Stephen M. Walt

Ikenberry’s turn

Explanatory Note: A few weeks ago, I offered some comments on John Ikenberry’s new book Liberal Leviathan, based on a panel discussion from the September 2011 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. John asked if he could offer a response, and I readily agreed. Here is his reply. John Ikenberry writes: I thank ...

Explanatory Note: A few weeks ago, I offered some comments on John Ikenberry’s new book Liberal Leviathan, based on a panel discussion from the September 2011 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. John asked if he could offer a response, and I readily agreed. Here is his reply.

John Ikenberry writes:

I thank Steve for allowing me to share some ideas from my new book, Liberal Leviathan. In an earlier post, Steve offered some thoughtful comments on the book, focusing on my “grand narrative” of America’s impact on world politics. I clearly have a more positive view of America’s “liberal accomplishment” over the last hundred years than Steve. Steve sees my portrait of the America-led liberal order as normative; it is more ideal than real. Where I see America generating public goods and pushing and pulling states in the direction of an open, rule-based order, Steve sees a profoundly unruly America that has inflicted violence and disorder on the global system. It is not that the United States is unusually malevolent as a great power on the global stage, Steve argues. Indeed that is Steve’s point — the U.S. is just not “exceptional.” I have several responses to Steve, but my bottom line is: the U.S. may not be “exceptional,” but in world historical terms it is pretty unusual – unusual in finding itself with repeated opportunities to shape world politics (1919, 1945, 1991, and again today), and unusual in the ideas, interests, and strategies that it has brought to these ordering moments. A distinctive sort of global order took shape in the shadow of American postwar power, and — on balance — this has been a good thing for the world, at least when compared to past (Soviet, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan) and imagined (China) alternatives.

First, let me say something about the book’s argument. At one level, the book is a scholarly work on the theory of international order — the rise and fall of international orders, the various ways that states have built international order, and the particular character and logic of liberal international order. Liberal international order is order that is open and at least loosely rules-based. The book offers a theoretical account of why powerful states might want to build order with liberal characteristics and I explore the various “versions” of liberal international order that were pursed at historical junctions during the great 200 year arc of the “liberal ascendency.” I argue that the United States did build a post-WWII order that might be described as a “liberal hegemonic order.” It was a hierarchical order in which the US organized relations around multilateral institutions, open trade, alliances, client states, and so forth. In some parts of the postwar system, the United States pursued crudely imperial or ruthlessly power-political agendas, but in other realms — and in the core of the overall order – relationships exhibited liberal characteristics (multilateral rules, diffuse reciprocity, open trade, democratic solidarity, etc.). America built a global hierarchy. Some of it was “hierarchy with imperial characteristics” and some of it was “hierarchy with liberal characteristics.” The book has a theory to explain why it is one way or the other in various places and times.

I go on to argue that this hegemonic order is in crisis. Importantly, it is not liberal internationalism — as a logic of order — that is in crisis. It is America’s hegemonic role that is in trouble. There is a global struggle underway over the distribution of rights, privileges, authority, etc. I argue that this is a “crisis of success” in that it is the rise of non-Western developing states and the ongoing intensification of economic and security interdependence that have triggered the crisis and overrun the governance institutions of the old order. This is a bit like Samuel Huntington’s famous “development gap” — a situation in which rapidly mobilizing and expanding social forces and economic transformation, facilitated by the old political institutions, have outpaced and overrun those institutions. That is what has happened to American hegemony. The book ends by asking: what comes next? And I argue that the constituencies for open, rules-based order are expanding, not contracting. The world system may become “less American,” but it will not become “less liberal.” So that is my argument.

Second, to come back to Steve, I do think that the United States has spearheaded a “liberal accomplishment.” Within the parameters of the postwar American-led system “progressive upgrades” in world politics occurred. The world economy was opened up and the “golden era” of trade and growth followed. Germany and Japan were integrated into a collaborative world order. France and Germany found a way to live together. A whole range of developing states — in East Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Latin America grew, developed, and made democratic transitions. These accomplishments flow from the character of the order. It is an order where the “spoils of modernity” have been widely shared. It is an order where authority and leadership has not been imperial in form but shared in a variety of formal and informal governance institutions. It is an order that is “easy to join and hard to overturn.”

As I said, my book seeks to identify and compare the various ways in which great powers have built order. It is, of course, dangerous to try to go beyond this and compare the “performance” of the international orders that have appeared over the ages. But I go ahead and do it. I argue that this postwar order did do a lot of macro-political things rather well – particularly if we use metrics such as wealth creation, provision of physical safety, ideals to guide the struggle for social justice, and so forth. These accomplishments were not all “made in Washington.” The U.S. sometimes stood on the wrong side of these accomplishments, supporting — as it did during the Cold War and in some cases even today — despots and dictators, defending the rich and ignoring the poor. The global system itself underwent modernization and expansion, and societies – to the extent they could – often made their own way upward.

The United States is a paradox: it has been the country that over the course of the twentieth century made the most sustained efforts to build agreed upon global rules and institutions – but it has also been deeply ambivalent about deferring to the authority of those rules and institutions. The United States has styled itself as the guardian of peace and the status quo, but it has also projected military force, intervened abroad, and manipulated other societies. In this sense, Steve is right – the United States is a normal, not exceptional, great power. But my point is not that the United States is exceptional in the sense that it is more moral or enlightened. My point is that, despite all this, the United States has used its unusual power position to shape, push, and pull the international system in a liberal direction. To be sure, it has done this to advance its own long-term interests. It has tied its power to the creation of a particular type of international order – but it has been motivated by advancing its interests, legitimating its power, protecting its equities. A careful reading of my book will show that the “sources” for America’s liberal leadership are not its liberal “values” or “ideational traditions” as such, but its strategic interests.

So, in our debate over America’s grand narrative, we are really grappling with the question of whether liberal democracies and the wider world can in fact build sustainable global institutions that bias the flow of world history in a progressive direction. I think that when we look back at the last century we find glimmers of hope. There have been real accomplishments. States have found strategies and practices that facilitate restraint, accommodation, and collective action. This conviction is what makes me a liberal. The era that the world is now entering will surely put my arguments to the test!

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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