Missing the Mark
A Review of G. John Ikenberry’s "A World Safe for Democracy"
As the nation awaits the inauguration of Joe Biden as its forty-sixth president, it’s rightly focused on the deep and interwoven challenges of beating the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the economy. Former President Trump’s impeachment trial will also undoubtedly consume much attention as well. But in the shadow of these immense domestic political and policy questions, an elite debate about scope and nature of America’s foreign policy has emerged. It’s a debate that remains unsettled and protean in many ways, but a number of political elites and academic specialists have begun staking out their ground – though their positions and arguments remain largely opaque and obscure to many Americans.
As with most foreign policy terms, the vast majority of Americans would be hard pressed to recognize the concept of “liberal internationalism,” much less define it with any precision or clarity. Even informed citizens concerned about foreign affairs are unlikely to brandish rhetorical jousting lances like “complex interdependence,” the “rules-based liberal international order,” or “restraint” when they talk about America’s foreign policy. Those perplexed by this unintelligible patois won’t find enlightenment in A World Safe for Democracy, the recent defense of liberal internationalism penned by Princeton international relations scholar G. John Ikenberry. While he offers a number of compelling insights and observations, Ikenberry ultimately undermines his own case with an overly expansive definition of the foreign policy philosophy he seeks to defend against its academic and political critics.
There’s a lot of soporific jargon thrown about in A World Safe for Democracy, and it’s hard to review the book without indulging in some of it. But that’s part of Ikenberry’s overall problem: he relies too heavily on abstract ideas like “international order” and “economic and security interdependence” while not quite seeming to connect them with the concrete reality he aims to describe. It’s as if they exist above and outside the world as we know it, operating as forces of nature rather than politics or diplomacy. Some level of abstraction is of course inevitable in academic discussions of any subject, but Ikenberry takes things a step too far in his attempt to defend what he calls liberal internationalism.
Indeed, he uses that phrase – which likely means very little to those outside academic and certain political quarters – so capaciously that it includes far too much and excludes far too little. While Ikenberry explicitly defines liberal internationalism as a foreign policy strategy “to create a congenial international environment in which liberal democracy can survive and flourish” that serves as “a tool permitting governments to pursue economic security and advancements at home,” his overall analysis frequently strays beyond these bounds. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize these distinctions; after all, he rightly calls attention to the failings of the era of globalization that followed the Cold War that disconnected considerations of domestic policy from the formulation of foreign policy. In general, however, Ikenberry’s overarching case causes him to force distinct ways of thinking about and conducting foreign policy into a single unified tradition.
This intellectual project leads Ikenberry to tacitly play down his most incisive and compelling arguments. Building on his contention that domestic and foreign policy in countries like the United States have become dangerously disconnected since the end of the Cold War, Ikenberry rightly asks important questions that have gone neglected by political leaders and foreign policy elites in recent decades: “What do citizens in Western democracy get from liberal internationalism? How does an open and loosely rules-based international order deliver physical and economic security to the great middle class?”
But this question gets lost in Ikenberry’s attempt to square his own intellectual circles. He repeatedly fudges differences between various schools of foreign policy thought, blurring the distinctions between, say, the foreign policy visions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy on the one hand and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on the other. On trade policy, for instance, Ikenberry portrays the post-Cold War shift from the more limited General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to the more ambitious World Trade Organization as a more or less salutary and logical evolution – despite his own explicit recognition of the negative domestic social, economic, and political consequences of such moves. What’s more, Ikenberry posits a novel distinction between what he calls “offensive” and “defensive” liberal internationalism –the former seeking to reach inside countries and reconfigure their domestic policies in intrusive ways, the latter aiming to protect the ability of nations “to maintain their own institutions and doctrines.” But he fails to make this critical distinction until the book’s concluding chapter, and then relegates it to a mere page of text.
Again, it’s not as if he’s unaware of these differences. But his recommendations on the path forward don’t fully reflect them, either. It’s as if he can only conceive of foreign policy as a technocratic management exercise. That leads Ikenberry to repeatedly observe that better management of globalization or some other aspect of international politics will cure most of America’s foreign policy ills. For political leaders and foreign policy elites today, he writes, “the task is not to champion ‘globalization’ but to agree on a way of managing it.”
It would go much too far to say that Ikenberry simply tries to pour old wine into new bottles. But his failure to maintain the intellectual distinctions he himself draws between various strains of liberal internationalism undermines his own case for the foreign policy philosophy. He chastises post-Cold War champions of globalization, for instance, for subscribing to the theory that their preferred policies amounted to the historically inevitable culmination of human political, economic, and social progress. But he fails to fully distinguish this worldview from the one he seems to advocate himself, leaving the impression – accurate or not – that he wants to split the difference between the two camps.
Still, Ikenberry deserves credit for accurately diagnosing the central problem facing American foreign policy today: the disconnect between domestic and foreign policy. This rupture poses a mortal threat to active American involvement in the world, and for all its other flaws A World Safe for Democracy manages to get this essential point across. Likewise, Ikenberry identifies the main challenge facing political leaders and foreign policy types aligned with the broad center-left: reconnecting foreign policy “to progressive versions of nationalism and rebuilding of domestic coalitions around shared national purposes.”
Though he doesn’t provide a compelling path forward here – especially for the informed public – Ikenberry at least points his readers in the right general direction. That’s more than can be said for much of what passes for progressive foreign policy discourse today.