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The Rule-Maker Race

In the coming decades, the question of who sets the global rules, standards, and norms guiding technology, trade, and economic development will be paramount. Having lost their exclusive prerogative in this domain, some Western governments have begun to rethink the universality of the rules-based order.

BERLIN – Will the West remain committed to the rules-based international order when it is no longer the one making the rules? That will be one of the most intriguing questions of the next two decades. If there is one principle that has united electorates, policymakers, politicians, and media across the West, it is that rules matter for just about everything else. Disrespect of common rules has long been met with intense anger and a forceful response.

Consider the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s raw charisma enabled him to win and hold on to power, effectively redrawing the country’s political map in the process. Until recently, his public approval had withstood florid displays of incompetence, a rising pandemic death toll, and an economic recession. But Johnson is now finally hemorrhaging support for one simple reason: he and his government went too far in disregarding the rules. The revelation that there was a Christmas party at 10 Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence) last year while the rest of the country was in lockdown has hurt Johnson’s reputation more than any of his other scandals or transgressions.

At the international level, Western governments routinely condemn others for rule-breaking. Russia, for example, has been rebuked for its annexation of Crimea, repeated cyberattacks on other countries, and physical attacks on Russian dissidents abroad. China, too, has been condemned as a major transgressor. US President Joe Biden may not agree with much that his predecessor said or did, but he has maintained a striking continuity with the Trump administration’s characterization of China as a global menace that steals intellectual property, maintains illegal subsidies, permits rampant corruption, and is carrying out genocide.

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