On rules

There seems to be a lot of discussion about rules these days. In particular, among foreign policy analysts, rules come up both in discussions about the liberal international order and in discussions about the eurozone. But it is striking to me how disconnected the two discussions are – and how differently rules are seen in each case. In discussions about the liberal international order, rules are widely seen as a good thing because they are thought of as an alternative to relations between states based simply on power. But in discussions about the eurozone, rules are seen by many as being much more problematic. In particular, critics of the German view, which emphasises rules over discretion (see Brunnermeier, James and Landau on this), see them as essentially post-democratic. So are rules a good or bad thing?

Theorists of the liberal international order understand it as an “open and rule-based international order” that is “enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism,” as John Ikenberry puts it in his book Liberal Leviathan. There has been much disagreement over the last few years about who exactly has broken the rules – Western analysts point to Russian rule breaking (e.g. the annexation of Crimea) while Russian analysts point to Western rule breaking (e.g. the invasion of Iraq). But the expansion of rules in international politics is widely seen as a positive innovation because it increases co-operation and reduces conflict between states, at least according to liberal international relations theorists. In short, rules are a key element of the “liberalism” of the liberal international order.

The European Union can be thought of as the Platonic form of the liberal international order – a much thicker system of institutions, norms and rules than exists in the world beyond Europe. In other words, the EU has taken the idea of a “rules-based order” even further than the rest of the world. At the beginning of the process of European integration, this expansion of rules functioned much like it has in the world beyond the EU – it depoliticized policy areas and thus reduced the possibility of conflict between European states. This was the genius of the European project. But as European integration has gone further and the rules have encroached on more and more areas of policy that were previously within the domain of democratic politics at a national level – in particular fiscal policy – the rules have come to be seen as more and more problematic.

In particular, it seems to me that there are two problems with the idea of a “rules-based” international order. The first is that, in so far as international rules are created, decision making is moved further away from the citizen – from the nation to the regional or global level. The second is that international rules lack legitimacy. It would be one thing if rules could be democratically legitimated at the regional or global level as they can be in a domestic context (though even then they would create winners and losers). But the reality is that, even within the EU, rules are set by states using their relative power to impose their preferences on others. Thus it seems to me that the EU illustrates the limits of rules. The history of European integration illustrates that what begins as the “civilizing” of international relations can end up undermining democracy. To put it another way, what looks liberal in an international context can actually look anti-liberal in a domestic context.

In short, I am somewhat ambivalent about rules. They can play a useful role in “civilizing” international relations, but they can also go too far in constraining states from making legitimate choices. To put it the other way around, too much politics can be a bad thing, but so can too little. As a result, when I hear people talk about the importance of a “rules-based” international order, I am a bit conflicted. I can see the benefits of a system of rules in an international context, but because of developments in Europe in last seven years I find it difficult to be unequivocal about them. Nor do I know where the expansion of a system of rules should stop. In particular, I do not have a good answer to the question: at what point do rules go from being a good thing to being a bad thing?


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