Book review: G. John Ikenberry A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order (Yale University Press, 2020)

Big ideas about how the world works, and how it should work, are getting more attention as old assumptions are jolted by the pandemic, the Trump presidency and the rise of China, to name just a few.

The concept of liberal internationalism has taken a particular battering. The phrase is now associated both with the neoconservative agenda of aggressive democracy promotion and, more recently, naïve assumptions that a rising China would be incorporated into the US-led international order.

Perhaps the best-known academic exponent of liberal internationalism is John Ikenberry. This bookA World Safe for Democracy: Liberal internationalism and the Crises of the Global Order – is his reckoning with recent events. Ikenberry responds to the gloomy present by laying out a long history: “seen from a two-century perspective, the project is as much a story of struggle as triumph”. He seeks lessons from the successes and failures of liberal internationalism, with the essential goal of “a world safe for democracy”. But he roundly rejects the arguments that liberal internationalism necessitates foreign intervention, or even explains America’s “imperial” post-9/11 military campaigns.

Ikenberry’s analysis provides a useful framework for understanding the Biden administration. Some of its foreign policy pronouncements clearly chime with Ikenberry’s prescriptions. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is among those thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.

Problems of modernity

Although liberal internationalism is typically pitted against the realist school of international relations, for Ikenberry the comparison amounts to apples and oranges: whereas realists are focussed on problems created by anarchy in international relations, liberal internationalists are focused on “how states cope with problems of modernity”.

Modernisation creates ever more economic and security interdependence. The resulting problems, and opportunities, necessitate greater international cooperation. Liberal democracies have cooperated most, establishing the norms and institutions that constitute the liberal international order. The liberal international order was a long time in the making, and it is now well into its unmaking.

Ikenberry marks the major inflection points. President Woodrow Wilson, whose famous quote about America’s goal in entering the First World War is included in Ikenberry’s title, synthesised the disparate elements of liberal internationalism in establishing of the League of Nations. The League failed to prevent another world war, but, as Ikenberry would have it, “would foster the long-term shifts in consciousness required to bring rules-based international order into being”.

US President Woodrow Wilson in Congress in 1917 recommending the US enter the war against Germany (Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

President Franklin Roosevelt began that process after the Second World War. Learning from Wilson’s mistakes, Roosevelt sought an order that was more global, more realist and more socially liberal. Ikenberry tells that US security was equated “with the stability of security relations prevailing worldwide” and US power would “underwrite the world order.” Roosevelt also sought to embed his “New Deal” social liberalism in the international order: Nazism had shown how threats to democracy could emerge from within.

Cold War dynamics prevented the United Nations from embodying this new order, but it grew in the western half of the emerging bipolar world. It was a “club” whose main members, the United States, Western Europe and Japan “shared an authentic belief that the ‘free world’ was not just a temporary alliance against the Soviet Union but a community of shared fate”.

Intriguingly, Ikenberry suggests that US leadership of the liberal international order may no longer be possible or necessary.

After the Cold War, these triumphant allies sought to globalise the liberal international order. But in becoming wider, the order became thinner and less effective. Membership was no longer conditional on common values. Liberal internationalism lost its link to “progressive and social democratic agendas” and came to look “less like a security community and more like a platform of rules and institutions for capitalist transactions”.

The imposition of neo-liberal policies on emerging economies was followed by counterproductive military interventions, especially after 9/11. With the arrival Donald Trump the breakdown of the liberal international order reached a crescendo.

Ikenberry insists that the breakdown of the liberal international order is chiefly due to internal problems rather than geopolitics. But the rise of China also looms large in his description of what went wrong. Sitting “both inside and outside the post-Cold War liberal international order”, China has been able to pick and choose.

Less international?

Ikenberry’s theories about US leadership of the liberal international order are perhaps his most complex and contentious. US leadership was necessary, but Washington had an incentive to restrain its exercise of power, so as to win the acquiescence of other states to US hegemony. Because the United States used “institutions to establish restraint and commitment” the resulting order was “somewhat independent of the balance-of-power and imperial logics.”

Ikenberry acknowledges scepticism that the US was, in fact, restrained but doesn’t try to dispel it. He notes, reasonably, that doing so would depend on unprovable counterfactuals. His bottom line appears to be that, either way, liberal internationalists had no better option than to align themselves with American power.

“Non-Violence”, the sculpture was a gift from Luxembourg presented to the United Nations in 1988 and is located outside UN headquarters in New York (UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras)

Intriguingly, Ikenberry suggests that US leadership of the liberal international order may no longer be possible or necessary. As American power declines the country will need to cooperate more with other liberal democracies and there “may even an opportunity to ... build a post-hegemonic consortium of like-minded states that could collectively underwrite a reformed liberal order.”

Rather than provide specific prescriptions, Ikenberry identifies questions for liberal internationalism and suggests some broad-brush answers. His overarching injunction is that, to correct the post-Cold War over-extension, liberal internationalists should go back to basics. That means recreating the club: “exclusive groupings within the wider international order” are still important for defending liberal values. Addressing global issues such as climate change requires inclusive organisations, even at the cost of reduced effectiveness.

He also seems to argue that liberal internationalism should become less international. In dealing with the illiberal world, democracies should restrain “their offensive liberal impulses”. They should become more defensive and domestically focussed, reconnecting “to progressive forms of nationalism” and – as FDR did – reconcile “open trade and free market capitalism with social protections and economic security”.

Much depends on China. If Beijing is, in fact, seeking “to perfect an authoritarian model of industrial society” that can “offer the world an illiberal pathway to modernity” then Ikenberry seems to allow that more “offensive liberalism” might be warranted. But the jury is still out.

Unlike realists, liberal internationalists “seek not only to explain the world as it is, but also to bring into being a world they would like to live in”. Ikenberry’s history is informative and his flowing prose persuasive but it’s not always clear which world he is describing. Either way, the fact that he can’t prove the existence of a liberal international order doesn’t weaken his argument that – especially after Covid-19 – the world needs more, but better-defined, liberal internationalism.