The White House lit up with spooky colors and inflatable pumpkins for Halloween last month. President Joe Biden handed out chocolate boxes to costume-clad kids who lined up to meet him, and adorably feigned horror at some of their costumes. Among the kids were Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s son, who came dressed as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and daughter, who came dressed as Ukraine itself.
Nobody came to Biden’s party dressed as Israel or Palestine, where, half a world away, the war was getting even more horrific, with Israel beginning to target the most densely populated areas of Gaza as part of its retaliation to the Hamas terror attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis on October 7.
Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza’s largest refugee camp, flattening apartment buildings and triggering apocalyptic scenes. Children were seen carrying other injured children to safety amid hysterical screams, picking their way through the gray dust and the fresh rubble scattered with the dead and the dying.
Six times as many children have been killed in Gaza in the three weeks of the conflict than the total number of children killed in the entire Ukraine war. More than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed so far in Gaza, which the UNICEF calls a “graveyard” for children, who account for more than 40% of the dead.
The UN Children’s Fund estimates 420 children are killed or injured in Gaza every day, “a number which should shake each of us to our core.” An unshaken Biden, who has extended unconditional support and military assistance to Israel and has opposed a ceasefire, has feigned disbelief at the numbers.
That puts him at odds with the outpouring of global condemnation at the impunity with which civilian lives are being erased in what the United Nations calls “collective punishment.” Israeli historian Raz Segal, who studies the Holocaust and modern genocide, calls it a “textbook case of genocide.”
Even national leaders, many of them close US allies, are not mincing their words and are breaking ranks with the American policy of de facto carte blanche. As the war intensifies and the body bags pile up, US double standards on the victims of Ukraine and Gaza invasions become glaringly obvious, especially in the Global South that is often subject to American sermons on liberty and human rights.
These days the only thing the leading custodian of the liberal international order seems to be liberal with is brown bodies.
Like Segal, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sees the military campaign as a genocide. Malaysian Prime Minister and democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim calls it the “height of barbarism.” Belgium wants sanctions on Israel for the “inhumane” air strikes. France wants Israel to stop bombing and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Israel needs to stop killing babies.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, another US ally, stresses that “every Palestinian life matters” and is urging Israel to observe the rules of war, which UN secretary general António Guterres accuses Israel of grossly violating.
The high priests of the liberal order are invoking anti-Semitism to combat any critique of Israel. France is considering jail terms for “insults” to Israel, while the British government likens anti-war demonstrations to “hate marches.”
But to many people outside the West and the Islamic world – with no natural solidarity with the Palestinians or baggage of guilt about the Holocaust that automatically treats criticism of the Israeli state as anti-Semitism – the human tragedy wreaked on Gaza is simply unacceptable.
The heartbreaking images from the conflict evoke horror at the unrestrained mutilation of the norms of accepted state behaviour, and the helplessness of the global system of laws and institutions in stopping it. Gaza increasingly looks like the killing fields of the “rules-based order” that the Biden administration has made its mantra. If this carnage in Gaza is part of an “order” of any kind, pray what disorder looks like.
This wouldn’t be the first time for the rules-based order to be profaned, of course. Israel is only pummeling what little credibility was left of it after the unilateral excesses of Iraq and Ukraine invasions.
But the international backlash on Gaza reflects an unprecedented crisis of moral authority of the liberal order, in particular the US, which has spearheaded its making since the end of the Second World War and embedded its global leadership in its institutions.
Gaza raises serious questions about America’s actions and judgment, and by extension the very legitimacy of the liberal order that it evangelizes. Questions like, what is the rationale of pulling out troops from Afghanistan to leave its people to their fate in the hands of the Taliban and then surging troops in the Middle East? Or, what is the rationale of opposing occupation in Ukraine and backing it in Gaza? Or, why is it that the only Muslims that America seems to care about are the ones who live in China?
In a world horrified by the sights of Gaza, the optics of Biden flying to Israel and hugging its leader, America’s casual acceptance of the inevitability of mass-scale civilian deaths in Gaza, its blocking of even “humanitarian pauses” in the UN to get in lifesaving aid, and its assistance to Israel to carry on the war, call into question like never before the fairness and capability of the current rules-based multilateralism, as well as America’s credentials in leading it.
The UN system is at the core of this liberal multilateral order, and its current state is a fair indicator as to why the liberal order is flailing. Presenting the plan to set up the United Nations, US president Franklin Roosevelt promised Congress in 1945 that it would “spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries.”
Let alone stopping the unilateral bombing in Gaza, the UN has failed even to protect its own staff from it. More than a hundred of its members have been killed in Israeli bombardment of UN facilities, which are supposedly inviolable in conflict situations as a matter of rule.
Vested with the authority to enforce peace, the UN has seldom looked this powerless. Its helpless pleas for peace on social media make it look every bit the sideshow that it has been reduced to – by the very power that swears by it.
The grand promise of the “rules-based order” that Biden dangles to the Global South has thus never rung hollower. His administration uses it as a catch phrase to consolidate a global alliance against an ascendant China that it claims is out to wreck the liberal order.
But China has in fact shown much greater respect for the “rules” in this conflict and has come across as a more responsible power by firmly opposing Israel’s retaliatory excesses and calling for a ceasefire, unlike America’s steadfast opposition to it despite the UN’s repeated appeals.
America’s response to the crisis has undermined both its assertions of moral superiority over its new cold-war rival and the liberal order, which has already been under scrutiny.
Quest for alternatives
The new powers in an emerging multipolar world argue that it is too West-centric and lacks diversity and accountability. Global South groupings like BRICS are seen as budding platforms prepping for an alternative alignment of power with a different set of rules of engagement. Might Gaza hasten the process? Could the liberal order survive the single greatest instance of its delegitimization?
These may be trying times for the liberal order, which is bad news at a time of a worldwide rise of right-wing authoritarians peddling toxic nationalism. But it may still not be the end of days for it. The Global South is hardly a homogenous entity. Sample the difference between India’s strong backing of Israel and the pro-Palestine stance of other BRICS founding members.
Scholars of international order such as John Ikenberry have long argued that the American liberal hegemonic order may be in crisis, but not the liberal order itself as there is no grand alternative to it, and as American unipolarity fades and other powers emerge, there will appear new international leaders happy to engage with, and own, the liberal order.
All emerging and middle powers such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey, while wanting to imbue global governing institutions with what they consider their own national values and interests, have also engaged actively with the rules-based order, not rejected it.
So the rules-based order won’t die from the wounds of Gaza even as its moral failure makes it more vulnerable than ever before to demands for change. But Gaza could well mark that moment of transition when it ceases to be the preserve of an America seen to be too partisan or too powerless to mediate the rules fairly.
The moment of transition that marks America’s passing as the dominant global power in the eyes of the rest of the world. Whatever form it takes after it emerges from Gaza’s rubble, the liberal order will not be America’s to wield any more.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is a journalist based in Hong Kong.