Institutional Imperialism

April 19, 2011 Topics: Grand StrategyGlobal Governance Regions: United States

Institutional Imperialism

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Richard K. Betts

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.

Ikenberry does not note that this exchange modifies the metaphor, making American authority far less absolute than that of Hobbes’s sovereign. Perhaps this is why throughout the book the liberal-Leviathan metaphor is laden with ambiguity about just how much the United States should rule the world and just how much it should be bound by outside states and international institutions. The underlying, if unstated, appeal of the message is that Americans can have their cake and eat it too, with pride not guilt, if Washington keeps a balance between leading and cooperating. But there is a nagging question of whether this is a practical goal that can be achieved with wisdom and subtlety, or simply a contradiction.

No metaphor is perfect and the liberal Leviathan serves well enough, at least for Americans who may take it more seriously than the alleged foreign beneficiaries of their efforts. How could red-blooded Americans fault the wondrous combination of U.S. power, authority and dominance on the one hand and civilized integration in a cooperative collective system on the other? What better self-image than good guy and top guy, altruist and profiteer, Big Brother and schoolmarm, all at once?

But Ikenberry fears for the order’s survival, especially if American leaders do not regain the good sense to temper rule-setting leadership with rule-abiding cooperation. Indeed, Ikenberry frets that George W. Bush upset the system by acting as an untrammeled sovereign rather than in concert with the rest of the world, leading to a potential liberal-order-shattering “crisis of authority.” The United States may return to true Wilsonian multilateralism, or it may not recover from the sabotage done to the system by George W. Bush’s faux Wilsonian unilateralism (although how the Wilson who repeatedly sent U.S. forces alone into countries of the Western Hemisphere is a rebuke to unilateralism remains unclear). Moreover, skeptical now of American power (and with pesky minds of their own), there is the issue of whether rising states will be wise enough to recognize and take advantage of the gains garnered by conforming to the cosmopolitan, liberal international order or will indulge their own misguided visions and chart a different course. The book is a fervent plea to Americans to accept constraint and to foreigners to accept our tutelage.

It is a relentless mantra of the nature, benefits and vulnerabilities of the liberal system—360 pages of a few characterizations and nuances repeated dozens of times—as if the problem is that American leaders don’t get it but will grasp their imperative responsibility if the construct is drilled into them.

Liberal Leviathan is also an earnest attempt to combine contending academic theories. This is a mission of scant interest to normal people, but a noble one, since the theories underlie contending policies in the real world. But academics sadly have not managed to get far beyond debating the basics: which paradigm explains how the world works, could work and should work, and therefore which should set priorities for statesmen. “Constructivism,” which emphasizes the influence of culture, has entered the lists recently within the ivory-tower cocoon, but Ikenberry engages the main long-standing contenders: realism and liberalism. (He uses the term liberal not in the colloquial American sense of left of center, but in the classic sense of values of economic and political liberty—the sense in which practically all Americans, including those called conservatives, are varieties of liberal.)

Ikenberry comes out of the liberal camp but offers a synthesis which concedes much to power politics and aims to include rather than discredit it. He avoids pushing rhetorical hot buttons that set realists off, for example, not lauding “international law” head-on, even though his argument clearly assumes its importance. Rather he sidesteps controversy by identifying American norms and interests with the world’s. His vision legitimizes U.S. power and authority at the same time as it talks up the “open,” “rule-based” and “constitutional” global order.

This mission of synthesis succeeds in part, and much of the argument proves sensible, at least in regard to promoting economic cooperation. A fair review would dwell on all the good insights in the book. Alas, good news is no news, and this review is as unfair as most, focusing on the unsatisfying aspects. Ikenberry’s argument falls short because it proves too concerned with form rather than substance, is less convincing about politico-military issues than about economic policy, has little to say about the specifics likely to determine the odds of war and peace, and is so conscientiously open to the limits of liberalism that it does not quite seem to make up its mind.

IKENBERRY CELEBRATES the progressive world system but, since it was forged under American hegemony, it is a “hierarchical order with liberal characteristics.” He recognizes the tension in this construct quite well, and his lengthy description sounds ambivalent. He presents the order as “a blend of liberal and realist thinking” built on the “bedrock” of the Westphalian system of state sovereignty. In words that any thoroughgoing realist could have written, he says this system’s rules do not block American control because the United States can “lead through rules”; rules and institutions can be “used as more direct instruments of political control”; and, binding multilateral agreements are really not fully binding because they include “escape clauses, weighted voting, opt-out agreements, and veto rights.” He grants even more limits to the strength of liberalism: “When power disparities shift in favor of the leading state, it has opportunities to adjust its commitments and strategies to get political control at, in effect, a cheaper price,” and “bilateral agreements will be attractive to the leading state when it determines that multilateral agreements will not be as effective at asserting control over other states in the desired way.” So the strong do what they want—when they can—after all.

Other liberals might fear, then, that Ikenberry had crossed over to the dark side were it not for the contrasting statements interspersed in the description: “To make binding agreements is to give up policy autonomy”; the leading power agrees to restrain itself for the sake of the order; “political authority within the order flows from its legal-constitutional foundation rather than from power capabilities”; “Liberal order can be endangered if there is too much hierarchy.” But again we see the inherent tension for Ikenberry when he also says too little hierarchy is as dangerous as too much. Certainly, liberal hegemony requires the lead state to operate within the rules, whereas “in an imperial order, the core state operates above the law.” Yet the lead state may still be exempted and have privileges and special rights “within the rule-based system.” So the order is not too hot and not too cold, made of realist yin and liberal yang. We’re all liberals—and realists too!

Pullquote: Does Washington have to choose between control and cooperation or not? Ikenberry’s answer is no, because cooperation means that everybody does things our way.Image: Essay Types: Book Review