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Is the global order in crisis? Professor John Ikenberry discusses how liberal internationalism can survive

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with leading international scholar and Princeton University professor John Ikenberry. Professor Ikenberry has published eight books, including his most recent, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crisis of the Global Order. 

The dialogue covers a wide range of topics including Ikenberry’s theory of liberal internationalism, its current standing in an era of political populism, the implications for Canada, and what can be done to restore the liberal world order. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

What is liberal internationalism?

SEAN SPEER: Professor Ikenberry, thank you so much for joining us at The Hub. We’re grateful to be able to speak to you about your latest book, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crisis of Global Order, but more generally to be able to draw on your lifetime of scholarship on international relations in general and the liberal order in particular, which are especially pertinent in the current moment.

JOHN IKENBERRY: It’s great to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with the basic idea of liberal internationalism. Liberalism is a somewhat neutral concept that, at a fundamental level, outlines a process by which individual rights are protected from coercion, but doesn’t profess what constitutes virtue or the good life. How should we think of the limited ambitions of liberalism, on one hand, and your view that certain values ought to inform and animate internationalism, on the other hand?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, well, liberal internationalism really emerged with the rise of liberal democracies on the global stage, beginning with the age of democratic revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Through the 19th century and in the upheavals of the 20th century, liberal democracies have repeatedly been faced with questions about how to organize the international environment in which they operate. And repeatedly, they have sought to build a kind of ecosystem or environment in which liberal democracy can be safe and prosper. 

Liberal democracy, as you know, is a contested proposition. It’s an experiment. Think of the American founding for instance. It was seen as something that was unfolding. It’s not perfect. It’s a work in progress. It’s an experiment with global implications. 

But there was also a sense that liberal democracies have an inside and an outside. On the inside, they are, as you suggest, full of tensions between the principles of liberty, and equality, individualism and community, sovereignty and interdependence. They want to both have the ability to protect their domestic, open society, but they also want to live in an open international order, and that’s a deeply demanding situation—that is, to have an open society based on the rule of law at home, but also operate in an open international world.  

We are seeing today those tensions play out. There are real problems with sustaining domestic cohesion and the social contract in a world of globalized interdependence and contestation with great powers that don’t necessarily wish for open societies. 

SEAN SPEER: If I could just stay on the big picture of liberal internationalism itself, the so-called “Bush Doctrine” at different times made claims about the advancement of liberal ideas and institutions. I think, for instance, of President Bush’s second inaugural speech which spoke in flowering language about the universality of the liberal ideal. As a matter of taxonomy, how would you say your notion of liberal internationalism differs from Bush-era neoconservatism, which placed an emphasis on liberal goals but didn’t necessarily have much interest in multilateralism and other expressions of liberal internationalism?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, I do pay a great deal of attention to multilateralism and the rules-based international order. I would say if I had to summarize what liberal international order is, in its essence, it would be open, rules-based, and progressively oriented. That is to say, an order that creates a hospitable environment for liberal democracies to do their business. 

Now, in my book, I do try to reorient the centre of gravity to make the argument that looking over the 200 years of liberal internationalism—100 years before Woodrow Wilson’s famous proclamation of the liberal vision to create a more democratic world that is safe for democracy—it has been a flag that has been marched into many battles for many different purposes, and no one liberal or liberal internationalist necessarily would agree with all of them. 

I think the thing you have to acknowledge and accept from the very beginning is that it’s contested. It’s a source of debate that reflects a never-ending struggle to figure out how to balance these different principles and how to, in some sense, balance the implicit universalism of liberalism and liberal internationalism. The view in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—these are universalistic statements about the applicability to all people, of our belief of individual rights and freedoms. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily provide a writ for marching off into battle to overturn regimes and to make the world safe for democracy as a global system. 

That’s what I try to argue in my book: we can re-read Wilson’s famous phrase, not as an idealist’s crusade to bring liberty to all foreign shores, but to the emphasis on safety. That is, to read it literally as a plea for creating circumstances internationally so that these fragile, vulnerable liberal democracies which one might think of as orchids, have to have a hospitable environment or they will die. We must therefore aim to create the conditions in which we can protect these polities. That ought to be the centre of gravity. I would argue that gets you across the decades and centuries of the liberal international project.

The global free market

SEAN SPEER: One final conceptual question. To what extent are liberal internationalism and the free-market ideas reflected in modern globalization inextricably linked? In other words, can you have a liberal internationalism that doesn’t necessarily involve the economic liberalism that we’ve witnessed in the past 20 or 30 years?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, absolutely. There’s a great deal of bandwidth on how to think about markets, trade, and economics more generally from the social democratic side of liberalism to the more neoliberal or classical liberal side. History is a useful guide here. 

Broadly speaking, the 19th century was a classical liberal era. But after World War Two, the rise of the modern welfare state and modern social democracy, and the building of an international system—particularly on finance and monetary affairs, but also to some extent on trade—still allowed for national governments to manage the trade-offs between global openness and social and economic security at home. 

Some of that got lost in the 1980s and 1990s, and I share the widespread view that the neoliberal turn during these decades was ultimately destructive from the standpoint of the old constituencies that were part of the post-war order. Including, most importantly, the middle class across the industrial world. 

The re-imagination of liberal internationalism must necessarily, I would argue, entail broadening out those values to bring back what some people call “embedded liberalism”, but you might simply call it a “social democratic sensibility” about how to balance the tensions between openness, which is not all bad, and the social commitments we have to our own people.

SEAN SPEER: We’re having this conversation, Professor Ikenberry, almost precisely 20 years after China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization, which itself was an expression of the liberal project. President Clinton famously spoke of how this was a step along the way of the cultivating spirit of economic freedom in China. 

Is China’s participation in some of the institutions of the liberal order on one hand, and its successful rejection of liberal ideas on the other hand, a serious reputational problem for liberal internationalism? If so, is one of the lessons from the WTO experience that for the liberal international order to endure, its leaders must be much more exclusive in terms of letting illiberal countries into the club?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, I think that the way I would put it is this: Some of us, and indeed, many or most of us, in the 1990s saw the rise of China as an opportunity for another country to follow countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan on the liberal path. To, in effect, trade their way into modernity, and in so doing to make the transition to be a part of an open rule-based order, to liberalize and become a responsible stakeholder in an international order that would inevitably evolve with their presence. The idea wasn’t simply that they would join on our terms, but that they would be part of a collaborative effort to preserve these values and evolve in a way that would allow them to be stakeholders. 

I call that the “liberal bet.” I think there’s now a general agreement that the liberal bet didn’t pay off and the reputation of liberal internationalism has suffered as it has for other failures or setbacks, including the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis which, in many ways, have been partly or appropriately laid at the feet of liberal internationalism. The internationalists in the elite establishment have been weakened by these setbacks, including false assumptions about China. 

What I see in hindsight with regards to China is that we didn’t really have a clear and consistent logic of conditionality. What was the secret of the liberal international order for the period before China’s ascension was based on the sense that the countries in the liberal order were part of a mutual aid society or a club. These countries were not in simply for transactional purposes or the narrow gains of trade benefits but were buying into a whole suite of responsibilities and obligations that would come along with the benefits of security. Including access to intergovernmental capacities to manage interdependence, and so forth. It’s a big bargain, so to speak, and you’re in it with the understanding that you will be part of this effort to preserve its core values. 

That failed in the excitement of a new liberal order under unipolar American leadership. The link between these benefits and responsibilities was essentially diminished. Today, I think we’re stuck with a question: how does one defend the liberal order while simultaneously stepping up cooperation with China on the global climate, pandemics, and proliferation issues that are equally important for surviving the 21st century? We’re really at a point where we need to both compete and cooperate, and I don’t think we’ve really figured out how to do that yet.

SEAN SPEER: I’ve heard you in other interviews where you use the distinction between a club and a shopping mall to explain the loss of a sense of benefits and obligations. It seems to me that there’s an interesting metaphor that, in some ways, links the rise of conspicuous consumption in our own lives with the trends that you observe in the international order itself. 

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, I think that’s right. There’s a kind of almost utilitarian calculation without appreciating the foundational sources of order. That’s a very old pattern of world political history, of generational change, and the failure to remember how we got here. And so, I think we’re at that kind of moment.

American leadership

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to another foundational element of the liberal order, and that’s American leadership. 

As you say, in the book, American leadership is embedded in liberal international institutions and norms. Yet one can’t help but think that the past few presidential elections were, in some way, an expression on the part of the American public that it’s no longer willing to pay the costs or make other trade-offs in order to maintain the liberal system—in effect, it almost seems like Americans have decided that they don’t want to be exceptional anymore. Do you think that’s the case? And if so, how can leaders persuade the American public that its interest still lies in liberal internationalism?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, I think we are a very divided country, and part of that division has to do with how involved we should be in the world. That is, whether American leadership is costing more than it’s benefiting America. 

I think the argument that can be won and needs to be won is that American leadership over the last 75 years has been a wild success. I have spent a lot of my time making that argument that it’s been good for the world and it’s been good for America and individual Americans. That is to say, as it’s been deeply engaged in the world on all dimensions from security to economics to politics to cultural affairs, it has on balance provided a positive contribution to global order as well as American national interests and ordinary life. You’ve had the greatest decades defined in terms of wealth creation, physical security, glimmerings of social justice, and so on. Even China has had its best decades of two millennia under the period we’ve called “Pax Americana.” So, there’s a lot to defend here. 

We’ve talked about the need for reform, but it’s worth recognizing that Americans still are very much pro-free trade. There’s more support for trade than you would think if you looked at the congressional politics. Security alliances are very popular as well. Americans love their partnerships. They wouldn’t have thought that given George Washington’s farewell address which encouraged us to avoid entanglements. But the truth is that America has been very entangled with Europe and Asia, and it’s been a mutual gain in terms of outcomes across each decade. 

I think with the modern-day proponents of the next era of American efforts in favour of a liberal order, what you see are a couple of new lessons they’re learning. 

One is you can’t lead internationally if you don’t have your domestic house in order, and I think that you see President Biden trying desperately through a modern version of FDR’s New Deal programs to get average Americans back in a productive economy. So domestically, you’ve got to make the case that internationalism is good for everyday people who are living everyday lives. 

You can’t lead internationally if you don’t have your domestic house in order.

Then secondly, you need to reimagine the international space so that you aren’t doing it on your own. A careful reading of the last 75 years will show that the U.S. was not actually a huge unilateral leader. It was deeply tied to Europe, Asia, and other countries. Germany and Japan were serious partners in leading the world economy and still are. The partnerships we’ve talked about in the realms of security and politics are very important. But we need to do more of that because it’s not going to be an American show anymore. 

If liberal internationalism is to survive, it’s got to be a banner that other people are marching to as well. That’s why, in my book, I tried to separate liberal internationalism as a vision of global order from the American experience, because America doesn’t own it. And one could imagine America, several years from now, making yet another turn off the road into the ditch. And so, I think we need to have a plan B. I think we need to have a lot of countries and people around the world who want to keep the system open and loosely rule-based with a vision of a progressive movement of our politics. It’s going to have to be a shared project.

What about Canada?

SEAN SPEER: My penultimate question is about Canada. Canada has historically been a proponent of liberal internationalism, both due to a sense of national interest as a middle power and as a reflection of the country’s fundamental values. It seems notable, though, that in recent weeks and months, Canada has been excluded from new alliances and even coordinated statements on the part of leading democracies. What are we to make of it? Is it a sign that Canada is outside of the club looking in? And if so, what should Canada be doing to restore its influence and standing in the liberal international order?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Yes, some years ago I called a Canadian diplomat and I asked, “what’s on your agenda?” And he said, “The same thing that’s been on my agenda for years: trying to get the United States to act multilaterally.” In some ways, that is an important role for Canada and other middle-tier countries that are not superpowers but are formidable countries that have a lot of diplomatic and other kinds of capacities to bring to the table. 

So, in the spirit of what I said earlier about the need to share the leadership, I think Canada has to be part of that process, whether it’s the D-10, this so-called high-capacity yet leadership group of major democracies, the larger alliance for multilateralism which Canada and other countries are part of, or some other arrangements. I would hope that Canada would be close to Washington and be a source of solidarity, including thinking about the reform of multilateral institutions and getting our trade policies back on track. It seems to be a small price to pay for a return to a close working relationship. I see a lot of upsides, and I’m hoping that in the spirit of democracies renewing themselves every several years that we’ll have another good cycle.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that’s a great segue into my final question. President Biden recently hosted a democracy summit as ostensibly the first step on rebuilding a sense of a liberal democratic community that’s able to advance a shared set of priorities and values. I’d be interested in your reaction to the summit. Did anything surprise you? Is there a reason to think that something valuable will come out of it? Or is it a risk that it’s ultimately a sort of performative exercise without the necessary follow-through?

JOHN IKENBERRY: Well, these are very difficult meetings to put on, because there’s no way to do it to make everybody happy and to drive politics directly in the way you want. There’s grumbling for instance about some countries not being invited. But I think that broadly speaking, the spirit behind the summit is correct. 

It wasn’t, “We know how to operate democracy, and everybody else should come and listen to our advice.” The main ideas and themes were quite the opposite: we all need to learn from each other— these meetings are a learning exercise. It’s more akin to the old Obama nuclear security summits, where he brought leaders from around the world together, and they sat around in a seminar saying, “How can we make progress on nuclear safety?” Well, in this case, the question is: how do we make progress on preserving and strengthening our liberal democracies? And every country has a different story to tell and different strengths in terms of electoral system integrity, and other features of just simply keeping liberal democracy going. So, I think in that general spirit, the summit is a good development.

 I don’t think it should be the main activity. I think the slightly more, under the radar, informal activities of smaller groups of countries that work on functional problems, whether it’s in East Asia, or finding democratic coalitions inside of international institutions, is ultimately where the action is. 

China is very active in multilateral institutions, trying to tilt the principles and values away from the old Western human rights approach, and we want to resist that. In many ways, multilateral institutions are not value-neutral. There’s a struggle for making them congenial with the kind of politics we want to see in the world. That’s a collaborative exercise and liberal democracies can work together. Handwaving and building barriers between countries is not the way to go in this regard. 

But if the underlying spirit is one of recognizing that we’re at a point in historical time where our task is to protect our policies and hand them on to the next generation; try to do the least amount of damage as possible and find a new critical mass of states that can step up on the great issues of global interdependence. 

So, I don’t fault the Biden administration. In fact, I think the spirit of the recent democracy summit was good.

SEAN SPEER: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We’ve been honoured to speak to Professor John Ikenberry about his rich international scholarship including his most recent book, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crisis of Global Order. Thank you so much, Professor Ikenberry, for your insights and your time.

JOHN IKENBERRY: Thank you, Sean. It was great to be with you.