A World of Our Making

The international order that America created will endure—if we make the transition to a grand strategy based on reciprocity and shared leadership.

By G. John Ikenberry

Tagged ChinaForeign Policy

This spring’s dramatic upheaval in the Middle East has sent the world many messages. It has reminded us how quickly and unexpectedly political order—both within countries and internationally—can be shattered. It has reminded us that opposition to authoritarian rule can lay dormant for decades, only to be ignited suddenly and spread across regions. It has reminded us that while the world’s democracies have had their share of troubles in recent years—and that some democratic transitions have failed—the deep forces of history continue to favor freedom and the popular control of government. Finally, the Arab spring has reminded us that while the outside world cannot dictate or direct the flow of change in North Africa and the Middle East, the prospects for successful transitions increase when the Western democracies and the wider international community are working together—and when the international order is open, stable, cooperative, and engaged.

It is in this sense that there is a new urgency for a renewed American commitment to international order building. The Arab world is embroiled in turmoil, but this is only part of a larger global drama of crisis and transformation that includes the world economy’s struggle to find a path to stable growth, conflicts driven by resource scarcity, looming environmental threats, and the rise of developing countries—India, Brazil, and particularly China—into the ranks of the great powers. Even today, amidst these grand shifts in the global system, the United States remains the critical player in the rebuilding of international order, and three broad tasks confront it: It must integrate the rising powers into that order, ensuring continuity; it must make sure that China has the right incentives and opportunities to participate; and it must forge a “milieu-based” grand strategy that structures the general international environment in ways that are congenial to its long-term security.

The Future of America Inc.

For half a century, the United States held the keys to global order—and in many ways it still does today. No country has ever been as powerful as the United States or has had as many opportunities to put its mark on the organization of world politics. After the world wars, after the Cold War, and again today, the United States has been in a unique position to lead in the creation of rules and institutions that guide the global system. At key turning points, it stepped forward with liberal ideas about world order and struggled to reconcile them with the geopolitical realities of the day. The United States has been a liberal order builder, reflecting both American national interests and a set of calculations about the virtues of an order that would provide a long-term flow of economic and security benefits to itself and the wider world.

The pivotal moment in liberal order building occurred in the years after World War II. It was then that America’s desire for a congenial world order—open, stable, friendly—turned into an agenda for the construction of a liberal hegemonic order. But this shift was not entirely deliberate. The United States took charge of the liberal project and then found itself creating and running an international order. America and liberal order became fused. It was a distinctive type of order, organized around American hegemonic authority, open markets, cooperative security, multilateral institutions, social bargains, and democratic community. It was also built on core hegemonic bargains. These bargains determined how power and authority would be apportioned. So although the United States ran the liberal order and projected power, it did so within a system of rules and institutions—of commitments and restraints. It underwrote order in various regions of the world. It provided public goods related to stability and openness, and it engaged in bargaining and reciprocity with its allies and partners. The center of gravity of this order was the West—and as it moved outward to Asia, Latin America, and the developing world, the liberal logic gave way to more traditional imperial and great-power domination. Globally, the order was hierarchical—dominated by the United States—but infused with liberal characteristics.

This American-led liberal hegemonic order is now in crisis. The underlying foundations that support this order have shifted. Pressures for change—and for the reorganization of order—are growing. But amidst this great transformation, it is important to untangle what pre-cisely is in crisis and what is not. My claim is that it is a crisis of author-ity—a struggle over how liberal order should be governed. But it is not a crisis over the underlying principles of liberal international order, defined as an open and loosely rule-based system. That is, what is in dispute is how aspects of liberal order—sovereignty, institutions, participation, roles, and responsibilities—are to be allocated, but all within the order rather than in its wake.

If the old postwar hegemonic order were a business enterprise, it would have been called America Inc. It was an order that, in important respects, was owned and operated by the United States. The crisis today is really over ownership of that company. In effect, it is a transition from a semiprivate company to one that is publicly owned and operated—with an expanding array of shareholders and new members on the board of directors. This is true even as non-Western states—most importantly, China—continue to rise up and struggle to define their relationship to liberal international order. But even if the global system transitions away from America Inc. to a publicly owned and operated company, the United States will inevitably be a major shareholder, even in an era of slowly declining unipolarity.

The movement away from the American-led order will raise a num-ber of dilemmas and tensions inherent in the liberal project. There is pressure for the reallocation of authority and leadership—but how will a post-hegemonic system provide public goods relating to open markets and the stability of rules and institutions? There is pressure for more extensive forms of international cooperation and global institutional capacity to deal with economic and security interdependence—but how can this be reconciled with democratic accountability? There is pressure for new rights and capacities for the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of troubled states—but how does lib-eral order develop governance mechanisms to generate the necessary collective action and also safeguard itself against liberal imperialism? These dilemmas will run through the struggles over reform of liberal international order, even as rising states and new global issues shape and constrain what comes next. What does seem certain is that the demand for more and increasingly sophisticated forms of cooperation will not abate in the decades ahead. Indeed, countries large and small will face a crush of new demands for more extensive cooperation. In other words, if the current organizational logic of liberal international order is in crisis, the solution to this crisis is more—not less—liberal international order.

Crisis and Continuity

The current hegemonic organization of liberal order is in crisis—but it is a crisis of success. The problems that beset the current system are ones that, for the most part, emerged out of the expansion of the American-led postwar system. The postwar liberal order took root inside the bipolar system, but after the Cold War it spread out-ward and became the outside system. The American order went global. Markets spread, states rose up, and the scale and scope of the liberal capitalist world expanded. Taken together with the emergence and spread of liberal internationalism in the nineteenth century, the world has witnessed a 200-year liberal ascendancy. The main alternatives to liberal order—both domestic and international—have more or less disappeared. The great liberal international era is not ending. Still, if the liberal order is not in crisis, its governance is. Yet, given the fundamental weakness of the past international orders—brought down by world wars and great economic upheavals—the challenges of reforming and renegotiating liberal world order are, if anything, welcome ones.

There are four reasons to think that some type of updated and reorganized liberal international order will persist. First, the old and traditional mechanism for overturning international order—great-power war—is no longer likely to occur. Already, the contemporary world has experienced the longest period of great-power peace in the long history of the state system. This absence of great-power war is no doubt due to several factors not present in earlier eras, namely nuclear deterrence and the dominance of liberal democracies. Nuclear weapons—and the deterrence they generate—give great powers some confidence that they will not be dominated or invaded by other major states. They make war among major states less rational and there-fore less likely. This removal of great-power war as a tool of overturning international order tends to reinforce the status quo. The United States was lucky to have emerged as a global power in the nuclear age, because rival great powers are put at a disadvantage if they seek to overturn the American-led system. The cost-benefit calculation of rival would-be hegemonic powers is altered in favor of working for change within the system. But, again, the fact that great-power deterrence also sets limits on the projection of American power presumably makes the existing international order more tolerable. It removes a type of behavior in the system—war, invasion, and conquest between great powers—that historically provided the motive for seeking to overturn order. If the violent over-turning of international order is removed, a bias for continuity is introduced into the system.

Second, the character of liberal international order itself—with or without American hegemonic leadership—reinforces continuity. The complex interdependence that is unleashed in an open and loosely rule-based order generates expanding realms of exchange and investment that result in a growing array of firms, interest groups, and other sorts of political stakeholders who seek to preserve the stability and openness of the system. Beyond this, the liberal order is also relatively easy to join. In the post-Cold War decades, countries in different regions of the world have made democratic transitions and connected themselves to various parts of this system. East European countries and states within the old Soviet empire have joined NATO. East Asian countries, including China, have joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Through its many multilateral institutions, the liberal international order facilitates integration and offers support for states that are making transitions toward liberal democracy. Many countries have also experienced growth and rising incomes within this order. Comparing international orders is tricky, but the current liberal international order, seen in comparative perspective, does appear to have unique characteristics that encourage integration and discourage opposition and resistance.

Third, the states that are rising today do not constitute a potential united opposition bloc to the existing order. There are so-called rising states in various regions of the world. China, India, Brazil, and South Africa are perhaps most prominent. Russia is also sometimes included in this grouping of rising states. These states are all capitalist and most are democratic. They all gain from trade and integration within the world capitalist system. They all either are members of the WTO or seek membership in it. But they also have very diverse geopolitical and regional interests and agendas. They do not constitute either an economic bloc or a geopolitical one. Their ideologies and histories are distinct. They share an interest in gaining access to the leading institutions that govern the international system. Sometimes this creates competition among them for influence and access. But it also orients their struggles toward the reform and reorganization of governing institutions, not to a united effort to overturn the underlying order.

Fourth, all the great powers have alignments of interests that will continue to bring them together to negotiate and cooperate over the management of the system. All the great powers—old and rising—are status-quo powers. All are beneficiaries of an open world economy and the various services that the liberal international order provides for capitalist trading states. All worry about religious radicalism and failed states. Great powers such as Russia and China do have different geopolitical interests in various key trouble spots, such as Iran and South Asia, and so disagreement and noncooperation over sanctions relating to nonproliferation and other security issues will not disappear. But the opportunities for managing differences with frameworks of great-power cooperation exist and will grow.
Overall, the forces for continuity are formidable. Of course, there are many forces operating in the world that can generate upheaval and discontinuity. The collapse of the global financial system and an economic depression that triggers massive protectionism are possibilities. Terrorism and other forms of transnational violence can also trigger political panic and turmoil that would lead governments to shut down borders and reimpose restrictions on the movement of goods and people. But in the face of these seismic events in world politics, there are deep forces that keep the system anchored and stable.

The Rise of China

What about the challenge of a rising China? The rise of China is one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century. To some observers, such as historian Niall Ferguson and journalist Martin Jacques, we are witnessing the end of the American era and the gradual transition from a Western-oriented world order to one increasingly dominated by Asia. China will rule the world and will do so on very different terms. Scholars have begun to explore, more generally, the possible character of a post-Western international order. To be sure, China is indeed booming. The extraordinary growth of its economy—and its active diplomacy—is already transforming East Asia. Coming decades will almost certainly see further increases in Chinese power and further expansion of its influence on the world stage. But what sort of transition will it be? Will China seek to oppose and overturn the evolving Western-centered liberal international order, or will it integrate into and assert authority within that order?

It is possible that China could seek to construct a rival order—non-Western and nonliberal. In doing so, it could draw in other states that were similarly estranged from the existing system, perhaps including Russia and Iran. But if China resists this move and takes gradual steps toward integration and participation in a reformed and updated liberal international order, it is almost impossible to envisage a rump coalition of states that would be sufficiently large and powerful to create a rival order. As China goes, so goes the international system. But China’s choices also hinge on how the United States and the other liberal democracies act to reform and renew the existing rules and institutions. Indeed, there are reasons to think that China will continue to actively seek to integrate into an expanded and reorganized liberal international order.

Three features of this Western-oriented system are particularly relevant to how China makes decisions about whether to join or oppose it. The first relates to the rules and institutions of the capitalist world economy. More so than the imperial systems of the past, the liberal international order is built around rules and norms of nondiscrimination and market openness, creating conditions for rising states to participate within the order and advance their expanding economic and political goals within it. Across history, international orders have varied widely in terms of whether the material benefits that are generated accrue disproportionately to the leading state or whether they are more widely shared. In the Western system, the barriers to economic entry are low and the potential benefits are high. China has already discovered the massive economic returns that are possible through operating within this open market system.

A second feature of this order is the coalition-based character of its leadership. It is American led, but it is also an order in which a group of advanced liberal democratic states work together and assert collective leadership. A wider group of states is bound together and governs the system. These leading states do not always agree, but they are engaged in a continuous process of give-and-take over economics, politics, and security. This, too, is distinctive—past orders have tended to be dominated by one state. The stakeholders in the current order include a coalition of status-quo great powers that are arrayed around the old hegemonic state. This is important. Power transitions are typically seen as playing out in dyadic fashion between two countries: a rising state and a declining hegemon. This larger aggregation of democratic-capitalist states—and the resulting aggregation of geopolitical power—shifts the balance back in favor of the old order.

A third feature of the American-led liberal international order is its unusually dense, encompassing, and agreed-upon rules and institutions. International order can be rigidly hierarchical and governed through coercive domination exercised by the leading state, or it can be relatively open and organized around reciprocal, consensual, and rule-based relations. The postwar Western order has been more open and rule-based than any previous order. State sovereignty and the rule of law are not just norms enshrined in the UN Charter. They are part of the deep operating logic of the order. To be sure, as we have seen, these norms are evolving, and America has historically been ambivalent about binding itself to international law and institutions. But the overall system is remarkably dense with multilateral rules and institutions—global and regional, economic, political, and security-related. These institutional creations are one of the great breakthroughs of the postwar era, establishing the basis for greater levels of cooperation and shared authority and governance of the global system.

Together, these features of evolving liberal international order give it an unusual capacity to accommodate rising powers. Its sprawling landscape of rules, institutions, and networks provide newer entrants into the system with opportunities for status, authority, and a share in the governance of the order. Access points and mechanisms for political communication and reciprocal influence abound. China has incentives and opportunities to join, while, at the same time, the possibilities of it actually overturning or subverting this order are small or nonexistent. China is already increasingly working within rather than outside this liberal international order, seeking to increase its status and authority within the existing system rather than laying the foundation for leading an alternative world order. It also has incentives to try to reassure other states in the international system as it rises. To do this, it will find that an important way to signal restraint and commitment is its willingness to participate in existing institutions. This logic of restraint and reassurance will lead China deeper into the existing order rather than away from it.

Grand Strategy as Liberal Order Building

American dominance of the global system will eventually yield to the rise of other powerful states. The unipolar moment will pass. In facing this circumstance, American grand strategy should be informed by answers to this question: What sort of international order would we like to see in place in 2020 or 2030 when America is less powerful?

Grand strategy is a set of coordinated and sustained policies designed to address the long-term threats and opportunities that lie beyond the country’s shores. Given the great shifts in the global system and the crisis of liberal hegemonic order, how should the United States pursue grand strategy in the coming years? The answer is that the United States should work with others to rebuild and renew the institutional foundations of the liberal international order and along the way re-establish its own authority as a global leader. The United States is going to need to invest in alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, special relationships, great-power concerts, cooperative security pacts, and democratic security communities. That is, the United States will need to return to the great tasks of liberal order building.

It is useful to distinguish between two types of grand strategy: positional and milieu oriented. With a positional grand strategy, a great power seeks to diminish the power or threat embodied in a specific challenger state or group of states. Examples are Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet bloc, and perhaps—in the future—Greater China. With a milieu-oriented grand strategy, a great power does not target a specific state but seeks to structure its general international environment in ways that are congenial with its long-term security. This might entail building the infrastructure of international cooperation, promoting trade and democracy in various regions of the world, and establishing partnerships that might be useful for various contingencies. My point is that under conditions of unipolarity, in a world of diffuse threats, and with pervasive uncertainty over what the specific security challenges will be in the future, this milieu-based approach to grand strategy is necessary.

The United States does not face the sort of singular geopolitical threat that it did with the fascist and communist powers of the last century. Indeed, compared with the dark days of the 1930s or the Cold War, America lives in an extraordinarily benign security environment. Rather than a single overriding threat, the United States and other countries face a host of diffuse and evolving threats. Global warming, nuclear proliferation, jihadist terrorism, energy security, health pandemics—these and other dangers loom on the horizon. Any of these threats could endanger Americans’ lives and way of life either directly or indirectly by destabilizing the global system upon which American security and prosperity depends. What is more, these threats are interconnected—and it is their interactive effects that represent the most acute danger. And if several of these threats materialize at the same time and interact to generate greater violence and instability, then the global order itself, as well as the foundations of American national security, would be put at risk.

What unites these threats and challenges is that they are all manifestations of rising security interdependence. More and more of what goes on in other countries matters for the health and safety of the United States and the rest of the world. Many of the new dangers—such as health pandemics and transnational terrorist violence—stem from the weakness of states rather than their strength. At the same time, technologies of violence are evolving, providing opportunities for weak states or nonstate groups to threaten others at a greater distance. When states are in a situation of security interdependence, they cannot go it alone. They must negotiate and cooperate with other states and seek mutual restraints and protections. The United States can-not hide or protect itself from threats under conditions of rising security interdependence. It must get out in the world and work with other states to build frameworks of cooperation and leverage capacities for action against this unusually diverse, diffuse, and unpredictable array of threats and challenges.

This is why a milieu-based grand strategy is attractive. The objective is to shape the international environment to maximize your capacities to protect the nation from threats. To engage in liberal order building is to invest in international cooperative frameworks—that is, rules, institutions, partnerships, networks, standby capacities, social knowledge, etc.—in which the United States operates. To build international order is to increase the global stock of “social capital”—which is the term Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Putnam, and other social scientists have used to define the actual and potential resources and capacities within a political community, manifest in and through its networks of social relations, that are available for solving collective problems.

If American grand strategy is to be organized around liberal order building, what are the specific objectives and what is the policy agenda? There are five such objectives. First, the United States needs to lead in the building of an enhanced protective infrastructure that helps prevent the emergence of threats and limits the damage if they do materialize. Many of the threats mentioned above are manifest as socioeconomic backwardness and failure that cause regional and international instability and conflict. These are the sorts of threats that are likely to arise with the coming of global warming and epidemic disease. What is needed here is institutional cooperation to strengthen the capacity of governments and the international com-munity to prevent epidemics or food shortages or mass migrations that create global upheaval—and mitigate the effects of these upheavals if they occur. The international system already has a great deal of this protective infrastructure—institutions and networks that pro-mote cooperation over public health, refugees, and emergency aid. But as the scale and scope of potential problems grow in the twenty-first century, investments in these preventive and management capacities will also need to grow. Early warning systems, protocols for emergency operations, standby capacities, etc.—these safeguards are the stuff of a protective global infrastructure.

Second, the United States should recommit to and rebuild its security alliances. The idea is to update the old bargains that lie behind these security pacts. In NATO, but also in the East Asia bilateral partner-ships, the United States agrees to provide security protection to the other states and brings its partners into the process of decision-making over the use of force. In return, these partners agree to work with the United States—providing manpower, logistics, and other types of support—in wider theaters of action. The United States gives up some autonomy in strategic decision-making, although it is more an informal restraint than a legally binding one, and in exchange it gets cooperation and political support.

Third, the United States should reform and create encompassing global institutions that foster and legitimate collective action. The first move here should be to reform the United Nations, starting with the expansion of the permanent membership on the Security Council. Several plans have been proposed. All of them entail adding new members—such as Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa, and others—and reforming the voting procedures. Almost all of the candidates for permanent membership are mature or rising democracies. The goal, of course, is to make them stakeholders in the United Nations and thereby strengthen the primacy of the UN as a vehicle for global collective action. There really is no substitute for the legitimacy that the United Nations can offer to emergency actions—humanitarian interventions, economic sanctions, uses of force against terrorists, and so forth. Public support in advanced democracies grows rapidly when their governments can stand behind a UN-sanctioned action.

Fourth, the United States should accommodate and institution-ally engage China. China will most likely be a dominant state, and the United States will need to yield to it in various ways. The United States should respond to the rise of China by strengthening the rules and institutions of the liberal international order—deepening their roots, integrating rising capitalist democracies, sharing authority and functional roles. The United States should also intensify cooperation with Europe and renew joint commitments to alliances and multilateral global governance. The more that China faces not just the United States but the entire world of capitalist democracies, the better. This is not to argue that China must face a grand counterbalancing alliance against it. Rather, it should face a complex and highly integrated global system—one that is so encompassing and deeply entrenched that it essentially has no choice but to join it and seek to prosper within it.

The United States should also be seeking to construct a regional security order in East Asia that can provide a framework for managing the coming shifts. The idea is not to block China’s entry into the regional order but to help shape its terms, looking for opportunities to strike strategic bargains at various moments along the shifting power trajectories and encroaching geopolitical spheres. The big bargain that the United States will want to strike is this: to 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. In striking this strategic bargain, the United States will also want to try to build multilateral institutional arrangements in East Asia that will tie China to the wider region.

Fifth, the United States should reclaim a liberal internationalist public philosophy. When American officials after World War II championed the building of a rule-based postwar order, they articulated a distinctive internationalist vision of order that has faded in recent decades. It was a vision that entailed a synthesis of liberal and realist ideas about economic and national security, and the sources of stable and peaceful order. These ideas—drawn from the experiences with the New Deal and the previous decades of war and depression—led American leaders to associate the national interest with the building of a managed and institutionalized global system. What is needed today is a renewed public philosophy of liberal internationalism—a shift away from neoliberal-ism—that can inform American elites as they make trade-offs between sovereignty and institutional cooperation.

Under this philosophy, the restraint and the commitment of American power went hand in hand. Global rules and institutions advanced America’s national interest rather than threatened it. The alternative public philosophies that have circulated in recent years—philosophies that champion American unilateralism and disentanglement from global rules and institutions—did not meet with great success. So an opening exists for America’s postwar vision of internationalism to be updated and rearticulated today.

The United States should embrace the tenets of this liberal public philosophy: Lead with rules rather than dominate with power; provide public goods and connect their provision to cooperative and accommodative policies of others; build and renew international rules and institutions that work to reinforce the capacities of states to govern and achieve security and economic success; keep the other liberal democracies close; and let the global system itself do the deep work of liberal modernization.

As it navigates this brave new world, the United States will find itself needing to share power and rely in part on others to ensure its security. It will not be able to depend on unipolar power or airtight borders. It will need, above all else, authority and respect as a global leader. The United States has lost some of that authority and respect in recent years. In committing itself to a grand strategy of liberal order building, it can begin the process of gaining it back.

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G. John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, from which this article is adapted.

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