Book review: “Liberal Leviathan” by G. John Ikenberry


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Book review: Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, by G. John Ikenberry. Princeton University Press, 2011. R$52,69 (Kindle,

In his latest book, G. John Ikenberry, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, analyzes the origins of American World Order - a liberal hegemonic order he calls the "most successful order in world history." In addition, Ikenberry reflects on how the Bush administration's foreign policy and the recent shift of power towards a rising China will change today's global order, and asks what will be of the future of liberal internationalism.

Ikenberry calls the Post-World War II order a "distinctive blend of command and reciprocity, coercion and consent" in which the United States acts as a "liberal hegemon". Unlike earlier systems, this order has both realist and idealist elements, and it creates a framework in which "power and rules are not enemies, they can be friends, and they are both necessary in the production of liberal order." Rather than being a flat liberal order (such as the one designed by Wilson after World War I), today's order is built around institutionalized hierarchies, yet the system also has "consent-based logics" embedded in it. This unique and complex structure makes crude assertions that we live under a US-American empire unconvincing, and it explains why emerging powers have such a difficult time finding consensus about how to reform global order. At the same time, the West’s strong conviction of the system’s openness is contrasted by its unwillingness to cede more space to emerging powers in those areas where hierarchy, not consent-based logic, is dominant.

The author is acutely aware that the current world order is in crisis - paradoxically because the United States' unipolar moment - with the "inside" Western system facing the Soviets turned into the "outside" order encompassing the globe - removed the U.S. of all constraints, leading it eventually to undermine the rules of the very order it had created.

Yet Ikenberry remains optimistic. Thinking of the way forward, he argues that "power is most legitimate and durable when exercised within a system of rules," noting that the best way to assert U.S. American power is to reaffirm the 'liberal hegemonic order'. Despite apparent flaws, the likelihood of the end of liberal order is small. Rather, the current state of affairs merely shows that the system has outgrown its American-led, hegemonic foundation, and the problems we see today are a symptom of the system's wild success, not its failure. Even in a system with few restraints to American unipolarity, no state engages in open balancing behavior against the United States.

Those who are familiar with Ikenberry's previous work will recognize several arguments he has made in After Victory, and in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the 21st Century: Today's system is highly integrative ("easy to join and hard to overturn"), as everyone - including not yet fully integrated powers - benefits from its existence. Add to that an extremely low probability of great power war (the ultimate sign that an international order has failed), and the continued existence of today's global order is assured.

Still, Ikenberry argues that the 'liberal Leviathan' will have to regain its lost authority and share responsibility. While the Bush administration weakened the liberal characteristics of the system and strengthened the imperial ones, the U.S. should commit more to the rules and norms - which would help stay at the center of the system for decades to come, and avoid the decline of the system. At the same time, it needs to strengthen the rules of the system and “recover the public philosophy of internationalism” in preparation for the moment when China will surpass the United States as the world’s most powerful actor. If it plays its cards right, the U.S. can assure that China will continue the United States’ ‘grand strategy of liberal order building’.

This raises the question in how far an authoritarian regime like China can play a leading role in today's order -- and to what extent the United States would accept anyone but itself at the center of global order. This question is particularly important as today's liberal international order can no longer be narrowly drawn as a security order, but includes many complex rights and obligations, such as the 'Responsibility to Protect'.

While one may not always agree with Ikenberry’s interpretation -- many will accuse him of having a romanticized view of US-leadership -- ‘Liberal Leviathan’ is indispensable reading for all those interested in the future of global order. The author’s analysis offers more than just a US-centered analysis as he recognizes that not all regions experienced the US-led global order in the same way. For example, while Western Europe enjoyed multilateral agreements, the Middle East and Latin America were exposed to the imperial characteristics of the system, thus creating regional imbalances that deeply affect how elites in different countries think about global order today.

Read also:

Book review: “The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the 21st Century” by G. John Ikenberry et al.

Why we are underestimating today’s global order

Is global leadership possible without regional leadership? The case of Brazil and India

Book review: “American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts”

Book review: “No One’s World” by Charles A. Kupchan