Towards democratic internationalism in a post-exceptionalist era?

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G. John Ikenberry (author of Liberal Leviathan) and Daniel Deudney have written a thought-provoking policy paper arguing that the United States should initiate a new phase of democratic internationalism based on the "pull of success rather than the push of power" that "deepens democracy globally, prevents democratic backsliding, and strengthens and consolidates bonds among democratic states." Today, they argue, the United States is no longer as exceptional and indispensable largely because of its success in creating a free world order in which so many states are liberal, capitalist, and democratic. The triumphalist unipolar moment, according to the authors, is over.

Therefore, the US needs to reinvigorate liberal internationlaism by once again embracing democracy promotion, but based on a strategy of attraction—the pull of success rather than the push of power. This next phase of “democratic internationalism” would return liberal internationalism to its roots in social democratic ideals, seek to redress imbalances within the democratic world between fundamentalist capitalism and socioeconomic equity, and move toward a 'posthegemonic system' of global governance in which the United States increasingly shares authority with other democracies. As a consequence, this paper dedicates a surprising amount of space to domestic issues - how to deal with inequality, health care, and fiscal imbalances to assure that democracies become 'middle-class societies' again and are fundamentally seen as more successful countries than non-democratic regimes.

All together now

Democracies, the authors assert, "must develop a stronger sense of community to face today's challenges." They correctly point out that today's democracies do not face an ideological threat similar to communism during the Cold War. Neither China, nor Russia, nor any other state or non-state actor is capable of articulating any narrative that can seriously challenge liberal democracy. Yet it is precisely because of the absence of such a threat that democracies are unlikely to unite in the way Ikenberry and Deudney would like to have it. The Soviet threat made Atlantic cooperation a necessity that no longer exists today.

In addition, countries like India are democratic, but they are extremely reluctant when it comes to democracy promotion or to join a 'democratic alliance'. Many scholars argue that democracy is a "non-issue" for Indian foreign policy. India-Brazil ties, for example, are unlikely to grow very strong just because both countries happened to be democracies - other issues, not related to democracy, matter just as much. Brazil defends democracy in its neighborhood, but mostly because it aligns with its project of regional hegemony, not because it cares about an international community of democracies. In the same way, neither Turkey, South Africa nor Indonesia have been keen democracy defenders or supporters.

Ikenberry and Deudney argue that the time has never been better to realize the democratic internatioanlist project - yet what exactly can the United States do to convince democracies such as Brazil and India to start thinking and acting in the framework of a community of democracies? The paper is conspicuously silent about Brazil's and India's motivations to join the United States in such an endeavor.

The authors argue that "rather than automatically building larger transnational or supranational bodies and organizations, the democratic community should explore networks, private-public partnerships, and informal groupings as frameworks for managing interdependence." Yet isn't this what democracies should do with non-democratic regimes as well? As I have argued in a recent post, democracies must engage China's civil society to overcome the barriers its non-democratic regime erects between the Chinese people and the rest of the world.

Speaking about the United States relation to non-Western democracies, the authors' assertion that "civilizational differences" will overshadow ties and that "human rights and political democracy are not just Western in origin but Western in character, and their realization is incompatible with the core values of non-Western civilizations" is unlikely to find much approval among readers in Istanbul, Jakarta, New Delhi and Pretoria. Ikenberry and Deudney are right that the United States must become a 'normal' democracy (and no longer an exceptionalist one), but they say little about how to contain the United States' exceptionalist impulses, which includes allowing emerging powers such as Brazil and Turkey assume greater responsibility regarding issues formerly monopolized by the US - such as the Middle East conflict.

The paper ends on an ambiguous note - while Ikenberry and Deudney argue that the United States should become a post-exceptional country, they also hope to "extend the American century" - from a Brazilian or Indian perspective, a stronger US commitment is necessary that the United States is not opposed to their rise and stronger projection of power in global affairs. In addition, many policy makers in rising democracies will be reluctant to use the authors' liberal rhetoric for fear of creating an 'insider vs. outsider' dynamic between democracies and non-democratic regimes.

Despite these controversial aspects of their analysis, Ikenberry and Deudney make a courageous attempt to introduce new issues into the public debate - it is easy to criticize their recommendations, but much harder to develop new ideas about how the United States should position itself in a post-Western world.

Read also:

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

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

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