For over two hundred years, the project of liberal internationalism has sustained the world as open, rules-based, and non-discriminatory. However, today such a vision of the world is in crisis. Can the current political and intellectual assault on the liberal international system be repaired?
In his book, A World Safe for Democracy, published in 2020, G. John Ikenberry seeks to answer the following question. In grappling with this question, Ikenberry looks at the two centuries of “rise, spread, crises, and transformation” of liberal internationalism.
This work presents a formidable defence of the liberal international order. Ikenberry has been a vocal supporter and proponent of the “liberal international order”. Along with Daniel Deudney, he is credited with coining the term in 1999. The book is significant for two reasons.
One, it looks at the “crooked trajectory” that liberal internationalism has taken in the twentieth century (p. xiii). Two, it also attempts to rejuvenate and passionately argues for liberal internationalism.
Ikenberry wrote this book when Britain and the United States took a back foot in pursuing a liberal order. In contrast, China and Russia are (re)asserting themselves as an alternative to the liberal order.
In recent years, with the increased onslaught of populist nationalism (in Brazil, India, and Hungary, among others), liberalism has appeared “fragile, vulnerable”. Against this backdrop, Ikenberry argues, “Liberal internationalism, as a way of organising the world, still has a future” (p. 6).
Liberal internationalism can be understood as a cluster of ideas on how to think about and act in the world, which emerged out of the Enlightenment and the Western liberal democratic experience. In the twentieth century it became a political project. At its core are convictions about how liberal democracies—and the wider world—should cooperate to organize their common relations.
Liberal internationalists see cooperation as driven by shared values and interests, but this cooperation is also a defense against the existential dangers and mutual vulnerabilities that arise out of modernity itself. It is this impulse—a response to the dangers and vulnerabilities that come with the rise of modernization and interdependence that I emphasize in this portrait of the liberal international project.(Ikenberry 2020, xii)
The book traces the two centuries of philosophical writings on liberalism, which has shaped the rise of liberal internationalism. Ikenberry draws on Woodrow Wilson’s “Making the World Safe for Democracy” speech (incidentally also the title of this book) to discuss liberal internationalism as a vision for the world.
This book contains nine chapters, which account for often-conflicting multiple facets of liberal internationalism. The complex origin of liberal internationalism can be traced to the liberal distinction between the inside and outside. While the early liberals supported the ideas around the League of Nations, they also defended British imperialism.
The essential element and guiding impulse of this tradition is the cooperative organization and reform of international order so as to protect and facilitate the security, welfare, and progress of liberal democracy–in short, to make the world safe for democracy.(Ikenberry 2020, xi-xii)
Ikenberry presents a critical portrait of Woodrow Wilson—his worldview and its pitfalls. Wilsonian internationalism saw international cooperation in a narrower sense. It was a system of collective security bound by the norms of multilateralism based on the League’s Covenant. Wilson’s worldview, however, did not actively promote individual rights or support the world’s freedom against imperialist tendencies (pp. 135-138).
The author juxtaposes Wilsonian liberalism with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liberal order, based on “one worldism” that supported the UN-like international bodies. During Roosevelt’s era, individual social and economic security was actively embraced.
With New Deal-like policies targeted toward individuals, Roosevelt actively engaged in a positive liberal vision. After the Second World War, empires began to crumble, paving the way for newborn countries to embrace democratic values worldwide.
In his famous Atlantic Charter speech, Roosevelt declared:
After the new order of tyranny is defeated… the world must affirm four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.(Ikenberry 2020, 167)
The scholarly domain of political scientists has embraced the four freedoms as representing the positive and negative liberties.
Ikenberry uses modernity as a frame of reference to study both Wilson and Roosevelt. For instance, in the Wilsonian era, the leaders assumed that the West would comprise free nations that sustained peacefully and cooperated.
However, during the Roosevelt era, there was a consensus about the perversion of modernity, with the tyranny meted out by the fascist regimes in Germany and parts of Europe.
There was also a belief that the modernising world had paved the way for a surge of powerful illiberal states. Therefore, the final chapter argues for “mastering modernity” as an attempt to understand modernity as a driving force for freedom rather than oppression.
Chapter 7 dispassionately argues against empire and the imperialist stance of liberal internationalism. With the end of the Second World War, the author claims, the United States did not establish itself as an empire.
It instead supported liberal institutions such as the United Nations, WTO, IMF etc. Ikenberry attributes these changes to the changing notions of modernity and civilisation.
During the Cold War, liberal hegemony established the hierarchical power relationship with the coming togetherness of liberal democracies. This liberal hegemonic order was based on two strategic bargains: a security bargain and a political bargain.
In the security bargain, the US would provide protection and access to its markets, while its partners (the security allies) would provide the United States with economic and logistical support. The political bargain is that the United States agrees to “bind itself to its partners, making itself more predictable, approachable, and user-friendly”.
It is an assurance that it will not coerce its allies into submission while the allies offer support to sustain the general hegemonic enterprise.
Ikenberry acknowledges the “history problem” of liberal internationalism, which has tended to imperialist ambitions. He critiques the shortcomings of liberal internationalism—and its crusade-like behaviour. On several occasions, Ikenberry engages with the realist critique (spearheaded by John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt) of liberal internationalism as an interventionist strategy of IR.
He also addresses some revisionist critics that consider the liberal international order as a façade of racist, imperial and militarist tendencies promoted as democratic values worldwide.
While acknowledging the sordid history of liberal internationalism, Ikenberry shows how it has also crystallised opposition to such dark impulses. Ikenberry writes: “No liberal state has ever acted in international affairs solely on the basis of liberal principles. Hypocrisy is inherent in the rhetoric of liberal democracy and human rights” (p. xiv).
According to Ikenberry, liberal internationalism gained perversion with the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the subsequent “unipolar moment” in the world. He attributes this moral perversion to have caused the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Liberal internationalism has been under attack by China and Russia, which have emerged as an alternative global order based on an autocratic structure.
In addition, the then-US President Donald Trump had sought policies inherently hostile to liberal values, including the withdrawal of the Paris Climate Accord and threatening to withdraw from various multilateral institutions. Similarly, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016. There is also a rise in the number of autocratic, illiberal, strongman-like leaders who have consistently opposed liberal democratic values.
Against this backdrop, Ikenberry argues that liberal internationalism has survived history and will survive in the future. Ikenberry points us to historical instances of the onslaught of liberal internationalism and its resilience in the face of those threats.
Through his historical account of liberal internationalism, one gets a sense of the corpus of liberal thought–rather than merely treating it as a utopian-triumphalist phenomenon of the post-Cold War era. Ikenberry’s bottom line argument is that this crisis in the liberal international order, too, shall pass.
To rejuvenate liberal internationalism, Ikenberry points out that the liberal international project must be reimagined. It must acknowledge its limits and failures while crediting itself with its accomplishments. Liberal internationalism has to rewrite its narrative as less triumphant and more universal in its reach.
Moreover, it has to build active support at home further, and whenever it has done so, liberal internationalism has been most successful. But, more importantly, liberal internationalism can only be a viable response to the collective dangers of the twenty-first century.
Ikenberry’s book is an important contribution to international relations. The book makes a case for the “liberal” element of liberal internationalism to be rooted in heightened modernity. Moreover, this book argues that if liberal internationalism were to survive and remain relevant today, it must “return to its roots” (p. 307).
The liberal vision should focus on a pragmatic, reform-oriented approach toward making the world safe for democracy. This book is a must-read for all IR students.
A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order. By G. John Ikenberry. 2020. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 429pp. ISBN: 9780300230987.
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