“International law” and the “rules-based international order” sound like the same thing. They’re not. International law is the Charter international system firmly built upon the foundation of the United Nations. It is impartial and applies to everyone. Rules-based law is the preferred system of the political West, and it is built upon the structure of US hegemony. It presents the façade of universality but behind the façade is American exceptionalism. The US applies the rules when it suits them; it is exempt from them when it does not. This selective application of international law in which the rules of the rules-based order are made by the US caused outrage in Russia, China and the global majority in Kosovo, Libya and Iraq.
Two coups that are recently in the news bring the difference between international law and rules-based law into relief. One, because it removed an opponent of the US, is encouraged; one, because it removed a partner of the US, is opposed.
In April 2022, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from office in a non-confidence vote. Khan has said that the non-confidence vote was a US backed coup in disguise. Khan claimed that the US consul met with members of his party shortly before they defected in the vote of non-confidence. He also claims that US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu communicated a warning through official channels that the Biden administration would impose dire consequences if the non-confidence vote didn’t pass.
The US has repeatedly denied any role in Khan’s removal or any position on who Pakistan’s leader should be. Responding to Khan’s claim, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter said, “Let me just say very bluntly there is absolutely no truth to these allegations.”
But the recent revelation of a leaked Pakistani cable describing a meeting between Asad Majeed Khan, then Pakistani ambassador to the US, and two State Department officials, one of whom was Donald Lu, has shown the denials to be untrue. The leaked Pakistani record of the meeting seems to vindicate Khan’s claim that the US encouraged the coup.
According to the cable, Lu began the meeting by expressing that the US and Europe “are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position” on the war in Ukraine. He pins responsibility for Pakistan’s neutral defiance of the US on Khan, saying, “it seems quite clear that this is the Prime Minister’s policy.” Lu informed the Pakistani ambassador that the trigger for the US concern was “the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow.” On the day Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Khan was in Moscow, meeting with Putin. He defied the US by refusing to cancel the meeting.
Lu’s next comment is consistent with Khan’s accusation: “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.” The encouragement seems clear. So does the threat. But, in case the threat was not clear enough, Lu then explained what “tough going ahead” meant: “honestly I think isolation of the Prime Minister will become very strong from Europe and the United States.”
At the end of the cable, Ambassador Khan assesses that Lu “spoke out of turn on Pakistan’s internal political process” and that he “could not have conveyed such a strong demarche without the express approval of the White House, to which he referred repeatedly.”
One month later, Khan was removed from office in a non-confidence vote. And all was “forgiven.”
The US encouraged the coup because the coup removed an obstacle to US foreign policy and replaced it with a government that is easier to work with.
Khan frustrated the US in two broad ways. As The New York Times reported, Khan “oversaw a new era of Pakistan’s foreign policy that distanced the country from the United States.” The first way Khan distanced Pakistan from the US was on the US led war on terror.
Pakistan had been a key launching point for US operations and drone strikes in the war in Afghanistan. But in June 2021, less than a year before his removal from office, Khan swore that he would “absolutely not” allow the CIA or US special forces to use Pakistan as a base ever again: “There is no way we are going to allow any bases, any sort of action from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan. Absolutely not.” In September 2021, Secretary of State Blinken accused Pakistan of “harboring members of the Taliban.”
The second way Khan frustrated the US was on the side he chose in the new cold war. Khan not only visited Putin on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, he declined to join the US led sanctions on Russia and abstained from the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion. Pakistan is a very close partner of China’s and has moved even closer to China and Russia.
Under international law, the US should not interfere in “Pakistan’s internal political process” and should not encourage the removal of an elected leader in a non-confidence vote. But, consistent with the rules-based international order, in which the US makes the rules, Pakistan needed to be encouraged to remove Khan because Khan’s foreign policy “distanced the country from the United States.”
Niger was another story. On July 19, the military of Niger took the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, into custody in a coup. On July 28, General Abdourahamane Tchiani declared himself the head of state.
This time, the coup was not convenient for the US. So, this time, the application of international law was. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for “the full restoration of constitutional order and democratic rule in Niger.” He said the “economic and security partnership with Niger, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, depends on the continuation of the democratic governance and constitutional order.”
“Niger is a strong ally of western nations, especially France, the US and the European Union in fighting insurgency and curbing illegal migration to Europe,” according to Olayinka Ajala, senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University. Niger was a democracy, and US foreign policy in the region depended heavily on Bazoum. The New York Times has called Niger “a centerpiece of American efforts to combat surging Islamist militancy in the Sahel region” and “the main U.S. counterterrorism ally in the region under Mr. Bazoum.” Niger’s vast uranium and oil reserves also give it an economic importance to the US.
The US and France have more than 2,500 military personnel in Niger, and they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting and building its military. US Air Base 201, “the linchpin of the U.S. military’s archipelago of bases in North and West Africa,” is located in Nigeria. The $110 million base is key to US intelligence in the region, including satellite communications and a fleet of drones that includes armed Reapers.
Niger and the government of Mohamed Bazoum is important to the US, and they don’t want to lose it. So, instead of encouraging the coup in accordance with the rules-based international order as they did in Pakistan, the US opposes this coup and demands the restoration of the constitutional order in accordance with international law.
That is why the US and France have supported the efforts of The Economic Community of West African States to reinstate President Bazoum. Blinken said the US “welcomes and commends the strong leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government to defend constitutional order in Niger” and ECOWAS in calling for “the restoration of all state functions to the legitimate, democratically-elected government.” ECOWAS efforts include “all measures necessary to restore constitutional order,” including “the use of force” as a last resort.
On August 28, French President Emmanuel Macron said that France would support a military intervention if necessary to restore Bazoum’s government: “I call on all states in the region to adopt a responsible policy. We support the diplomatic action, and when it decides to do so militarily, of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), in a partnership approach.”
There is one caveat, though, to the US opposition to the coup. If the State Department deems the change in government to be a coup, that would limit the ability of the US military to operate in Niger. If necessary, then, for keeping US forces operating in Niger, the Biden administration is exploring the possibility of not calling it a coup if the coup government will cooperate, work with the US and allow US troops to continue operations. Deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh explained that “We have assets and interests in the region, and our main priority is protecting those interests and protecting those of our allies. So a [coup] designation … certainly changes what we’d be able to do in the region, and how we’d be able to partner with the Nigerien military.” Another option being considered is a waiver allowing US military operations to continue despite the coup. That’s the rules-based international order.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.