This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Had you heard of RUBIS? I confess I hadn’t until the accident of a media appearance compelled me to listen to the tripartite Downing Street press conference in which Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, appeared as a warm-up act for the gorgeous, pouting, perma-coiffed Canadian premier, Justin Trudeau.
Anyway, it turns out that RUBIS was not one of the lustable Justin’s many former girlfriends, but is an acronym for the Rules-Based System of International Relations.
Justin was huskily enthusiastic about RUBIS, since it was RUBIS, he claimed, which, ever since the foundation of the United Nations, 75 years ago, had kept the world safe. Until RUBIS was challenged (Justin clearly itched to say for the first time but then realised he couldn’t) by Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.
Law requires a Sheriff to enforce it
Johnson, late as ever with his homework, clearly hadn’t heard of RUBIS either. Though he did blether enthusiastically about the role of the UN in the crisis. “The world,” Boris declared, “has come together in solidarity with the indomitable people of Ukraine. Last week 141 countries, nearly three quarters of the entire membership of the United Nations, voted to condemn Putin’s war. And 39 countries voted to refer Putin’s actions to the International Criminal Court.”
At which point I was hit by another spasm of what, I suspect, is pretty general ignorance. Do you remember the part played by the Secretary General of the United Nations in trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis? Do you even remember his name?
I had to look up both. His name is António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal. His attempt to stop the Russian invasion has consisted of a couple of statements delivered from the safety of the UN’s opulent headquarters in New York. “It is wrong,” he declared. “It is against the Charter. We need peace. Thank you.” The same day Guterres also issued a message “for the closing of the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables”.
Poor RUBIUS, to have such a herbivore as her principal institutional defender.
In 1949, four years after the foundation of the United Nations, George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, was published. Its focus is on the unequal struggle between the totalitarian state and the individual. But, we tend to forget, this existential struggle takes place within a carefully conceived structure of international relations.
In the middle years of the twentieth century, as Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, discovers from reading Chapter III of the samizdat oppositionist text, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the world had been divided into three “super-states”: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.
Oceania and Eurasia had emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Oceania was a product of the fusion of the United States of America and the British Empire (or what we currently call the “Anglosphere”), and Eurasia “of the absorption of Europe by Russia”. The formation of the third, Eastasia (in effect Greater China) had taken “another decade of confused fighting”.
Despite the continuous hostilities between the three “super-states”, Chapter III continued, their wars were limited, and their mutual frontiers largely fixed. This was because all three possessed nuclear weapons. But to the south lay a great debatable land. This included most of Africa, the Middle East, India and South Asia. Here there was a constant ebb and flow of conquest as the three “super-states” struggled for influence, resources and territory.
Fiction? Or a profoundly uncomfortable prophecy? And which is nearer to the actuality of the tripartite-plus geopolitical world of today: Orwell’s fictional dystopia or the utopian fantasies of RUBIS?
How have we got things so horribly wrong? The problem, as I see it, is that most Western thought on geopolitics has reduced itself to a simple opposition between two doctrines. The “Rules-Based System of International Relations” is contrasted with “Might is Right” and the former proclaimed to be good and the latter bad. Which is fair enough. Unfortunately, we have gone on to deduce that Might itself is Bad.
This false conclusion has led the West to a naive squeamishness about power. Might indeed is not Right. But Right needs Might. Or, as Churchill put it in his “Iron Curtain” speech, Law requires a Sheriff to enforce it. Otherwise, it will be defeated by Wrong.
This we now see in the unfolding horrors in the Ukraine. But when I made the same point a few months ago on Iain Dale’s Cross Question, I was denounced as a power-worshipping neo-Nazi by that flat-vowelled warrior of the far-Left, Paul Mason.
Our enemies want to destroy us and think they have the means
And we were warned. Putin repeatedly signalled, by both word and deed, his intention to reclaim the Russian Empire as the proper expression of Russian nationhood. Similarly, his foreign minister, that bespectacled rhinoceros, Sergey Lavrov, has explicitly and repeatedly denounced RUBIS. Or, as he sneeringly described it in a 2018 un address, “some kind of ‘rules-based order’ … [as] our creative Western friends call it”.
Lavrov rejects RUBIS because he sees it, with its universalising claims and advocacy of democratic governance and human rights, as a product of Western thought and an instrument for promoting Western power. Which, let us face it, it is.
Nor does he stop there. In speech after speech at the UN he has set out a neo-legal alternative to RUBIS which is much subtler than the “Might is Right” parody of his Western opponents. Lavrov emphasises sovereignty, against the RUBIS-derived duty of the international community to interfere in the internal affairs of a country on humanitarian grounds.
He talks up the right of countries “to choose those models of development which correspond to their national, cultural and confessional identities” — as opposed to the “one size fits all” of the universalising RUBIS tradition. Finally, instead of the United States as the RUBIS-empowered world policeman or Churchillian sheriff, he spins a seductive vision of “multipolarity” — in other words the “tripartite-plus” of Orwell’s geopolitics.
All this is Russian special pleading. But it is also a far more realistic reading of geopolitics than RUBIS. And it is a more appealing one as well to the non-western powers of Lavrov’s “multipolar” world. To China obviously. But also to India, Pakistan and South Africa, who all abstained in the un vote. And even to Brazil, which opposed sanctions.
We need therefore to face a bitter truth. Johnson declared that “the world has come together in solidarity with the indomitable people of the Ukraine”. It hasn’t. In fact the West stands almost as isolated against Russia as the British Empire did against Nazi Germany in 1940. In the circumstances, the temptation is to invoke China rather as Churchill allied with Stalin to destroy Hitler.
This would be catastrophic. China has carried out a cultural genocide in Tibet and is carrying out another on the Uyghurs; it is destroying freedom in Hong Kong and will destroy it in Taiwan. It engages with the West only on its own terms and to get what it wants. We must learn to cut the cord, as we are cutting the cord with Russia.
Above all, we need to recognise that for the last 30-odd years we have been living in a fools’ paradise: not only of RUBIS, but of globalisation, the headlong rush to net-zero, environmentalist fundamentalism, the deranged self-destructiveness of identity politics and so on.
This absurd self-indulgence was possible only because we believed in the End of History and the inevitable triumph of the liberal democratic state.
Putin, propped up as he will be by Xi, has shattered that illusion. He has shown that our enemies want to destroy us and think they have the means. We will only survive if, like the people of the Ukraine, we learn to fight back. With weapons, of course.
But also, as Orwell insisted, with words honestly rooted in the reality that 2+2=4; that a Man can’t become a Woman or vice versa and that Silence isn’t Violence.
Zelensky can do it; can we?
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