as China and Russia that US-led democracy promotion is imperialist, ‘immoral’ and constitutes meddling in their internal affairs. The point of ‘autocracy promotion’ is to provide alternative models of governance that can compete with democracy as the global standard for political legitimacy.

One of the narrative strategies of autocracy promoters is to point to the hypocrisy of liberal states and to question the extent to which they conform to international rules, as well as to question the endurance of liberal norms as legitimating principles in international law.

We need to take much more seriously the ways in which liberal democracies act in ways that threaten the sustainability and power of the international liberalism, particularly as their actions may be weaponised through processes of autocracy promotion.

While the Trump administration has certainly undermined both the liberal and the rules-based order through trade and withdrawing from international agreements, there is also a corresponding tendency to ignore the long history of US exceptionalism. For example, rules-preservationist states such as Australia and Japan have expressed concerns about challenges to freedom of navigation, particularly in the South China Sea.

While there is little doubt that China’s actions in the seas undermine maritime rules, the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US recognises its rules as customary law but cannot generate the political will internally to legitimate the convention it regularly (and rightly) accuses China of violating in the SCS. This is a consistent feature of US foreign policy.

International order may be partly built on liberal norms, but it is always built on power. Powerful states have always been able to exempt themselves from rules that clash with their national interest. But it is not just the US that does this—countries like Australia also seek to exempt themselves from international rules and responsibilities when it suits their domestic electoral interests. The issue of climate change is just one example.

In a time of changing balance of power dynamics, liberal states cannot get away with some of the things they may have once been able to in terms of not conforming to their own rhetoric. International legitimacy, shaping the narrative and using public diplomacy as a tool for influence, are increasingly important as autocracy promotion uses rhetoric and lawfare strategies to justify illiberalism. If rule-preservationists do not live by the rules and values they promote, why would any other state?


Bec Strating is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University and the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia. This commentary is informed by discussions had at the Griffith Asia Institute 9th Annual Australia-Japan Dialogue, themed The G20: Outcomes, Issues and Prospects, held in Brisbane 29 November 2019.