Gaza and the erosion of the rules-based international order: A conversation with Carne Ross

Published in Vashti, 1 May 2024

Vashti is an independent online magazine offering Jewish perspectives on debates confronting the contemporary British left.

In supporting Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s civilians for the heinous acts perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th, Western powers have brazenly dispensed with key pillars of the very same liberal world order they purport to uphold.

Gaza and the erosion of the rules-based international order: A conversation with Carne Ross
The UN Security Council votes down Russia’s resolution calling for humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. Credit: Andrew Kelly / Reuters

With the election of Joe Biden in 2020, the world was promised a reset of the United States’ global priorities, by which the bullying, transactional foreign policy of the Trump years would be replaced with a “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” The president’s first major test, which came with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, did not definitively confirm or discredit the sincerity of these proclamations, offering necessary protection to innocent Ukrainians. However, it also reproduced a confrontational, militarised logic at the heart of world affairs. Yet, for those quick to herald this “unity of purpose” in the face of Russian aggression as a harbinger of the “rebirth of the liberal world order,” that moment now seems like a lifetime ago.

In supporting Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s civilians for the heinous acts perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th, Western powers have brazenly dispensed with key pillars of the very same liberal world order they purport to uphold. International legal proceedings, including those at the ICJ and ICC – two vital organs of the liberal project – have been dismissed by US officials as “meritless” or even immoral.  Attempts by the UN Security Council to agree on a ceasefire that might end the violence have been frustrated by America’s unilateral veto.  Domestic laws designed to stop governments from providing military aid to human rights abusers have been ignored, while those exercising free speech to call out this hypocrisy face ever more repression. Such measures, by exempting Israel from the standards expected of other “liberal democracies”, have prompted even more moderate voices to begin asking: “Will the war in Gaza become a breaking point for the rules-based international order?”

To explore this question, I spoke to Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned over his government’s decision to back the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Carne went on to found the international advisory group Independent Diplomat, which supports democratic opposition groups excluded from diplomatic decision-making forums, so that their voices and interests are taken into account within political processes that affect them. This work has included supporting Western Sahara and Somaliland in their bids for statehood, as well as aiding the Marshall Islands in its campaign for a more substantive global commitment to tackling climate change. Ross is also the author of several books, including The Leaderless Revolution, which charts a path for social change based on anarchist and cosmopolitan principles, and serves as the UK Green Party’s spokesperson for Global Solidarity.  

This interview was conducted in late March, before several significant geopolitical developments, including escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, as well as the (seemingly watered-down) efforts by the US to impose sanctions on the Netzah Yehuda battalion over alleged rights violations.

Please note that the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What implications do you believe the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, and the international community’s response to it, have for the international order as we know it?

The fact that Israel is able to get away with the use of force while being armed by the world’s most powerful country is significant. The United States vetoing resolutions at the UN Security Council demanding a ceasefire is having a very profound effect. It sends a very clear message that force and power are right, which does enormous damage to the notion of a world of rules, a world of international law. The authority of the organs of international law, such as the UN Security Council, is considerably diminished by this, if it wasn’t already by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That the US and the UK have been prepared to defend a country clearly engaged in illegal conduct in its pursuit of a war that puts it on par with Russia clearly undermines its claims to stand for a world of rules.

In terms of the liberal order, one can question what that means and how much it stood for in the past. I personally think grave damage was done to such a notion by the 2003 Iraq War and the global war on terror, and the state conduct that characterized both of those wars, including the use of torture. Israel’s war on Gaza is a profound source of instability, both between Israel and the Palestinians, but also regionally between Israel and its neighbours, and also globally, between supporters of Palestine and supporters of Israel.

There will be profound consequences. I can’t predict what they might be – we live in a complex system – but it won’t be anything good, only bad. What are the consequences when an actor is permitted to conduct itself with such impunity? What can one say? Words fail me.

Have you been surprised by the speed with which supposedly liberal politicians have jettisoned even rhetorical concern for international law and human rights when it comes to Israel?

Yes, I have been surprised, and of course it’s dangerous because those rules are the only anchor we have against instability. Those rules are universal, so they apply to China in Xinjiang province, or to Russia in Ukraine, and they should apply to Israel in Gaza. The fact that you’re prepared to let Israel off the hook sends a message to the Chinese and the Russians. It sends a message of inconsistency, of double standards, of course. I’ve been very shocked, I must say, by both the government and Labour. When I was desk officer for Israel-Palestine, international law was the absolute foundation of our policy – it was the thing we came back to over and over again. That’s no longer the case for the government, and it’s clearly not the case for the Labour Party either.

Two main interpretations have been offered to explain this gap between liberal ideals and the actual conduct of self-professed liberal states in this instance. One, taken up by disillusioned liberals themselves, is that Western support for Israeli belligerence represents a betrayal of liberal norms, a deviation from a more honourable past. The other, held by many on the left, is that the liberal international order was a fantasy to begin with, one that obscures deeply unequal, predatory power relations between the West and its allies on the one hand, and much of the developing world on the other. Where do you stand on this? 

I don’t think the liberal order and the notion of a world of rules is pure fantasy, but obviously it’s a very chequered story, to put it mildly. I don’t think the story of neo-imperialism or imperialism by the US and its allies is inaccurate either – both can coexist, but there is a profound tension between those two things, and we’ve seen that play out very often. The US has defended its imperialist behaviour at the UN over and over again, and the fact that it’s had to do so says something about the liberal order. It affirms that this global institution of every country in the world exists and is a place which arbitrates issues between countries – that is not nothing. Sometimes it’s able to reach agreement on issues – that is also not nothing, either. It’s true that these moments of agreement are becoming fewer and further between. That’s not only America’s fault, it’s also Russia’s fault, it’s also China’s fault, and the fault of other countries.

That world of rules is definitely being eroded at the moment, as can be seen with the re-nationalisation of international policy – a return to straight imperialist competition in which the notion of transcending national interests suffers. So, to answer your question, I think obviously there is some evidence for the left’s view which is that the rules-based order was a fantasy all along – the cloak is falling, the mask is slipping, and we can see what is really behind it. At the same time there is something to hold on to in the world of rules. You can hold both thoughts in your head. 

Were you surprised by the United States’ permissive response to Israel? Do you think it was genuinely unaware or unmoved by the potential repercussions of the blank check it offered?

I’m not at all surprised by the US position. It is entirely consistent with US policy of recent decades to support Israel come what may. Behind the scenes, it has of course exercised some restraint, particularly in previous incursions into Gaza. However, I have been surprised that such restraint has not come earlier in this conflict. It’s only now, after 32,000 dead, are we seeing any evidence of the US trying to persuade Israel to hold back its assault on Rafah, for instance. I question the sincerity of that effort in any case, because, firstly, the evidence suggests that it’s not working and, secondly, if the US really wanted to exert leverage, it could, and it doesn’t. Of course that leverage is arms supplies.

There’s no doubt that America’s support for Israel is deeply damaging to its interests more broadly, and of course damaging to stability in the Middle East. However any consideration of the damage to US interests is of course transcended by US loyalty to Israel, which dates back a long way in terms of its deep-seated sympathy for and identification with the Zionist project, and in terms of its similarities to the colonialist project in America, including the eradication of the indigenous population and the establishment of an order based around white people.

There is also, somewhat surprisingly, a belief that Israel is actually an extension of US interests in the Middle East, because it’s an ally of the US, it’s a democracy – in theory at least, it’s a base for the US. However any rational assessment of US interests shows that they should rein in their support for Israel, and yet they don’t.

Most mainstream commentators and politicians continue to frame Israel’s assault on Gaza in terms of security, assuming that Israel’s actions revolve primarily around considerations for the safety of its population. Does this framing not blind them to other factors at play? I am thinking of the messianic and genocidal ambitions of certain Israeli leaders, as well as the survivalist calculations of Netanyahu.

The Christian right of the Republican Party supports the theocratic, extremist project. When you talk to US diplomats at the UN, they understand how much this is isolating the US within the UN and how much it’s undermining their authority. Still, the administration judges that it’s a price worth paying, including the short-term costs. They’re not entirely wrong in the sense that international relations has a short memory and power has its own suasion. The US is very powerful and to a degree it can make other countries do what it wants. Yet the calculations in Washington are above all those of Joe Biden, and he clearly is deeply sympathetic to Israel per se, and is not listening to those who are saying this is too damaging for the US more broadly. Perhaps now, as the carnage has become so great, he is beginning to give them an ear.

Is the UK merely following America’s lead on this?

I think the UK position is reached to a large extent independently and what we’ve seen over recent decades is a major shift in UK policy vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine. The Labour Party used to be very sympathetic towards Palestine but that has now been transformed thanks to a leadership that is extraordinarily supportive of Israel. Likewise, in the Conservative Party there used to be a kind of Arabist faction, who – I don’t think you could consider them anti-Israel per se – were much quicker to talk about Israel’s violations of international law. In the 1990s, I wrote a speech for then Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, which referred to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, describing Israel as perpetrating a military occupation of East Jerusalem. You would never see a government minister saying anything close to that now. So, there has been an historic shift towards Israel over recent decades. 

What leverage do civil society and activist groups here in the UK have in altering the course of Israel’s actions?

Leverage over Israel itself is, of course, practically nil, even if you’re the prime minister. We are currently seeing the limits of US influence. You know, even if the US is saying stop, the Israelis are saying no, so you can imagine how much attention they’ll pay to the Brits. Are there inflection points? Are there points of intervention? What do political parties respond to? They respond to the press, they respond to voters, both to a limited degree, not much, but to a limited degree.

So you try and use those tools, you try to get to voters. You campaign with MPs or Labour Party politicians who might be the next government. You make them aware of your outrage. You use the press as energetically as you can, even though the press is biased against us as well. Finally, you should vote Green – we’re the only political party that has called for a ceasefire from early on in this conflict, before there was mass civilian casualties. We’ve said from the beginning that there needs to be a political solution, which remains true. We’ve called out both Israel’s war crimes and those by Hamas, while also calling for the unconditional release of hostages. Of all UK parties, I think our position is the most grounded in international law, the protection of human rights, and the protection of civilians.

As a diplomat formerly working to bring non-state actors into the diplomatic process, how do you envision a political process whereby Palestinians are giving a voice and the agency to determine their own future?

First you have to create the political space for Palestinians to choose their own representatives, and that political space obviously cannot exist in a situation of war, or in a situation disrupted by settler violence in the West Bank. 

The West fantasises about cobbling together some kind of technocratic government that would exclude Hamas. I don’t think such a government would carry any legitimacy with Palestinians, whose opinion has, if anything, become more supportive of Hamas during the Gaza conflict rather than less. Obviously you have to find room for the political sentiments behind Hamas in any Palestinian representation, whatever you call it. Maybe you don’t call it Hamas, but you include those political views in the platform that you create, even Hamas accepts that the PLO is their international representative – although one can debate what that really means when Hamas’ leadership is obviously seen as the voice of Gaza. There is scope within that for Fatah perhaps to create some kind of broad-based political platform for the Palestinians. We are obviously a very long way from that, and you can’t just create a credible negotiating partner because you want one, nor can you pretend that the more violent end of the political views of Palestinians can be ignored, because that comes from a place that has to be acknowledged and recognised – decades of occupation and appropriation of property, land and life.

In Northern Ireland, we ended up having to talk to Sinn Féin. I remember very well, as a young person, Sinn Féin were dismissed as a terrorist group – they weren’t even allowed to speak on national television. You had actors pretending to be Sinn Féin’s spokespeople. It was beyond absurd, and yet, they were still the people you had to end up making peace with. That’s the lesson. However unpalatable it may be, Hamas is going to have to be represented in some way if there is to be a meaningful reconciliation. Of course we are very, very far from that.

For those on the left feeling disillusioned by the liberal international order, there has been a tendency to sympathise with those powers standing up to the US, whether it be Russia, China or Syria. What would you say to that kind of attitude?

I have always found that binary absolutely noxious. The idea that just because the US opposes the Assad regime, we should support the Assad regime, is grotesque. Internationalism should be based on clear and universal standards: the protection of human rights, democracy. A cardinal principle for me is following what the people on the ground actually want. Their views should be prioritised. 

Ukraine is absolutely clear. We should be supporting Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion. We should be supporting the Palestinians in Israel. We should be supporting the people of Venezuela in demanding democracy – it’s not that complicated once you take up universal standards. That doesn’t mean you believe in the liberal order, it just means you believe in human rights. That’s how you end up with a coherent foreign policy which is consistent across the world and has some chance of actually improving the world in terms of its overall stability.

When it comes to the cynicism of US Western-dominated foreign policy, I look to the example of Western Sahara. We are quite happy to ignore international law which demands self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara, simply because Morocco is an ally, above all, in stopping immigrants across the Mediterranean, but also recently in recognising Israel. This is a deeply cynical policy, and it’s wrong. We should stand with the people on the ground.

A good example is what’s going on in Rojava, north-east Syria, which is a self-governing area living to a significant degree under communalist, feminist principles – something we should all support. Militarily, it’s allied with the US so there’s deep cooperation between the Kurdish YPG and US special forces based in Syria in fighting ISIS and sustaining a sort of territorial autonomy of that region, for instance, against Turkish incursion. I have talked to the Kurds about their relationship to the US and they recognise that it’s a pragmatic one which they feel is in their best interest. They see the US as their protectors. Some global anti-imperialists might feel confused by that but in the end, one should be guided by empathy for their difficult choices, not by some abstract, unwavering policy of opposing the US in whatever circumstances.▼

Matthew Gordon is an academic and international development practitioner working in the Horn of Africa. He is also an editor at Vashti.