on May 18, 2012
Thomas Hobbes wrote in the 16th century that the end of philosophy itself was power. Correctly, I think, John Ikenberry argues it still is. His new book is about the American power. In this rigorously-argued book, he creates a new grand narrative, a new strategic myth. It is useful: the myths like these are indispensable to a smooth functioning of a "linchpin" state like the US. Moreover, he appears trying to supplant the myth developed by the neo-conservative American thinkers. The outcome is unclear to me. There is today a school of `hard' or `muscular' liberals, often allied with neo-conservatives, who seek to promote democratic revolution in countries around the world by means that include military force. There is no indication that Ikenberry supports these 'hard' liberals, but his thesis might be open to interpretation.
John Ikenberry argues that the American power has been fused with the international order. It now transcends America, it has become global "liberal order". America has become "Liberal Leviathan", which is bigger than America itslef. To put his thesis simply, the American liberal hegemony has been a success story. It should continue. Why? He argues that, going forward, the liberal international order led by the US will have a practical appeal for all members of the international community. This is because today we live in a state of security-interdependence and only can be secure through co-operation in a rule-based and open order, which is underwritten by the hegemon of the system- the US. The world needs the US, because it is a kind of "linchpin" which holds this interdependent world together. Ikenberry acknowledges a crisis in this order, but he doesn't think it is lethal to it. He prefers a regenerated American-led liberal order to alternatives.
Ikenberry believes in liberalism, even in liberal ascendency, but he believes in power and hegemony as well. He defines "liberal" very unusually (as open and rule-based order). The book is an interesting fusion of the Liberal Internationalist theory with Realist theory ideas, where the former plays the leading role and the later (Realist ideas) -- an auxiliary role, though I may be wrong about that.
What are the problems with the book? First, in my view, liberalism cannot be defined in categorical terms: tone is more important. If one defends liberalism stridently, one can become intolerant and illiberal in a the blink of an eye. Secondly, in his carefully-chosen title "Liberal Leviathan", as we can see, Lockean liberalism comes first, while the Hobbesian authoritarian `Leviathan' comes second. Ikenberry's Liberal Internationalist theory has a Lockean flavor. It could be a liability. For John Locke, liberal toleration was a means to truth in religion and morality. Lock defended it, because he believed that it enables humans to find THE BEST LIFE for humankind - he never doubted that there was such a thing. He believed in consensus on true faith. His liberal followers believed in convergence of humankind in universal civilization. They promoted liberal toleration because it was a pathway to the true faith. Lock himself didn't extend toleration to Catholics and atheists because he was not confident that persuasion would lead them into that faith.
Similarly, I think Ikenberry believe in a liberal consensus. This is only a hunch, but I think he doesn't really believe any amount of persuasion would lead the Iranian regime `to see the light'. His book ignores Iran - it is mentioned only in passing, in a short footnote. I was surprised, because Iran, I think, represents one of the biggest practical challenges for the US policy today.
Thomas Hobbes saw the world differently from Locke. He didn't care about the true faith. For him, toleration was simply a strategy of peace. Indifferent to belief, the concern of the government was with practice. In this Hobbesean view, the end of toleration was not consensus; it was co-existence, a modus vivendi.
This is where I diverge with Ikenberry: he believes in a liberal consensus, which I think could be a perilous thing. A modus vivendi is probably harder, but, if we understand politics as a process of flexible accommodation between various traditions, is the only way forward. There couldn't be a consensus about values, could it? Despite the liberal ascendency, there are still many different regimes in the world today: liberal and non-liberal, authoritarian and democratic, and various hybrids of the four. They pursue different paths. I think they are entitled to it. Authoritarian regimes are not always illegitimate. If the policy of the enlightened liberal community, led by the US, will be to make mildly authoritarian regimes (for example like Russia, my former country) to accept a liberal consensus (on this liberal community's terms), the project of the liberal hegemony will mean more conflict, we can be sure of that.
I agree with the author that the US have shaped the current international order. I also agree that after the Second World War the US had more power than anybody, it was able to mold the International system to reflect its own image. No question, the US was able to create a milieu of states which were congenial to the US values. So far so good.
But I disagree on the original impulse of this enterprise. According to Ikenberry, the US did it because it had been already actively seeking to build an open, progressive, rule-based order. My more cynical view is that the US had simply stumbled upon it. It was irrelevant to the US intention, which was containment. In other words, the postwar American leaders had midwifed a globalist containment policy against the Soviet Union. Its by-product was the liberal international order. The international order itself may have had more to do with the American internal politics. For example, the bulk of the foreign policy elite including such figures as Acheson, Dulles, Harriman, Lovett, John McCloy - all recruited form business-internationalist circles. Paul Nitze himself used to be a banker.
The elites have always favored the economic "Open door" strategy, which was in essence internationalist and liberal. Another dimension was the political competition between the internationalists and conservative American nationalists. Each side used the rhetoric of global struggle against the Communist threat to promote its favorite projects and to attack its political enemies. In order to govern effectively and logroll with nationalist republicans, the internationalists (both republicans and democrats) found it advantageous to use the policy of global interventionism. This underpinned the globalist containment strategy and the American Cold War consensus out of which the current American-led order has eventually emerged.
Finally, Dr. John Ikenberry is an intelligent and focused writer. The book is packed with interesting insights. It is obvious that he had absorbed numerous ideas and writings by other academics and had thought hard on the subject. He makes "liberal internationalism" sounds very palatable; in his interpretation it even appears desirable. Still, I am skeptical. Liberal Leviathan supports a monistic global order. We could find ourselves trapped in a single, all-encompassing world-view. The global liberal democracy could be a pathway to more conflict. I would recommend this book as a companion volume to John Mearsheimer's "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics", another excellent book, which might look less optimistic and even appear outright dark, but somehow seems to me less monistic.
on February 22, 2015
I've just completed Mr. Ikenberry's excellent book on the development, characteristics, and future if the liberal international order, and the United States role in its' creation, evolution, and future. I have two criticisms.
First, I found the book to be a very difficult read; not because of the content (which was superb) but because of the amount of repetition. It felt like every element was repeated again, and again, and again, with slightly different words, to drill the point home. I think that the exact same wisdom could have been imparted in half the space.
Second, in discussing the factors which will influence whether the liberal order will continue and how the United States role may change, there was absolutely no mention of the impact of the internet or growing role of social media, other than a few vague references to globalization. I realize that these topics are worthy of entire books all by themselves, but they truly are game changers that were not present when the post-war order was created.