Liberal Leviathan

Image of Gideon Rachman

Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order, by G. John Ikenberry, Princeton, RRP£24.95, 392 pages

Woodrow Wilson occupies a special place in the history of US foreign policy. The president who took America into the first world war, but then failed to persuade his fellow countrymen to join the League of Nations, has given his name to a whole school of thought. “Wilsonianism” is shorthand for idealistic liberal internationalism: the belief that the US should be deeply involved in international affairs – but that its power should be mediated through international institutions and law. Or as Wilson himself put it: “What we seek is the reign of law, based on the consent of the governed and sustained by the organised opinion of mankind.”

It is appropriate therefore that G. John Ikenberry, one of the foremost advocates of liberal internationalism in the US, is based at the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University. In Liberal Leviathan, his ambitious and thought-provoking new book, Ikenberry rejects the notion of a trade-off between American national interest and international co-operation. He believes that it is in America’s interests to constrain its own freedom of action a little, by supporting international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation that will establish a more predictable international environment in which all nations play by the rules.

Ikenberry argues that “power and rules are not enemies”. On the contrary, the success of American foreign policy after 1945 was based on the realisation that, although the US was easily the most powerful nation in the world, it was in American interests to build a liberal, rule-based international order. Thus the US became the “liberal leviathan” of the book’s title.

Ikenberry’s arguments about liberal internationalism contain elements both of prediction and of recommendation. As well as believing that America would benefit from promoting a rules-based international order, he thinks that political and economic realities mean that the US will embrace this idea. However, as he acknowledges, this view is open to challenge. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the administration of George W Bush clearly became highly impatient with constraints on American power. Senior officials such as John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the UN, were openly contemptuous of international law and the US was more than willing to go to war in Iraq without the clear approval of the UN.

This was not how Ikenberry expected America to behave, which is why he refers to the “puzzle of the Bush administration”. In his view, however, the Bush foreign policy ended in failure, paving the way for Barack Obama. The current administration is not averse to using unilateral force, as when hunting down Osama bin Laden, but it has shown a much greater interest in working through international institutions.

The aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 opens up the liberal internationalist world view to a new critique: rising powers such as India and China are unlikely to accept the rules of a world system that has basically been designed in Washington. The problem with the liberal internationalist world view is no longer that the US is too powerful to obey the rules, but that it is now too weak to promote and enforce them.

“The American-led liberal hegemonic order is now in crisis,” writes Ikenberry. But he believes that “the solution to this crisis is more – not less – international order”. In an increasingly complex world – shaped by economic globalisation and problems such as climate change – it will become apparent to the major powers that they share an interest in co-operation. China’s rise, for example, has depended on an open, international trading system. The country has done very well out of its membership of the WTO and it is already a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In Ikenberry’s view, China is therefore a “status quo power”, rather than a country that will seek to establish a new international order.

This is a powerful argument. But it is also a snapshot of a moment in time. There is clearly a strain in Chinese thinking that regards the international system as fundamentally biased towards western interests. Chinese leaders tend not to discuss their ultimate vision of the world order, but, as China grows more powerful, they may become less reticent.

It is also far from clear that American political culture, with its strong currents of populism and nationalism, will support liberal internationalism in an era of declining American power. Ikenberry argues that “China will most likely be a dominant state, and the United States will need to yield to it in various ways”. This may be a realistic recommendation. But it is also a sentiment that no American politician could ever voice in public. Any suggestion that a US president was pursuing policies based on yielding to China would invite a backlash.

If all American and Chinese citizens were as rational and lucid as John Ikenberry, the future of liberal internationalism would indeed be assured. In the real world, illiberal nationalism may also have its say.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief international affairs columnist

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