If our government promotes the rules-based order, it must be governed by it

In an effort to attenuate some of the mystery surrounding the fabled Oxford interview, the university last year moved to further belie perceptions of priggishness by publishing a student guide to the ritual. The article gets its shirt off in the title:

Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Makes sense to explore the way the aspiring student thinks, rather than to test her memory of the national curriculum. But that’s by the bye: I’m more distracted by the new guide’s inaugural question.

Before being asked, intuition had me venting at the punctilious car in front, stopped, 3am, at the red light of a pelican crossing armed by an absent barfly. But, the question being so convincingly articulated — not in a slurred world-to-rights contest, but by the Director of Admissions of the nation’s Crown Jewels of undergraduate learning — I was suddenly unsettled.

A lay curiosity of post-structuralism that emerged during my own undergraduate years left me suspicious of a binary world. The only certainty about anything seemed to be its uncertainty. Day and night, man and woman, child and adult, government and subject — there was suddenly nothing black and white that couldn’t be better described in shades of grey.

And nothing more so than morality — surely the protagonist in the creation myth of our legal system. In the china shop of human ethics, binary attitudes to right and wrong are the proverbial bull.

But law isn’t morality, however interwoven the pair’s respective origin and nature. They belong to different ontological worlds. Morality exists in some metaphysical world, where nothing is binary; law exists in a more physical world, where everything has to be. Law is the cleaver humanity takes to moral continuum, when morality is transmuted from human psyche into human behaviour.

We’re being psychologically devious with ourselves when we then evaluate the rationality of the 3am traffic-light offence in moral terms. Binary artefacts of law are, by both their nature and design, impervious to arguments premised on the spectral nature of morality. So it is that the law, and the legal process, can deviate from our visceral sense of justice — a sense predicated in metaphysical continua — and seem irrational, obtuse, and inhuman.

And this compromise is the very foundation of the global rules-based order, whose proponents in the Anglo-Saxon world have been licking their wounds since 2016, with Britain’s vote against EU membership, and America’s election of Donald Trump, together with the wider west’s growing trend towards populism: the politics of common sense over complex systems. For those who support the rules-based order — and the primacy of law, and international compact, over corrupt whims of charity and favour — the inexpedience of due process is the cost, for which stability, predictability, and equity, are the dividends.

It is Russia’s dissent from the rules-based system, from the putative extrajudicial assassination attempt in Salisbury, that goes to the heart of political disapprobation across the western alliance: Vladimir Putin, they allege, acting arbitrarily, violently, and dangerously, in flagrant disregard of due process at home and abroad, for personal political profit. The essence of totalitarianism.

Within ten days of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s discovery unconscious on a park bench, a joint statement was issued by France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to say that ‘it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack’ and that ‘there is no plausible alternative explanation’. Trump told reporters that it ‘certainly looks like Russia were behind it’.

Looks like? Highly likely?

I’ve no idea whether Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned requests in parliament for actual evidence of Russian involvement were ideologically motivated — a lingering sympathy of the old communist homeland, for which he’s occasionally accused — but it’s frankly irrelevant. When did it become de rigueur for the proponents of the global rules-based order to deride a request for evidence?

Our leaders must decide whether they’re for rules, inexpedient as they may be, or for caprices. They cannot challenge Russia on its abuse of the former, whilst leveraging the expedience of the latter. If the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world diminish the onus probandi in the judgement of an interstate felony to ‘looks like’, then the global rules-based order risks standing, above all else, for what leftist states across the globe have always claimed it stands for: Bigotry.


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