Book review: Power, Order and Change in World Politics (edited by J. Ikenberry)



Book review: Power, Order, and Change in World Politics. by G. John Ikenberry, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 308 pp. $32.99


New Global Studies. ISSN (Online) 1940-0004, ISSN (Print) 2194-6566, DOI: 10.1515/ngs-2016-0007, June 2016

"Are the cycles of rise and decline of power and international order set to continue?", G. John Ikenberry asks in the introduction of this remarkable collection of essays about global order, in which a group of scholars based in the Anglosphere reflect on Robert Gilpin's famous book War and Change in World Politics, published in 1981.

According to Gilpin, differential rates of growth among states assure that no power will be on top forever. This dynamic is enhanced by the fact that non-hegemonic powers do not need to bear the cost of international leadership, thus having another advantage over the hegemon. World order is thus cyclical, marked by the rise and fall of great powers, irrespective of the characteristics of each order in question. Emerging powers, once strong enough, will seek to create their own order.

Are we, then, doomed to endlessly repeat the cycles of rise and decline of power and international order, as the past would suggest? While the authors do not speak with one voice, the book's overall analysis seems to suggest the answer is "probably not". The three liberal scholars in the first section suggest this is because of rules and norms that reduce rising powers' urge to overthrow the system. According to them, we may be witnessing the perpetuation of the US-led liberal hegemonic order. David Lake and John Ikenberry in particular point to the liberal characteristics of US-led global order, which makes it less likely to be challenged in the future. After all the United States, they say, are uniquely qualified to lead: "Great power does not produce liberalism; liberalism is likely to produce greater international authority."

Yet as Nuno Monteiro points out in an excellent review of this book, it is hard to find conclusive evidence that the absence of frequent balancing behavior against the hegemon is a result of rules and norms, and not of the United States' vast military superiority. The rise of China is likely to put their assertion to the test: Only if a militarily and economically very powerful Beijing (a scenario that may take decades to emerge) will still obey today's rules-based international order, Lake and Ikenberry will be vindicated. Until then, the influence of US soft power for the future of global order is little more than speculation, considering that it is backed by unassailable hard power.

This points to a broader misconception about the rise of China among liberal thinkers, who tend to underestimate the degree to which the West's soft power preponderance is based on hard power sources. The United States’ key alliances in Asia today (such as Japan and India) are not the product of Western soft power, but security guarantees. In the same way, as China and other emerging powers rise economically, they will have the potential to gain more friends and allies – and create globally popular policies, such as a sophisticated cap-and-trade system to fight climate change (as announced recently). While soft power can in some instances be converted into hard power (e.g., attracting talented immigrants who help grow the economy), the latter is still decisive when discussing the future of global order.

Ikenberry's chapter in particular depicts US-led global order as simply brilliant -- how could China even consider changing something that works as well as today's international system? Ikenberry goes so far as to affirm that

The British- and American-led liberal orders have been built in critical respects around consent. The contemporary European Union is also a political order of this sort.

Comparing the British Empire with the European Union will make readers from India, the Middle East or practically everywhere except Europe and North America cringe. Mark Mazower comes to mind, who writes,

Churchill (…) urged not merely aerial bombing but the use of mustard gas against ‘uncivilised tribes’ in India and Mesopotamia. (...) Meanwhile, what was euphemistically known as ‘air control’ remained the chief operational means of holding down large areas of the Middle East.

What Ikenberry does not consider is that seen from the periphery, global governance often serves to authorize new hierarchies and gradations of sovereignty, to legitimate depredations of political autonomy and self-determination in new ways which are worryingly reminiscent of imperialism. Put differently, non-Western readers -- for example, from Chile, Iran, Indonesia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Angola and many other places are far more likely to perceive the negative sides of the so-called liberal order their countries were exposed to.

Finally, contrary to what Ikenberry suggests, there is no clear evidence to back up his claim that only a liberal democracy could run an open and functional order. How exactly would the logic of global order change if the United States were a dictatorship? Does it matter for the global climate change regime that China is not a democracy? And does a recipient of a $500 million loan from the AIIB for an infrastructure project care about China's political system? Probably not. The United States political system is more attractive than that of China, and even decades from now China's elites will send their children to study in the United States (and not vice versa), but there is simply not enough evidence that this decisively hampers China's capacity to become a global hegemon.

World domination carries, of course, considerable danger for intellectual work, particularly for historians and social scientists, dramatically increasing the risk of triumphalism. Yet, it would be unfair to dismiss Ikenberry's claims outright -- not at least because his narratives matter to foreign policy makers (or at least their rhetoric.) Indeed, his hopes that China can be socialized into today's order seem credible. Yet what Ikenberry seems to overlook is that China will join today's "liberal" order not as a junior partner, but as a superpower that, just like the United States, will act without asking for a permission slip. The question is, can today's order exist with more than one power breaking the rules at will?

The ambiguous mix of hierarchy and rules makes Ikenberry's hopes that China will join today's order sound somewhat disingenuous, for he does not spell out where on which place in the pecking order China is supposed to fit it, and implies that the US would somehow retain its stewardship -- yet it is precisely this issue which irks policy makers in Brasília, Delhi and Beijing about Western calls on emerging powers to become "responsible stakeholders."


The other authors, some of a more realist bent, are less Western-centric, yet interestingly enough, they too argue that it is time to question Gilpin's iron law of cyclical change. In the nuclear age, how can change occur in the absence of violence? How do orders end if hegemonic wars (were great powers fight each other without restraint) no longer exist as an instrument of global order?

There is no question that the existence of nuclear weapons affects the logic of change and order, as Deudney argues in his chapter. But one could think of many possible scenarios in which China would take over and profoundly change global order without any large confrontation between Beijing and Washington. While admittedly unlikely at this point, China could succeed in convincing its neighbors to bandwagon and accept Chinese security guarantees. Under such circumstances, even the announcement of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine would hardly lead to a conflict. While I do not consider it likely in the coming decades, the AIIB could substitute the World Bank as the world's leading lender -- not by force, but by having member countries vote with their feet and simply prefer the new institution. China could, in theory, start providing security guarantees to countries around the world, without ever raising the spectre of hegemonic war. The authors do not seem to consider that China would embrace and dominate it from within, and eventually assume leadership without firing a single shot.

In a very interesting chapter, Kirshner argues that "it is true for hegemons at the apogee of their power, overconfident and utterly unprepared to process the fact that they stand at the precipice of relative decline." Does this apply to the United States? Possibly. Vietnam, Iraq and even Afghanistan (a war that had ample support around the world) can all be seen as ill-conceived and hopeless adventures, where, to quote Thucidydes, the hegemon "confused strengths and hopes." They are also, as the author nicely shows, proof that hyper-rationalist versions of realism are misguided, as the cost of these wars dramatically exceeded their benefits: "Hegemons are too arrogant to make concessions when they should and too frightened to make them when they must."

Michael Mastanduno's chapter -- along with that of Kirshner -- struck me as the most balanced. From a US perspective, one may call Mastanduno a pessimist, but he merely points to the obvious: China no longer accepts a "grand bargain" with the United States similar to the agreements the US had in place with Germany and Japan after World War II. Bilateral ties will become more complicated, and the era of 'good feelings' between Washington and Beijing is over. And yet, that does not mean war inevitable.

One cannot help but wonder to what extent the authors' US-centric world views (only one author of nine is based in Europe) affect their judgment. After thousands of years or rise and decline, is today's Western-led order so special that it will interrupt the iron law that marked political history? While the book is officially about global order, the way that it is written makes it more of an analysis of US foreign policy (although it has its fair share of theorizing). If the goal was to produce a broad analysis on global order, the book would need to have included at least one or two Chinese scholars -- how to they characterize today's global order, and do they think profound change is no longer in the offing?

Ultimately, the entire debate about the future of global order is limited because we can never be sure about when our predictions come true. Around the end of the Cold War, three leading scholars -- Francis Fukuyama (The End of History), Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) and John Measheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics)-- made differing predictions about what was to come. At first, when countries around the world democratized in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, Fukuyama seemed to be right, even though the rise of political Islam in the 1990s supported Huntington's claims. Huntington's theses seemed prescient after September 11 and the decade that followed, marked by the War on Terror. Yet today, John Mearsheimer seems to be ahead, as the rise of China and renewed great power politics is set to shape global order for the next decades. In 2025, however, that may no longer be the case. The continuously changing situation allows everyone to stick to their own argument by simply pointing out that current events are merely the result of lower levels of historical development. There is never a final day of reckoning where we can assess who was right and who was wrong.

All in all, Power, Order and Change in World Politics is a thought-provoking contribution to a debate that will dominate International Relations for decades to come.

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Photo credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza