As the Cold War ended in 1989-1990, scholars made contradictory predictions about the effect this would have on United States foreign policy. Those who saw the extensive and expensive commitments of the previous forty years as the product of a sense of threat induced by Soviet and Communist power anticipated some retraction of these commitments, together with a significant reduction in the resources devoted to national security and even in the degree of involvement in world politics. On the other hand, those who saw it as in the nature of great powers to extend their sway as far as possible expected that the collapse of one of the poles in a bipolar international order would lead to an expansion in the scope of the other pole’s ambitions.[1]Continue reading

The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests.[1] While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that  notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.”[2] Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly.[3] In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.[4]

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Liberal Leviathan coverThis is a book about liberal international order. Central focus is on the order created by the United States in the aftermath of World War II; how did this liberal project unfold, what are the core characteristics of it in comparison to other varieties of order, how is the order challenged today, and what are its future prospects? Ikenberry is fundamentally optimistic; the crisis of the current order is a crisis of success, not of failure. The substance of liberal international order—an open and loosely rule-based system—is not in question. The crisis is one of authority, of roles and rights within this order. It follows that liberal international order has a potentially bright future provided that the United States—which continues to be the supreme constructor of liberal order—devotes itself to a grand strategy focused on liberal order building. I find much to agree with in Ikenberry’s masterful analysis, but I also argue that the book is too optimistic on behalf of liberal order and that the problems besetting it run deeper than a mere crisis of authority.

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