by Paakhi Bhatnagar
America’s world leadership is in crisis. Amidst a trade war with China, an unprecedented withdrawal of forces from the Middle East, and an increasingly hostile attitude toward international alliances and institutions, Donald Trump has exacerbated the crisis of America’s authority in the international system. We live under a zeitgeist where the American grand strategy is progressively becoming inward-focusing and lacking a coherent external vision. Perhaps now is a better time than any to go back to the theoretical literature on internationalism and what it can tell us about America’s grand strategy despite, in an endeavour to counter the international detriment of its global retreat.
In Liberal Leviathan, published in 2011, G. John Ikenberry unpicks the crisis of authority and governance prevalent in the liberal international system by arguing for America to adopt a grand strategic vision of liberal internationalism. The title of the book in itself is quite intriguing as it invokes significance to the Hobbesian conception of ‘Leviathan.’ The United States’ hegemony was based on Hobbesian grounds in the sense that other states had consensually handed the ‘reign of power’ to America. For Ikenberry, it is this very consensus that is now in crisis.
The book’s core argument is substantiated by theoretical underpinnings as Ikenberry commits the first half of the literature to liberal institutionalism and what this particular mode of organization has to offer for US grand strategy going forward. Although superfluous at times, this theoretical foundation of liberalism provides a logical premise for him to then make policy suggestions for America. In fact, the key strength of the book comes from Ikenberry’s ability to uphold his thesis throughout the dense literature, ensuring the reader is never in doubt about the author’s advocation for a liberal internationalist policy.
Ironically, Ikenberry’s heightened focus on the liberal theory of the international system also constitutes his key weakness. By holding liberal internationalism on a pedestal, Ikenberry formulates a parochial vision of the system, effectively removing other theories, such as the balance of power, from the narrative. The concept of rising powers is one example that poses a challenge to Ikenbery’s central argument of liberal internationalism. As highlighted by John Mearsheimer, a famous critic of Ikenberry, it is inevitable that rising powers will turn against the liberal international order. Ikenberry has been careful in conceding to the fact that it is the very nature of the liberal order that accommodates and encourages rising powers. But, in contrast to Mearsheimer, he believes that the liberal order would facilitate cooperation and stability through multilateral treaties and institutions instead of creating instability in the system. To do this, America would need to adopt a liberal internationalist grand strategy and actively engage itself in the rebuilding of international institutions. This, however, does not seem to be the direction towards which Trump’s foreign policy is heading.
Written during the aftermath the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the sense of anxiety around the American position in the international system is very apparent in the book. This anxiety can now very well be translated into the current dilemma faced by the American government: whether to reclaim its position as a natural hegemon and project its policies internationally, or whether to focus inwardly to sustain its domestic voters. This dilemma is especially relevant in Donald Trump’s America.
The current American President Donald J. Trump’s policies have prescribed to what Walter Russel Mead has termed the ‘Jacksonian tradition’ after American President Andrew Jackson. Trump’s disengagement from multilateral institutions and his incessant focus on America’s domestic voters is comparable to Jackson’s populism and bilateralism in World War II. Trump has steered the country’s grand strategy to a very different trajectory from what Ikenberry had prescribed. For Ikenberry, the US has strong incentives to sustain its hegemony in a liberal international order by renegotiating its position and establishing multilateral agreements. In fact, he goes on to say that multilateral agreements and rules provide a foundational basis for states to interact within the liberal system. While the US has remained a key player in global politics since this book was written, its international presence in the system has been relatively declining. In this sense, the US does seem to be renegotiating its place in the international system, but not on the terms Ikenberry had proposed. The reason for this, is the rise in nationalism both externally in other states, and, more importantly, internally in America.
Nationalism is an important phenomenon that cannot be undermined by internationalism. Although after the Cold War the ideology of liberal democracy upheld by the US became the driving force for political organization, nationalism in the country continued to brew. This gave voice to the concerns of many about the cost America had to pay for maintaining its hegemonic position. This phenomenon of nationalism highlights the key weakness of Ikenberry’s argument as he fails to engage with the prevalence of different ideologies within and outside of America that would reject a renewed American hegemony. This is especially conspicuous in Trump’s ‘America First’ policy. Trump has not only questioned the utility of long-standing alliances like NATO but has also implemented a foreign policy that has been responsible for America’s retreat from the international system.
Moreover, Ikenberry stands quite strongly on the issue of China, viewing it as ‘one of the great dramas of the twenty-first century’. He maintains the belief that China should be acclimatised to the liberal world order and not left out of it. This would not only maintain stability but also make China’s international presence contingent on its compliance with the liberal international order. Thus, an important aspect of US grand strategy according to Ikenberry would be to engage with China through multilateral trade institutions. Previous presidencies, like those of Obama and Clinton, had made it clear that they were trying to enroll China in the international order. Trump, on the other hand, is engaging with- or rather, disengaging from – China in a very different way. Waging a trade war and imposing bilateral sanctions goes starkly against Ikenberry’s advice.
While the debate on whether Trump actually has a grand strategic vision for America remains heated, there is no denying that if there is a grand strategy it is definitely not one of liberal internationalism. What, then, should formulators of American grand strategy take away from Liberal Leviathan? Ikenberry proposes quite succinctly that America should adopt a ‘milieu’ based grand strategy where it strives to structure the international environment in ways that are conducive to its own long-term security. This is, perhaps, the strongest policy advice laid out in the book.
The ‘brave new world’ that America finds itself in now is one where newer threats like global warming, jihadist terrorism, the rise of the far-right, etc. proliferate. Therefore, it is increasingly important for America to adapt its grand strategy to encompass all these global forces. Moreover, great power competition, as spurred by the rising power of China in the international system, has become an imperative issue for US foreign policy. Although there are several paths that America could take in its role in the international system, Ikenberry does quite clearly lay out the foundations for America’s liberal internationalist role. Whether American grand strategy is heading in the direction advised by Ikenberry or not, readers and budding grand strategists can certainly benefit from his argument on one particular trajectory that America could assume amidst the crisis of the liberal world order.
Paakhi Bhatnagar is an undergraduate International Relations student in her penultimate year at King’s College London. She is especially interested in the securitization of migration issues along with socio-economic policies and their impact on the working class. In addition to being a Copy Editor at Strife blog, she is also the Editorial Assistant at International Relations Today and the City News Editor at London Student. You can find her on Twitter at @paakhibhatnagar.