An Interview with G. John Ikenberry

G. John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Professor Ikenberry is the author of After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, which won the 2002 Schroeder-Jervis Award presented by the American Political Science Association (APSA) for the best book in international history and politics. He just finished a book entitled Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American System, which will be published in 2011. Among many activities, Professor Ikenberry has served as a member of an advisory group at the State Department in 2003-04, and he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Henry Kissinger-Lawrence Summers commission on the Future of Transatlantic Relations, which issued a report in 2004. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1985.

The Politic: You have claimed that the “most serious threat to U.S. national security today is not a specific enemy but the erosion of the institutional foundations of the global order that the United States has commanded for a half century.” Can you briefly describe what constitutes this “global order,” and why is it eroding?

GJI: For half a century the world has had a system of governance and security provisions, organized around American hegemonic leadership and constituted in alliances and multilateral institutions, which has connected Washington to the world and bound regions together by facilitating collective action in various areas of economics, politics, and security. That system is now under strain, due to a double set of movements. On the one hand we see a slow diffusion of power away from the United States, manifested in the rise of new powers in Asia and elsewhere; and on the other hand, we see the decline of unipolarity, coupled with the simultaneous rise of greater economic and security interdependence. This double set of movements has created great challenges for the global system, with a less concentrated order and less authority wielded by the United States, but also with a growing agenda for cooperation on new global challenges. It is in this context that the Obama administration finds itself. When we talk about the agenda for American foreign policy today, we ought to begin with these grand shifts in the system.

The Politic: What can the United States do to rebuild this global order?

GJI: This is where the crucial debate is situated. The question is really whether the old order is being challenged in a fundamental way by new powers and new global challenges that will, over the course of a generation, generate a crisis—we might call it a ‘constitutional crisis’ in the global system—in which we are forced to rethink principles, rules, institutions, and modes of cooperation on global and regional levels; or whether we are in a more gradual evolutionary situation where states outside of the West are seeking to become and can be convinced to become stakeholders in the existing system. The first vision is of a fairly radical challenge to the existing order; the second is really the story of the U.S. giving up some of its authority, privileges, and rights in exchange for stable and responsible stakeholder partnerships with countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

To use an analogy, are we at a moment where the American-owned ‘company,’ call it ‘American Incorporated,’ is being pressured to go public, and there will be an IPO in which other countries can buy into the company and earn seats on the board of directors? Or are we at a moment when disillusion with ‘American Incorporated’ will lead to the creation of other companies centered elsewhere in the world? My own argument is that we are at a stakeholder moment, and so the U.S. needs to be soliciting partners, renegotiating bargains, and expanding institutional membership. This, it seems to me, is the big agenda: to reestablish the foundations for a system of multilateral cooperation, partnerships, and alliances across the global system. To the extent we succeed in this, the crisis of the current moment could give way to a new kind of equilibrium.

The Politic: Recently, commentators have suggested that China is presenting the world with a tempting alternative model to that of the United States. Does China present an ideological challenge to the United States?

GJI: No it does not. China does not have an ideology of global order. I do not see a single shred of ‘idea.’ And I think China would largely admit to this. China has preferences and biases like all states, and on balance it would like to preserve its sovereignty, maintain stable relationships, expand its trade, and secure resources and energy. Domestically, China clearly is seeking its own path of reform without a true move toward liberal democracy—so in a sense, it is seeking to preserve a kind of authoritarian domestic model. I’m skeptical, however, that it’s a stable model on the home front, and I’m certain that it does not aggregate into a global ideology.

The Politic: So are you saying that if the United States makes the right decisions, then the world order could look the same even with China surpassing the United States in material power? That a China-dominated world order could be one where it wouldn’t be so bad to be the United States?

GJI: Yes — with the understanding that it will evolve, and China will make its own mark just as other countries do. It will be a more pluralistic order, but for me the critical question is this: Will the order that emerges in the wake of these great power transitions remain organized around openness and rules? These are the basic defining features of liberal international order. Is it open rather than closed and built around blocs, empires, and spheres? And is it based on more or less agreed-upon multilateral rules? My sense is that the international constituency for openness and rules is quite robust, and that even if China’s GNP surpasses the United States’—if that ever happens—China will want to exist in a world that is loosely open and rule-based. China will find advantages in the WTO and other international institutions, which allow big states to protect their far-flung interests. Also it is not just China versus the Untied States—it is really China versus the larger OECD world, which is to say the larger world of liberal democracies and advanced industrial societies. And that aggregated whole is huge. Even when China catches up with the U.S. it will not be close to the larger aggregate. The gravitational force of this mass complex will certainly affect China’s decisions to integrate versus oppose the world order.

The Politic: Many prominent academics and commentators have come out recently claiming that NATO has lost its purpose and should be disbanded. Do you agree? If not, what is the purpose of NATO in today’s world?

GJI: NATO is a victim of its own success. Western Europe is not as threatened as it was in the past, and so the obvious and most direct rationale for NATO has disappeared. But I think it continues to play various roles that both sides of the Atlantic will want to keep. First of all, it is a structure for political and security dialogue and aggregating capacities for contingencies. It also has a strong political rationale: it’s architecture, and it’s the most successful alliance in history. It provides institutions for Europe and the United States to do political ‘business.’ It ties the United States to Europe; it gives the United States a voice in Europe; and it still does provide a security guarantee and a background insurance policy for Europe.

NATO also is a framework that has allowed Eastern European states to integrate and thereby strengthen those states’ foundations for participation in the EU. And it does play a useful global role—the world is full of problems where at some point you need capacities to airlift and deploy, and NATO provides legitimate tool for projecting these capacities. So I can’t see a sizeable constituency that wants to pull the plug, even though the vividness of NATO’s rationale has faded and may not be fully revived. But just as our alliances in East Asia have a kind of ‘public goods’ rationale—they provide stability, tamp down security dilemmas, and are generally a reassurance mechanism—NATO plays similar roles in a diffuse sort of way.

The Politic: I just read Michael Mandelbaum’s new book The Frugal Superpower, in which he calls NATO expansion one of the two greatest mistakes of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, along with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Do you agree with this?

GJI: I did not support NATO expansion. I was in favor of other mechanisms, as I did not think that NATO expansion was worth the risk of provoking and upsetting the settlement between Russia and the United States. But I do understand the rationale, and I do believe that NATO expansion did some good things in reinforcing civil-military relations in Eastern Europe and providing frameworks for these states’ economic and political integration into the wider European region.

The big mistake, it seems to me, was once the decision was made to expand NATO, we did not simultaneously find methods to engage and tie Russia to the West in mutually agreeable ways. We needed to have both of those movements. So we lost sight of the arms-control and disarmament agendas that Reagan and Gorbachev launched and celebrated, and which provided the real ideational basis for a peaceful end to the Cold War. And we have in some sense failed to balance our fervor for extending NATO in the name of supporting young democracies with our more pragmatic sensitivities about how to keep Russia and the West working together on larger global issues.

The Politic: I am glad you brought up disarmament. Certainly one of the greatest foreign policy successes of the past fifty years has been the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But with North Korea’s defiance of the NPT and Iran’s accelerating nuclear program, the whole non-proliferation architecture appears in crisis. What should the United States’ priorities be in efforts to curb nuclear proliferation?

GJI: I applaud the Obama administration for putting non-proliferation and the NPT back into the middle of the American foreign policy agenda. I am glad Obama’s various efforts have included trying to reanimate the underlying bargain of the NPT, which holds that the U.S. and the other nuclear-weapon states would make conscientious efforts to reduce and ultimately, in the long term, eliminate their weapons, in return for a commitment from non-nuclear states to stand down from the acquisition of weapons, and to cooperate globally on creating conditions that will reduce the incentives for all states to acquire nuclear weapons. I also applaud his efforts to find ways to get around the fuel-cycle issue, and to find ways to allow civilian use of nuclear energy without it being a surreptitious means of acquiring weapons capabilities.

We will need to find new ways to internationalize the fuel cycle and deal with the complexities associated with dual-use technologies that are part of acquiring nuclear energy. So that whole agenda, it seems to me, needs to be pushed very hard—and the U.S. has got to push it. And it will require strategic patience and a lot of diplomacy. In the background, the problems countries like North Korea and Iran pose cannot be solved by the NPT as such, but the NPT continues to provide legitimacy for global efforts to sanction these states, indicating in effect that if they want normal relations with the outside world, they have to adhere to the behavioral standards that everybody else does. That kind of legitimation for long-term sanctions, with the idea that someday new leaders will find reasons for new bargains, is strengthened by a healthy NPT regime.

The Politic: If you were President of the United States, what would your Iran policy be right now?

GJI: I would be sanctioning and talking. We have to create costs for the regime’s defiance, and we must make it clear that Iran cannot be a normal, integrated, regional power without cooperating on issues of nuclear energy and power. But I would obviously be wanting to talk, and opening the door for what would hopefully be a big bargain down the road, which would both bring Iran into the region in a constructive way and make it less threatening to other states such as Israel.

The Politic: ‘Democracy promotion’ has become a dirty word in U.S. foreign policy in light of our predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this the right lesson to take from the Bush presidency? How should democracy promotion figure into American foreign policy today?

GJI: After the Bush administration there has been a decline in enthusiasm for democracy promotion worldwide, and understandably because it hasn’t worked very well, and some see it as simply a fig leaf for the United States to pursue its strategic interests. We have been hypocritical by supporting democracy promotion when we want to pressure regimes that are out of our favor, and ignoring democracy issues with client states that are part of our security order. Likewise we have been sobered by finding that in some states democratic elections do not yield parties and leaders that suit us.

For me, the lesson should not be that democracy promotion should be taken off the American foreign policy agenda, but rather that we should think about it in much more indirect ways. We should care about dissidents make them an important part of our diplomatic agenda. But the actual process of democracy promotion requires more attention to the global political and economic system—keeping it open, keeping regions stable, solving war and peace issues, and letting states move toward democracy on their own time tables. An indirect system-wide vision of how to create the conditions for states to move along this pathway is the first step to redefining what democracy promotion means.

The Politic: Since the end of the Cold War, divisions between American and European conceptions of world affairs have been accentuated. Can we really speak of “the West” as a cohesive bloc in foreign affairs anymore?

GJI: There is a democratic community. ‘Bloc’ is probably too strong of a word, but there certainly is not a divorce or estrangement between Europe and the United States. Both the United States and Europe in recent years have exposed their vulnerabilities—economically in particular—and the hard edge of difference over global order has softened, as there is mutual interest in stability and rethinking globalization, financial interdependence, and the role of the state and the market, in addition to struggling with aging populations and how to reestablish the fiscal integrity of the state.

We are in the same boat on many issues. When Europe and the United States look around and see the rest of the world catching up, they have incentives to think cooperatively about how to greet the rising states. So there is much work to do together. Even though we have had a troubled first decade of the twenty-first century, the West, it seems to me, has shown that there is something special about democracies and their ability to work together, and that there is a normative consensus on basic issues, which allows the West to move on and work together without worrying about relative power and relative gain. The democratic community, enshrined in U.S.-European relations, remains an important part of the global circuitry for the twenty-first century. We may not wave our hands about it as much as we used to, but it’s still there and it’s still valuable.

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