Institutional Imperialism

John Ikenberry's latest—Liberal Leviathan—offers a relentless mantra on the merits of the global liberal order while painting over the inherent tension between U.S. power and multilateral cooperation.

Issue: May-June 2011

G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 392 pp., $35.00.

[amazon 9780691125589 full]THE LEVIATHAN of Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 treatise is the sovereign state. Its absolute authority rescues its subjects from the state of nature in which their lives would otherwise be, in Hobbes’s famous words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” People agree to abide by the sovereign’s rules in exchange for the security he provides. In John Ikenberry’s version of the metaphor, the United States is the world’s Leviathan, arising out of power politics yet generating peaceful and profitable cooperation, shaping and managing a system of international institutions, norms and rules according to liberal principles. This global order is for the benefit of all, but the United States has a special place of privilege, ruling in a fashion, yet subject to the rules itself. The rest of the world contracts with Washington for security but in exchange for America’s restraint in exercising power.

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