Institutional Imperialism

Richard K. Betts
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
John Ikenberry's latest—Liberal Leviathan—offers a relentless mantra on the merits of the global liberal order while painting over the inherent tension between U.S. power and multilateral cooperation.
NATO, United Nations
Political Geography
Russia, United States, China
G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 392 pp., $35.00. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton Studies in International History and Politics) THE LEVIATHAN of Thomas Hobbes's 1651 treatise is the sovereign state. Its absolute authority rescues its subjects from the state of nature in which their lives would otherwise be, in Hobbes's famous words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” People agree to abide by the sovereign's rules in exchange for the security he provides. In John Ikenberry's version of the metaphor, the United States is the world's Leviathan, arising out of power politics yet generating peaceful and profitable cooperation, shaping and managing a system of international institutions, norms and rules according to liberal principles. This global order is for the benefit of all, but the United States has a special place of privilege, ruling in a fashion, yet subject to the rules itself. The rest of the world contracts with Washington for security but in exchange for America's restraint in exercising power. Ikenberry does not note that this exchange modifies the metaphor, making American authority far less absolute than that of Hobbes's sovereign. Perhaps this is why throughout the book the liberal-Leviathan metaphor is laden with ambiguity about just how much the United States should rule the world and just how much it should be bound by outside states and international institutions. The underlying, if unstated, appeal of the message is that Americans can have their cake and eat it too, with pride not guilt, if Washington keeps a balance between leading and cooperating. But there is a nagging question of whether this is a practical goal that can be achieved with wisdom and subtlety, or simply a contradiction. No metaphor is perfect and the liberal Leviathan serves well enough, at least for Americans who may take it more seriously than the alleged foreign beneficiaries of their efforts. How could red-blooded Americans fault the wondrous combination of U.S. power, authority and dominance on the one hand and civilized integration in a cooperative collective system on the other? What better self-image than good guy and top guy, altruist and profiteer, Big Brother and schoolmarm, all at once? But Ikenberry fears for the order's survival, especially if American leaders do not regain the good sense to temper rule-setting leadership with rule-abiding cooperation. Indeed, Ikenberry frets that George W. Bush upset the system by acting as an untrammeled sovereign rather than in concert with the rest of the world, leading to a potential liberal-order-shattering “crisis of authority.” The United States may return to true Wilsonian multilateralism, or it may not recover from the sabotage done to the system by George W. Bush's faux Wilsonian unilateralism (although how the Wilson who repeatedly sent U.S. forces alone into countries of the Western Hemisphere is a rebuke to unilateralism remains unclear). Moreover, skeptical now of American power (and with pesky minds of their own), there is the issue of whether rising states will be wise enough to recognize and take advantage of the gains garnered by conforming to the cosmopolitan, liberal international order or will indulge their own misguided visions and chart a different course. The book is a fervent plea to Americans to accept constraint and to foreigners to accept our tutelage. It is a relentless mantra of the nature, benefits and vulnerabilities of the liberal system—360 pages of a few characterizations and nuances repeated dozens of times—as if the problem is that American leaders don't get it but will grasp their imperative responsibility if the construct is drilled into them. Liberal Leviathan is also an earnest attempt to combine contending academic theories. This is a mission of scant interest to normal people, but a noble one, since the theories underlie contending policies in the real world. But academics sadly have not managed to get far beyond debating the basics: which paradigm explains how the world works, could work and should work, and therefore which should set priorities for statesmen. “Constructivism,” which emphasizes the influence of culture, has entered the lists recently within the ivory-tower cocoon, but Ikenberry engages the main long-standing contenders: realism and liberalism. (He uses the term liberal not in the colloquial American sense of left of center, but in the classic sense of values of economic and political liberty—the sense in which practically all Americans, including those called conservatives, are varieties of liberal.) Ikenberry comes out of the liberal camp but offers a synthesis which concedes much to power politics and aims to include rather than discredit it. He avoids pushing rhetorical hot buttons that set realists off, for example, not lauding “international law” head-on, even though his argument clearly assumes its importance. Rather he sidesteps controversy by identifying American norms and interests with the world's. His vision legitimizes U.S. power and authority at the same time as it talks up the “open,” “rule-based” and “constitutional” global order. This mission of synthesis succeeds in part, and much of the argument proves sensible, at least in regard to promoting economic cooperation. A fair review would dwell on all the good insights in the book. Alas, good news is no news, and this review is as unfair as most, focusing on the unsatisfying aspects. Ikenberry's argument falls short because it proves too concerned with form rather than substance, is less convincing about politico-military issues than about economic policy, has little to say about the specifics likely to determine the odds of war and peace, and is so conscientiously open to the limits of liberalism that it does not quite seem to make up its mind. IKENBERRY CELEBRATES the progressive world system but, since it was forged under American hegemony, it is a “hierarchical order with liberal characteristics.” He recognizes the tension in this construct quite well, and his lengthy description sounds ambivalent. He presents the order as “a blend of liberal and realist thinking” built on the “bedrock” of the Westphalian system of state sovereignty. In words that any thoroughgoing realist could have written, he says this system's rules do not block American control because the United States can “lead through rules”; rules and institutions can be “used as more direct instruments of political control”; and, binding multilateral agreements are really not fully binding because they include “escape clauses, weighted voting, opt-out agreements, and veto rights.” He grants even more limits to the strength of liberalism: “When power disparities shift in favor of the leading state, it has opportunities to adjust its commitments and strategies to get political control at, in effect, a cheaper price,” and “bilateral agreements will be attractive to the leading state when it determines that multilateral agreements will not be as effective at asserting control over other states in the desired way.” So the strong do what they want—when they can—after all. Other liberals might fear, then, that Ikenberry had crossed over to the dark side were it not for the contrasting statements interspersed in the description: “To make binding agreements is to give up policy autonomy”; the leading power agrees to restrain itself for the sake of the order; “political authority within the order flows from its legal-constitutional foundation rather than from power capabilities”; “Liberal order can be endangered if there is too much hierarchy.” But again we see the inherent tension for Ikenberry when he also says too little hierarchy is as dangerous as too much. Certainly, liberal hegemony requires the lead state to operate within the rules, whereas “in an imperial order, the core state operates above the law.” Yet the lead state may still be exempted and have privileges and special rights “within the rule-based system.” So the order is not too hot and not too cold, made of realist yin and liberal yang. We're all liberals—and realists too! An unsubtle reader wants to ask, which is it? Which counts most: the liberal modifier or the Leviathan essence? Are these qualities really complementary, or contradictions painted over with happy talk? If “the United States offers voice opportunities to other states in exchange for their cooperation and acquiescence” but without “giving up or reducing its policy autonomy,” as he writes at different points, how is this more than just humoring the help? Or does Washington have to give up policy autonomy, as he wrote in contrast on another page? Does Washington have to choose between control and cooperation or not? Ikenberry's answer is no, because cooperation means that everybody does things our way. “American hegemonic power and liberal international order were fused,” as the country's “domestic rules and regulations become the world's rules and regulations.” Globalization is Americanization. The United States is daddy, but the world is one big happy family, gratefully educated and disciplined by his standards of proper behavior. This idea is a stretch, especially for the wide world beyond the West and politics beyond the economic arena. Moreover, in substance it comports ironically with the cruder American nationalism that Ikenberry rejects (and by which he indicts the sins of the recent Bush administration). For many Americans, in both the Jacksonian and Wilsonian traditions, the idea that they must choose between self-interest and altruism in international affairs does not cross their minds. Americanism is assumed to be self-evidently good for everyone. And American exceptionalism simply reflects the backwardness of the rest. In the course of progress, the exceptional should become universal. The difference between Sarah Palin and Madeleine Albright on this score is less than meets the eye. In this conflation of U.S. national interests with universal values so heartwarming to most Americans, Washington's leadership is a service to the world. And so it is to Ikenberry—as long as it's collegial leadership. Daddy, it turns out, must be more modern than Hobbes's absolute sovereign and must act only with the rest of the family's concurrence. IKENBERRY DESPERATELY wants form to matter as much as—if not more than—substance. And Bush the Younger serves as his yahoo of global governance, the embodiment of brazen international-order-ruining unilateralism. Ikenberry is dying to show that by acting without consideration of the opinion of others, Bush and his neoconservative cohort betrayed the established form of good multilateralist hegemony. I'm as eager a Bush-basher as any, but this is a bad rap. Most importantly, it is an unsuccessful attempt to escape the criticism that Ikenberry's model is really just liberal imperialism. Bush was bad because he launched an unnecessary war that wrought havoc in Iraq and damaged American security. He would have been no better if he had done it with all the multilateral blessings of the United Nations. Bush was also not as different from his predecessors—or successor—as this book insists. Bill Clinton was hardly restrained by institutions in the Balkans. He did not condition the assault on Serbia on authorization by the United Nations Security Council, as fans of international law these days say is required for legitimate war making. He used NATO as the vehicle for Kosovo because Washington could get NATO to go along when the UN would not. Ikenberry criticizes Bush for saying that the United States “would stand above other states,” twenty-six pages after quoting Madeleine Albright stating, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further.” Bush couldn't beat that for jingoism. Nor was Clinton, or is Obama, a paragon of international institutionalism when it came to other security questions. Ikenberry faults Bush for rejecting the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the “Germ Weapons Ban” (Ikenberry must mean the compliance protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, not the treaty itself, which Washington ratified in the 1970s). Yet although Clinton signed the ICC treaty, he immediately thought worse of it and recommended against ratification. Clinton also refused to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, a favorite of global-governance enthusiasts—although not because, as Ikenberry suggests, “unipolarity leads to demands by the lead state to be treated differently.” Rather, it is because states with serious national-security policies keep the military capabilities they believe they need. The land-mine treaty is a perfect example of an institution that looks strong on the surface, but weaker in substance. It is a perfect example too of how governments pick and choose which rules they want to accept (and reject) in the vaunted rule-based international system. Indeed, the treaty includes more than 120 signatories. But most of this membership consists of countries without pressing military concerns. The smaller number of states that have not participated are ones that do have such concerns (various vulnerable actors like Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Vietnam, Georgia, Cuba and the two Koreas) and most major powers (China, Russia and India as well as the United States). The nonsignatories represent the most important countries, and more than half the population of the world. Ikenberry compliments Obama for returning to norms of liberal order after the Bush defection, yet the difference for national-security policy is far from dramatic. Obama too rejected all the accords just mentioned. He also decided against following through on plans to close the prison at Guantánamo. What unites rather than differentiates Bush, Clinton and Obama is not the desire for multilateralism but the unwillingness to subordinate the substance of policy to the form of its implementation. For most statesmen, multilateralism is a means; in Liberal Leviathan it is an end in itself. It is no surprise then that Ikenberry sees Bush's unilateral use of military force as his worst offense. But he also takes him to task for claiming that the United States should be able to act militarily anywhere in the world. That aim has not been new since the worldwide system of unified regional military commands was established in the 1950s. Even during the era in which the wonderful liberal order was being created, American action on security matters was often unilateral, or had no more of a multilateralism fig leaf than Bush donned with his use of the British and other token participants in Iraq. Washington had employed force on every continent but Australia and Antarctica long before Bush got to the White House, and if covert action is included, America routinely strong-armed even more countries without any approval from the rest of the rule-based global order. Liberal Leviathan tiptoes around what is really at issue: the permission slip. The book quotes Bush proclaiming in 2004 that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.” I recall a press report at the time that among focus groups watching the speech, assigned to click buttons when they heard something they liked, there was a crescendo of clicking at that point. That line tapped core American nationalism, and no president of either party ever has suggested, or ever would dare suggest, the validity of a permission slip from other countries. Yet in the end, what is the genuine difference between legitimate multilateralism and imperial unilateralism if not the permission slip, by whatever other name? If a rule-based order is really to have any teeth in limiting the United States, it must be by preventing Washington from doing something nontrivial that it wants to do, or making it do something it does not want to do. At least in national-security policy, examples of such constraint or compulsion do not spring easily to mind. IN MANY ways, Liberal Leviathan is a general theory of global governance but its logic is clearly most firmly rooted in the more particular subject of political economy, the realm where the international institutions that make Ikenberry's heart flutter are most extensive. Yet how much do the lessons of economic integration really drive political and military developments? Not all insights from economics travel well into the realm of security. Modern economics presumes a positive-sum game. People need only be shown how cooperative exchange will benefit the material interests of all, and thus why peace is profitable. Sometimes politics follows economic logic, as governments and groups overcome parochial divisions and find common ground and mutual benefit. But on some matters—especially questions of which group controls a government or owns a territory—politics can be zero-sum, and moral interests can trump the material. As Ebrahim Sharif, a participant in the popular uprising in Bahrain that popped onto the U.S. national-security agenda in 2011, told a New York Times reporter, “This is about dignity and freedom—it's not about filling our stomachs.” Economic thinking also focuses attention on what is important all the time, typical day-to-day functions of investment, production, trade and consumption. Thinking about national security, in contrast, has an air of unreality or paranoia to optimists because it focuses on what hardly ever happens: rare crises where the normal logic of exchange and reciprocity does not work and neither contender is willing to concede. Like lawyers in civil cases, nations usually settle security disputes out of court to avoid the costs and unpredictability of litigation. But always in the background is the ultima ratio regum: war. Thus the risks and requirements of war—preventing it, preparing for it, ensuring readiness to win if it proves unavoidable—while far from the only concerns of national security, are always the foremost concerns. Most national-security specialists accept these priorities; not all foreign-policy generalists like Ikenberry do. There are two dubious reasons for this difference. One is a different conception of security. Ikenberry is among those who identify security more or less with well-being or safety in general, thus including problems such as climate change and pandemic disease—areas that require global cooperation. Though more properly labeled “human security,” these broader issues, Ikenberry insists, are central to national security—which in turn erases the distinction between national security and international security. This view is unhelpful because it does not clearly distinguish national security from the rest of foreign policy or international relations in general. A second reason for Liberal Leviathan's lack of focus on the problem of war is that Ikenberry is sure it is just not a problem anymore. Like realists Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, he is an unabashed fan of nuclear weapons, believing that “nuclear deterrence removes the threat of war,” and—get this: “War-driven change is removed as a historical process.” Wow! This idea is reassuring—and if we look down the road, complacent. Of course, Ikenberry means this blithe confidence to apply only to system-changing war among great powers. True, at the moment, war among great powers is radically less probable than in earlier times. Ikenberry is quite right in emphasizing that the United States is in an “extraordinarily benign security environment.” This fact is far more important than citizens impressed by September 11 recognize, and far more than neoconservative zealots admit. But important as it is, this is far from the end of the security story. WHEN IT comes to security, Liberal Leviathan leaves several problems unconfronted: the cost of mandating America to provide security to other countries, which Ikenberry demands; the ethnocentrism of the work's model of liberal global order; the continuing salience of war in the vast world outside the West; and the potential for great-power conflict when unipolarity ends. Ikenberry beats the drum for providing security yet says next to nothing about issues that drive the business of the Defense Department and armed forces, intelligence agencies and other organizations primarily responsible for doing so. The book is correct to celebrate the end of great-power conflict, but that epochal change justifies American burden shedding in the security realm more readily than it makes the case for continued exertion. Ikenberry, however, wants the United States to provide “public goods in the area of security,” even as it should “agree to reductions in its rights and privileges” and turn “questions about the use of force over to the United Nations or other global groupings.” So we should pay more to control less, although what “public goods” means in terms of security is left unspecified. Ikenberry's silence about when, where or why to wage war leaves his liberalism combating neoconservatism on the issue of diplomatic form (multilateralism) but not on policy substance (the goal of policing the world)—on how to backstop it when we do it but not on whether to do it. A quick reminder: the world is not America; and America is not the world. Liberal Leviathan has some trouble keeping straight the difference between the world and the West. When the Cold War destroyed the Second World, the “inside” order of the Western First World allegedly became the “outside” order for the rest. But how much? Economically, the system is truly globalized. But what does the Western order have to do with the political and military conflicts besetting what we used to call the Third World? Ikenberry is not interested. He deflects the question to a footnote: “This study focuses primarily on the international order created by the United States and other great powers. It does not fully illuminate the wider features of world order that include America's relations with weaker, less developed, and peripheral states.” Many realists share this indifference as well. A focus on where the realized wealth of the world is concentrated may make sense for an economic analysis, but a theory that encompasses security needs to go further. Areas outside the developed West are where by far most of the earth's land, natural resources (especially oil) and human beings (85 percent of global population) are, where blood is being spilled by Americans in combat more continuously than at any other period in our history and where Washington is spending hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars on projects meant to set the world right. Thinking of that vast majority of the world as “peripheral” is not cosmopolitanism, it's liberal provincialism, a Manhattanite view of life. Ikenberry's answer to this difference? If we don't wreck the liberal order, everyone else will eventually be dragged into it. “History may not have ended,” he writes, “but liberal internationalists believe that history is on their side.” There is no direct engagement of the argument that modernization is not the same as Westernization, and that trying to make it so against the resistance of non-Western cultures is only possible through liberal imperialism—the warning in Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This is where international-relations theories apart from realism and liberalism, ones that take culture seriously, should come in. Liberal Leviathan backs into the question by recognizing that rising powers like China and India have a choice and could foolishly reject the chance to join the liberal order and profit from it. Ikenberry does not underestimate the importance of China's rise (and if anything ignores the possibility that it could derail and leave unipolarity intact for a long time). He sees the Middle Kingdom as “the 'swing state' in world politics,” because unless it challenges the Western order, no coalition can do so effectively. He goes so far as to say, “As China goes, so goes the international system,” but takes heart because Beijing is so far working within the liberal order, seeking more authority in it. But the desire to have it both ways takes him again to a profound confusion about the practicability of simultaneous American dominance and retreat. Ikenberry says Washington “will need to yield . . . in various ways” and: accommodate a rising China by offering it status and position within the regional order in return for Beijing's acceptance and accommodation of Washington's core strategic interests, which include remaining a dominant security provider within East Asia. This is not just a tension; it is an utter contradiction. No emerging superpower gains status or self-respect by ceding responsibility for security in its backyard to a foreigner from far outside the neighborhood. What is meant by “accommodate” or “yield,” as opposed to “remaining a dominant security provider,” when it comes to Washington's position on Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, disputed territories in the South China Sea or Chinese attempts to control noneconomic maritime activities in its exclusive economic zone? These are not incidental matters. They are fundamental issues for regional security, but the book has not a word to say about them. Indeed, in six pages discussing prospects for cooperation with the People's Republic, there is not even a single mention of Taiwan in any respect. The vaunted Western order enables Taipei and Beijing to interact profitably in the economic arena, but it has nothing to do with resolution of the Chinese Civil War (the Taiwan issue) and has done next to nothing to resolve the other potential sources of conflict. Institutions of the liberal order address security within the West quite well, but mainly because there simply are no security issues within the West for now. Outside, the liberal Leviathan looks more and more like an image that works, if it does, for economic order alone. THIS BOOK is all about form. Perhaps the power of the liberal order beyond the economic realm would be clearer if it discussed some substance: specific policies, inputs and outputs rather than just the structures and processes that channel results. The plausibility of abstract norms—and their limitations—becomes clearer when illustrated by examples. But Liberal Leviathan cites hardly any concrete cases of exactly what has been produced or prevented to demonstrate the real impact of the order created by America's tutelage. The WTO and NATO are invoked many times in glittering generalities, but exactly how they constrain Washington is unexamined. Seven pages before the end of this long book the author says he will discuss “specific objectives” but then mentions things like “the building of an enhanced protective infrastructure that helps prevent the emergence of threats and limits the damage if they do materialize.” Huh? Outside economics, what action is a strengthened liberal order to produce or prevent? On the last page Ikenberry says it means avoiding “interventions or brute exercises of force that end up . . . making the liberal order less legitimate.” Does that mean refraining from a successful humanitarian intervention that saves thousands of lives if it is not endorsed by some multilateral organ? Or that invading Iraq is wrong if done without a permission slip from the UN but okay if we have one? That we should or should not intervene in Darfur, Libya or Congo? In 360 pages there is not even a fleeting discussion of the biggest and most trying national-security project that the United States currently faces: Afghanistan. The mantra of a “rule-based system” pervades the book. What then are the rules for the rule-based system on basic security issues, for example, secession? Are we to support it, as in Kosovo; oppose it, as in Cyprus; or fudge it, as on Taiwan? Do the rules of the liberal order forbid covert action, a staple of U.S. policy since 1948—even if it might be less destructive than overt military action? What are the precise extent and limits of the “responsibility to protect”? On these questions, the lofty abstractions in Liberal Leviathan give not a clue—or rather they leave so much ambiguous room that readers can fill in the blanks with their personal preferences. Thus the lack of specifics abets the allure of the construct by which Americans do not have to make hard choices, do not have to elect independence or interdependence, do not have to reject autonomous determination of national-security policy if they want to embrace global governance, never have to agonize over choosing a lesser evil rather than the greater good. Ambiguity about specifics makes it hard to see how the combination of American dominance and rule by institutions would really work. It is this combination that would give the book its special traction. Arguing only for global governance independent of the distribution of power would alienate not only realists but also most Americans. Arguing only for Washington to be the real governor of global governance would alienate the more starry-eyed among liberals and most people in the world outside the United States. It is by straddling those alternatives that Ikenberry offers a book to appeal across a significant span of the spectrum. But does the combination hold up? The work is full of what would seem like dueling assertions but not for the author's claim that they go together—for example, that the future liberal order should develop into “one in which the United States plays a less central role” and rebuilds the system yet should simultaneously “reestablish its own authority as a global leader.” In practice, how does this mean leader rather than cheerleader? Maybe there is a way for America to move down and stay up at the same time, but just saying so does not make the case. Ikenberry's argument is by no means altogether wrong. It is entirely possible that it describes a system that can work in certain arenas and on certain subjects. In the realm of national security, however, it probably cannot work in substance (although the ambition to have things both ways will always be honored rhetorically by politicians) unless the author weakens his Wilsonian ambitions and the demand that Washington provide the “collective good” of security to the world. That requirement is a recipe for free riding by allies rather than united multilateral pacification, and for draining military activism that is already unpopular among American voters. The alternative vision of multilateral policing that is equitable as well as efficient is entirely fanciful, a prescription for indecision, muddling, inaction or worse, militarily confused half measures. We can have things both ways, our American way and the rest of the world's way, on some things but not often on the costly ones. Yet, if the United States sheds costs it must also relinquish prerogatives—which Ikenberry wants Washington to do. On security matters, however, that means something different from what he desires. It means being more selectively liberal and less of a Leviathan.