G. John Ikenberry: Preserving Liberal Internationalism in the 21st Century

The following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with G. John Ikenberry.

What are some accomplishments and failures of liberal internationalism?

Liberal democracies emerged in the age of democratic revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberal internationalism is the collective effort of democracies to build an international order. What is distinctive about liberal internationalism is a set of convictions democracies share about how they should organize themselves and operate within a liberal democratic ecosystem. These countries are committed to openness as well as the belief that they are better off through cooperation, exchange, and trade. There is a conviction about the advantages of multilateralism and international institutions. Liberal democracies have a strong capacity for achievement through cooperation because of their values and institutional configurations. Democracies were allies during the great wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, recognizing each other as the most appropriate partners to address global problems. There is also the conviction that, under conditions of rising economic security and environmental interdependence, collaboration and coordinated policy efforts are optimal.

My book, A World Safe for Democracy, examines the record of liberal internationalism during the one-hundred years before and after Woodrow Wilson. In the modern period, the great accomplishments of liberal internationalism are most evident following World War II. The world economy was rebuilt after the upheavals of the Great Depression, Germany and Japan were reintegrated into a cooperative system after 1945, and other former enemies became great allies. Germany and France developed a framework inside of Europe to end two centuries of enmity, launching the European project, which is one of the great success stories of the modern world. In the past forty years, several countries and regions have liberalized their economies and democratized. South Korea, Taiwan, Eastern, and Southern Europe, and parts of Latin America are good examples.

There have been failures as well, moral transgressions, and mistakes, which I have tried to present honestly in my book. The 2008 financial crisis was a blow to the liberal vision of an international order because it emanated from within the capitalist West. The Iraq war is a second major stain on the American-led liberal order, which the U.S upended with its occupation. Many critics will also point out that the liberal international order has failed to adequately address the rise of China.

Is great power competition a result of liberal internationalism? Likewise, is the Trump administration to blame for some of the damage inflicted to the liberal international order, or is his presidency an expression of the system?

I do not think that liberal internationalism is a cause of great power competition, unless you want to argue, as some might, that liberal democracies view dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, and autocracies with skepticism. Embedded in liberal internationalism is a belief that the world is better off if countries are liberal democracies. This view leads to disagreements and conflict. However, historically, liberal democracies have taken the side of cooperation, even among great powers. The traditional European great powers that had continuously been at war with each other found a common project in the European continent. The G7, consisting of great powers, is part of a cooperation-seeking coalition. I would very much resist the implication that liberal internationalism is a source of great power politics or great power conflict. It is a prescription for overcoming such conflict.

Trump was the antithesis of liberal internationalism. He quite explicitly wanted to put an end to the liberal international project. Trade? I’m against it. Human rights? I’m against those too. Alliances? I’m skeptical of NATO. Multilateral institutions? Well, I’m going to withdraw from the WHO in the midst of a global pandemic. Everything about Trump’s foreign policy was an attempt to reduce America’s commitment to liberal internationalism. He was an active agent of destruction, a wrecking ball. Trump clearly accelerated the backlash to internationalism but was not the cause of it. presidency is a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the Iraq War, and the failings of liberal countries to address various inequalities preventing new generations of Americans from attaining their aspirations for a better life. He fed off the problems within American society and certainly made them worse.

Roosevelt’s response to the crisis of the 1930s involved finding cooperative solutions and managing the complexities of economic and security interdependence. Why have we not seen this kind of cooperation and leadership amidst a similar existential crisis today?

The Great Depression showed how vulnerable capitalist democracies were. Fascist Germany and the Soviet Union provided alternative ways of solving problems. At the time, these competing ideologies were seen as potential waves of the future. FDR had to prove that liberal democracy worked. To do that, he had to reinvent it–and that he did. The FDR administration ushered in new types of government capacities, public and private partnerships, and the social market. We are in the midst of something like that today. The Biden administration is grasping for a similar vision. Think about what he has proposed—rebuilding the collaborative effort by government and the private sectors to invest in infrastructure, in industrial policy, and to jumpstart a low-carbon economy. The term Green New Deal is an echo of the New Deal. There is a struggle now to force the kind of change we saw in the Roosevelt era. Biden is the first president to put global warming at the top of the international agenda and use it as an entry point for creating new investments. That is very much in the Roosevelt tradition.

What alternatives are there to great power competition?

We saw great power competition reach its apex with WWII, the most violent and destructive war in human history. During this time, we also witnessed the introduction of nuclear weapons, making the consequences of war even more catastrophic. Conversely, with nuclear weapons came a kind of sobriety. While there have been wars, the world has not witnessed a great power war since 1945. There has been a so-called long peace among the great powers that is a result of balance and deterrence.

Democratic peace shows that there are alternatives to great power competition. Anarchy, competition, and scarcity ensure that there will never be a final, stable peace, but we do have new capacities to work out complex problems. Now we have to grapple with the problems of modernity. Threats are no longer posed solely by states. Our environment and disruptive technologies are creating novel problems. Nonetheless, we can look back to little successes in our past that provide useful knowledge to help us cope with great power politics.

Should there be concern about the way China uses international organizations to advance its national interests? How should the West manage the rise of China?

There is no doubt that China’s rise poses a great challenge, particularly because represents an alternative to the current world order. China is a member of the UN Security Council and most status quo international institutions. China contributes to UN-sponsored peacekeeping and is very active in Africa. China has been a positive force economically, lifting many countries, as well as its own citizens out of poverty. Nonetheless, China has achieved all of this by taking advantage of the liberal order that democracies created. China is opportunistic in this sense as it hasn’t evolved in the way liberals, were hoping.

President Xi has used China’s wealth and power to consolidate the authoritarianism of the CCP, which is drifting towards a kind of neo-totalitarianism, enabled by a frightening use of surveillance technologies, which squash what is left of civil society. That is a very different model of the world. We want the next generation to have rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of information, the independence of civil society, of judiciaries that balance against temptation, not just in China, but everywhere. No country has a monopoly on tyranny and despotism. Authoritarianism lurks in every neighborhood, and in every capital. This is all the more reason to preserve liberal democratic institutions, however imperfect they are.  

The best way to respond to the Chinese challenge is to get our own house in order. We shouldn’t actively go after China, intervene, or aggress against China. We should focus on rehabilitating our old institutions because we are currently engaged in a competition that will determine what kind of political system is going to dominate in the 21st century. That is sobering, but it’s also exciting. This competition need not devolve into another great war either. The democratic world needs to make good on the promise of our own institutions.

In an era of Xenophobia, protectionism, and nationalism how can we reconnect notions of international cooperation with domestic well-being?

Internationalism and domestic advancement go together. We have gradually been building a better world since the reformed liberalism of the late 19th century. The 20th century was a very progressive era. This was followed by the civil rights movements and American society’s increasing openness to non-European immigrants. The Trump period shocked many Americans because it revealed very clearly that there are considerably xenophobic, nativist, and nationalistic movements here–an Alt-America, which traces back to the Confederacy and slavery. 

The domestic agenda of making more perfect unions at home, and of addressing domestic problems of race and inequality must go hand in hand with any rejuvenation of internationalism. Otherwise, internationalism looks like an elitist activity—a platform for capitalists, bankers, and financiers to do deals, trade stocks, invest and get rich. What about everyday people living everyday lives? Domestic advancement has to go hand in hand with internationalism.

In a world characterized increasingly by great power competition, democratic recession, and U.S unilateralism, what incentive does a middle power like Canada have to make an even greater commitment to multilateralism?

The period of American hegemony we saw in the post-war era can’t be recreated. We need a larger coalition of countries to lead the world now. That is where middle powers, like Canada, can play their part–countries that are not superpowers but are high-capacity democracies that can show us the way. Whether it’s handling immigration, health care, or state-society relations. Canada has played this role for decades and is expanding its role in some ways. Some people have talked about a D10. I think there is a real desire for multilateralism and cooperation in the world today. The U.S may feel more humble and less arrogant because it has not been able to engage at the level it would like to. America may be more open to middle-power coalition leadership than it was during unipolar moment.

Progress is still possible. There is nothing embedded in the DNA of the world that ensures we will have a better future than in the past. However, we do have a sober, world-weary sense that we can build institutions that bias the flow of events in a favorable direction. It is possible for people to have enlightened self-interest and not just parochial self-interests. There is evidence that we’ve made our world better by working together. Our past serves as an example for a new generation of countries and leaders to find a path forward. As we look further into the 21st century, there are so many challenges that we need to confront. We might as well get started today. 

G. John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University in the Department of Politics and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He is also Co-Director of Princeton’s Center for International Security Studies. Ikenberry is also a Global Eminence Scholar at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea. In 2018-19, Ikenberry was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University. In 2013-2014 Ikenberry was the 72nd Eastman Visiting Professor at Balliol College, Oxford. Ikenberry is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, Ikenberry was ranked in the top 10 in scholars who have produced the best work in the field of IR in the past 20 years, and ranked in the top 8 in scholars who have produced the most interesting work in the past 5 years.

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