Why Liberal Internationalism Is Still Indispensable—and Fixable

G. John Ikenberry’s new book traces what went wrong. And Biden is listening.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden listens during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Oct. 7. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Joe Biden will enter office as America’s 46th president next month in a spirit of confidence for the future—but also with an almost confessional sense of humility about the past. Because Biden and his top advisors seem acutely aware of just how badly they botched things the last time they were in power.

One of their chief manifestos for change, as some of the incoming Bidenites have already privately conceded, will be G. John Ikenberry’s new book, A World Safe for Democracy. It is in some ways the crowning achievement of the Princeton University’s scholar’s decadeslong work explaining and defending the liberal international order.

A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order, G. John Ikenberry, Yale University Press, 432 pp., , September 2020

A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order, G. John Ikenberry, Yale University Press, 432 pp., $30, September 2020

Ikenberry’s research traces the origins of the liberal internationalist project—the idea of building a community of nations based on democracy, cooperation, and the rule of law—going back 200 years. He chronicles it from its inception in the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions to its near-dissolution in the post-Cold War period under the neonationalist banner of its worst nemesis, President Donald Trump.

Ikenberry, in an interview, said that his purpose was to “reframe the debate between nationalism and internationalism” and acknowledge that American policymakers are now dealing with a “liberal internationalism for wintertime rather than a Francis Fukuyama-style liberal internationalism for springtime” of two decades ago. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama, the Stanford political philosopher, famously suggested that the triumph of democratic liberal capitalism over communism was so complete it could constitute a kind of “end of history.” This did not turn out to be the case.)

Ikenberry says that it’s long past time for Biden and the Democrats to acknowledge that rampaging American hubris after the Cold War led to some of the worst mistakes ever made by liberal internationalists of the modern era: from a Pollyannaish Reaganite belief that neoliberalism (or capitalist free markets) would solve most problems to the equally self-deluding notion that democracy would achieve the same, especially in the Arab world (hence the disastrous Iraq War). Along the way, he writes in his book, nations and especially Washington lost the “shared narrative” of being a diverse but connected international community and became more of a U.S.-manufactured “public utility” dominated by the interests of multinational corporations.

And the former concept is what it must return to, he says. “The book tries to provide the deeper theory of the liberal project that Biden is going to try to renew,” Ikenberry said. “I think it’s the first book that attempts to look at a whole tradition and cull it for usable knowledge we can apply today. And to make the point that the post-1989 years [after the fall of the Berlin Wall] were very much an anomaly. Two centuries on, it’s much more of a world-weary, contested run of democracies struggling to build order.”

According to a senior member of the incoming Biden team, speaking on background, the new administration is paying a great deal of attention to Ikenberry’s ideas about readdressing the problems of the American middle class that were sacrificed to overzealous ideas of globalization. He also said that reinventing liberal internationalism along the lines Ikenberry recommends will be at the forefront of their efforts.

The incoming Biden team has already conceded that both they and the Republicans, pre-Trump, lost their way. They erred badly because they “came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else,” as Biden’s nominee to be national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, wrote in the Atlantic in early 2019. Under both Democrats and Republicans, “U.S. internationalism became insufficiently attentive to the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.”

In a remarkable admission, Sullivan, who served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, confessed: “During the Obama administration, when the national-security team sat around the Situation Room table, we rarely posed the question What will this mean for the middle class? Many other countries have made economic growth that expands the middle class a key organizing principle of their foreign policy.”

The United States suffered a dangerous, society-splitting populist backlash because it did not address that same question, instead recklessly embracing global neoliberalism, and engaging in a confident flinging-open of all borders.  The result was the loss of any sense that internationalism was also a way of protecting social and economic equity—the kind of compact that existed after World War II. Another result was a series of policies and trade deals that opened the door to the decimation of the American middle class, particularly to Chinese competition. Beyond that, successive administrations, starting with President Bill Clinton (but in which George W. Bush’s administration was particularly culpable in not punishing Chinese dumping and intellectual property theft under World Trade Organization rules) allowed China to flagrantly violate the rules of the game. 

The post-Cold War internationalists failed equally in thinking they could easily co-opt major illiberal states such as China and Russia fully into the global system, Ikenberry writes. They did not. The answer may be to make liberal internationalism less “offensive” and intrusive. Instead “it must define itself less as a grand vision of a global march toward an ideal society, and more as a pragmatic, reform-oriented approach to making liberal democracies safe.” China, the major rival to the United States, in particular could at least abide such an approach, Ikenberry argues, because even in its rise to global dominance it is still seeking to work within institutions like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the WTO. 

“In effect this strategy calls for making the liberal international order friendly to China and Russia by stepping back from the vision of a one-world liberal order,” he writes. “The emphasis instead would be on coexistence, building on the ‘defensive’ liberal principles of self-determination, tolerance, and ideological pluralism. Liberal internationalism would be made more conservative.” Or, some would say, more realist.

There is little doubt about the direction the Bidenites will go, because all of them know—as Ikenberry argues—that in the end there really is no alternative. As Sullivan wrote last year: Trump’s neoisolationist approach “is dangerous, but he has surfaced questions that need clear answers. Those of us who believe that the United States can and should continue to occupy a global leadership role, even if a different role than in the past, have to explain why Trump is wrong—and provide a better strategy for the future. …

“This requires domestic renewal above all, with energetic responses at home to the rise of tribalism and the hollowing-out of the middle class.” 

Ultimately, the challenges of modernity will require a reinvented liberal internationalism because, Ikenberry argues, there really is no other system available for dealing with “the problems of interdependence” other than through international cooperation. Climate change, pandemics like COVID-19, nuclear proliferation—all can only be solved through the established global system. “The pandemic is the poster child of that problem,” he said in the interview. 

But even here the United States must adopt more realist approaches to liberal internationalism. “The problem of liberal internationalism is about managing interdependence, not globalizing the world,” he said.

Ikenberry concludes that liberal internationalism must recreate itself as a more restrained version of President Woodrow Wilson’s original vision of making the world “safe for democracy.” But this, again, is likely to be more a defensive than offensive approach. And at home, Ikenberry says, it means finding a brand-new way of making internationalism work for average Americans, especially with labor and environmental protections.  The idea of “protectionism” can no longer simply be anathema.

Indeed, Trumpist populism will not disappear under Biden. He has already advocated a $700 billion-plus “Buy American” plan and conditioned his return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership he once advocated on greater worker protections. His political platform sounds a not a little Trumpian as well, declaring he will “ensure the future is ‘made in all of America’ by all of America’s workers.” Biden will also continue a campaign begun by former President Barack Obama—but turned into a strident war by Trump—pressuring European allies to pay their fair share of the Atlantic alliance and NATO. In the end, Biden’s return to liberal internationalism will be real, but more demanding of other nations, as was Trump’s. 

Above all, his approach will focus first at home, on the pandemic and joblessness. “Looking over 200 years,” Ikenberry said, “one of the things I found and which the Biden administration intuitively understands is that in every period where a golden era of internationalism that lifted America to greater heights existed, it was tied to a progressive agenda.” 

Restoring this vision means going back to the nationalist origins of internationalism, how it arose out of the wars of the 19th century, the industrial revolution, and, in hands of proto-internationalists such as the British politician Richard Cobden, how it became a means to global hegemony and economic prosperity for its first great practitioner, Britain. Cobden spoke of free trade and peace as “one and the same cause,” and at the same time new forms of social internationalism also sprung up, pushing for equanimity for all social classes. The new concept of Adam Smith-conceived free trade presaged “the dissolution of empire, the ending of territorial annexation and the abandonment of aristocratic militarism,” as the British historian Anthony Howe argues. It presaged the modern world, in other words, culminating, ultimately, in the international community institutions proposed by Wilson and imposed and perfected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But institutions that were always meant to benefit all Americans.

These changes in the international system are now so entrenched they cannot simply be undone. Yet they remain badly misdirected at present. Somewhere along the line the idea of internationalism became, rather than a means to achieve the end of national prosperity and peace, instead an end in itself. And this is where policymakers went wrong. In Washington, especially, the domestic impact of liberalization was consistently played down by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The post-Cold War globalization of free trade did indeed create, as the economists predicted, more global equality and prosperity overall. But in the past few decades far more of that equality and prosperity has accrued to developing nations than to the working classes of the champions of globalization like the United States and Europe, where growing inequality has engendered a long-term populist reaction, one that is unlikely to disappear any time soon.  

As a result, Ikenberry said, “I think we’re in for a kind of managed openness that allows us to protect environmental and labor standards, so as to shore up the democracies.” 

Even Ikenberry admits there is a long way to go in restoring faith in liberal internationalism in Washington, especially now that the problems of modernity “are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are greater opportunities with technologies and innovation but also greater perils.” Cyber-misinformation, for one thing, that emerged out of the very technology that was supposed to bring us closer together: the internet.

“Functioning liberal democracy requires some factual agreed-upon knowledge base,” said Ikenberry, and yet Trump showed that he could exploit the fact that there was no longer such an agreed-upon base—no direction home to broadly established economic and social truths. 

In the end, Ikenberry calls for a new “Wilsonian moment” but he appears to think it will be something very different from what Wilson himself conceived a century ago. In the interview Ikenberry conceded: “Some will say what we are introducing is a kind of illiberal internationalism instead.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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