Making Sense of “Rules-Based” Anti-Liberalism

26 September 2022, 1902 EDT

Dozens of regimes around the world are anti-liberal—autocratic to varying degrees—but also big fans of a “rules-based” international order, which for the past 50 years or so has been a neoliberal economic order. Not a coincidence.

The reason an anti-liberal might also be a neoliberal seems rather obvious: Because they’re kleptocrats and oligarchs who are getting paid! A regime doesn’t need to embrace democracy in any meaningful sense in order to be a productive part of global capitalism. To the contrary, systematically suppressing collective and individual rights is a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

This is something that separates Vietnam from North Korea and, for a while, Myanmar. The former is far more integrated into the global economy than the latter two, practicing an authoritarian capitalism that remains in good standing with the international community while the latter are international pariahs.

The rulers of anti-liberal regimes use their unique position between the global economy and the management of their domestic political order to enrich themselves at the expense of the societies they govern. It’s Robin Hood in reverse—take surplus capital from underpaid and oppressed workers at home, then funnel it abroad into currencies, tax havens, and debt instruments in the Global North. Lots of research about how this works. Consequently, as Alex Cooley and Dan Nexon commented recently, “the contemporary liberal order works better for authoritarian regimes than it does for liberal democracies.”

Now, it might also be that an anti-liberal regime finds “national” security in a “rules-based” system. Certainly a small country like Singapore benefits from international rules against, say, invading your neighbor. But that does not rule out, and indeed buoys, regime elites who’ve found ways to cash in on the neoliberal economic order. Rules that preserve the international status quo also preserve systems of entrenched privilege and wealth hoarding that define it.

I bring all this up because I think it’s the best explanation for a recent pattern of evidence in how anti-liberal (but also neoliberal) regimes voted at the UN on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sameer Lalwani at the Stimson Center shared on Twitter a fascinating 3×3 grid from a workshop on voting patterns for two consequential (and related) votes in the UN General Assembly:

One vote was for Resolution ES-11/1, condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for its withdrawal. The other vote was for Resolution ES-11/3, temporarily booting Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Intuitively, we might expect these votes to go together.  

So in the top left corner of the 3×3, we have “pariahs” who are aligned with Russia and aligned against the West, straight up. They predictably voted against both resolutions. In the bottom right corner, it’s the opposite—regimes that voted for both resolutions because they’re aligned against Russia and with the West. 

But the interesting bloc of countries that Sameer is highlighting is the n=47 regimes, many of whom are “pro-rules” but also “anti-liberal”:

Most (not all) of these countries have a neoliberal political economy, and most also have regimes that are plagued by economic expropriation and political corruption. They voted for the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, but voted against the resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. Rules-based anti-liberalism.

Your mileage may vary, but to me this voting pattern reveals a rot at the core of what we romanticize as a “rules-based” international order. Anywhere kleptocracy or oligarchy exists—and it’s pervasive in a neoliberal economic order—you’re bound to find immense amounts of economic insecurity, which embrittles political stability. A rules-based order need not be a neoliberal economic order. These votes are the system telling on itself.

This is a cross-post with Van’s newsletter, Un-Diplomatic.