How should we understand the changes in East Asia over the last quarter century? The region that has undergone the most extraordinarily rapid economic transformation in modern history is the subject of fierce contestation regarding the implications of the shifting material balance between East Asia and the powers that dominated in the Cold-War era. The ‘rise of China,’ as the largest and potentially most disruptive of the East Asian countries, has captured most attention in scholarly and popular commentary. In the scholarly debate, realist accounts of power transitions dominate the field, although they do not offer a unified prediction of the consequences of rising Chinese power. Evelyn Goh’s The Struggle for Order: Hegemony, Hierarchy and Transition in Post-Cold War East Asia injects a welcome note of innovation into this field. The Struggle for Order presents a compelling challenge to accounts that view the region purely in terms of the shifting material capacities of the major powers. That it does so without ignoring power asymmetries, contests, and competing conceptions of interest distinguishes it from what Andrew Hurrell in this roundtable calls the “liberal optimism” that until now represented the major alternative to realist theorizing.
This 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.