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Book Review: A World Safe for Democracy

11 Jan 2024
Reviewed by John West

Professor G. John Ikenberry argues that the grand project of liberal internationalism is in crisis today. But he believes there is every reason for the world’s democracies to work together to revive the liberal global order.

Following last month’s review of Professor John J. Mearsheimer’s new book (written jointly with Professor Sebastian Rosato), I could not resist turning to Professor G. John Ikenberry’s 2020 book on Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order. And I certainly was not disappointed. These scholars are leading proponents of two rival schools of international relations, namely realism and liberal internationalism, and provide lots of ballast for analyses of international politics.

Ikenberry, a Professor at Princeton University, writes that the grand project of liberal internationalism is in crisis today, in a way we haven’t seen since the 1930s. A major factor is the retreat from liberal internationalism by the US and UK, the two great powers that did the most to give the modern global order a liberal character. Ikenberry’s book was written while Donald Trump was still president of the US. In subsequent conferences, Ikenberry has rejoiced at the revival of liberal internationalism under President Joe Biden, although he fears a return of Trump or someone of his ilk who could turn the US in an illiberal direction.

According to Ikenberry, the idea of a liberal global order did not begin after the end of the Cold War in 1989 or even in the ashes of World War II in 1945, as many believe. He takes a much longer view. Liberal internationalism has been a much longer struggle by liberal democratic states over at least 200 years.

Part of the complexity of liberal internationalism is that it has come in different guises – laissez-faire capitalist democracy, social democracy, the British empire of the 19th century, and American global domination of the 20th century. But it does offer a coherent set of ideas to enable liberal democracies to work together, namely, international openness for trade and finance, international institutions to facilitate cooperation, democratic solidarity, cooperative security, and progressive social purposes.

Ikenberry describes liberal internationalism as a way of thinking about the world. But the title of this book, “A World Safe for Democracy,” does not imply a mission to spread democracy worldwide. Rather the idea is about creating an ecosystem that facilitates the survival of democracy. The reason being that liberal democracies are incredibly complicated, and are designed to malfunction. They are built around inconsistent principles – liberty and equality, individualism and community, and sovereignty and interdependence. Since these factors are in tension, an ecosystem is required to enable countries to balance them.

The period after the end of the Cold War, during the 1990s, was the closest the world has come to a “liberal moment.” But according to Ikenberry, liberal internationalism would subsequently suffer from three unfortunate events. First, there was the Iraq war which discredited conservative internationalist elites in Washington. The second was the 2008 global financial crisis which undermined the case for economic liberalism. And third was the “liberal bet” on China, namely that by welcoming China into the liberal order it would become a more open and liberal regime – something which did not happen. One consequence of the crisis in liberal internationalism is the loss in confidence in collective action for addressing common problems like climate change and pandemics. It has weakened leaders’ ability to convince citizens that we should think in internationalist terms.

Ikenberry is nevertheless insistent that liberal internationalism has many great historical successes, fromcreating across the North Atlantic and further afield in Asia a “coalitional order,” an institutional platform for cooperation and problem solving.

Among these successes are: reopening the world economy after World WarII; creating a framework for postwar Germany and Japan to reorient their great power status; overcoming the historical differences between Germany and France, and launching the European project; building institutions to manage interdependence through the G7;  offering a welcoming home for countries making democratic transitions like South Korea, Central and Southern Europe, and Latin America; and enabling China itself to enjoy its best economic performance in at least two millennia under the liberal internationalism of Pax Americana.

Part of the challenges of liberal internationalism today are “problems of success.” The liberal order, or the free world, during the Cold War was a subset or a club of countries inside a bipolar US/USSR world order. After the end of the Cold War, the liberal club was the only game in town and was opened to the rest of the world. It became like a shopping mall and lost its coherence as countries enjoyed benefits without buying into a suite of rights and responsibilities. China is the quintessential example of this. It joined the World Trade Organisation, but did not buy into the values of the liberal order.

Ikenberry argues that if the liberal order is to survive and reinvent itself for the future, the club-like quality will have to be rebuilt through the application of conditionality. Democracy will be integral to the success of the liberal order, as will the rule of law. Countries that don’t respect the rule of law at home, are not likely to respect the international rule of law. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a club of democracies within the liberal order which applies conditionality in its membership process, but does not get a mention by Ikenberry.

In this regard, the future of the world order will be defined by which groups of states can build coalitions, partnerships, alignments, and groupings that have a certain robustness to them and that can move politics in directions they want to go. For the moment, Ikenberry has argued that the Ukraine war is a proxy war for the future global order. It could lead to either an unravelling or renewal of the liberal world order. We are at a world historical moment, a crossroads moment, where the rules and institutions of global order are up for grabs.

Ikenberry argues that liberal democracies should see the rise of China as a clarion call to take liberal democracy and liberal internationalism more seriously. China is showing us what the world could look like if its model of capitalism without liberalism were to dominate. Moreover, he believes that liberal internationalism is the only path towards solving the world’s ever complex problems like climate change and pandemics. So many of the world’s challenges cannot be solved alone.

Professor Ikenberry’s “A World Safe for Democracy” is a weighty tome, which doesn’t make for light reading. But the depth of its historical and theoretical perspectives make it essential reading for scholars and practitioners of international relations.

This is a review of G. John Ikenberry, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order  (Yale University Press, 2020). ISBN: 9780300230987 (hardcover).

John West is the author of the book, Asian Century … on a Knife-Edge, which was reviewed in the Australian Outlook, and executive director of the Asian Century Institute.  He has had a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury, OECD, Asian Development Bank Institute, and Tokyo’s Sophia University.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.