Foreign Policy Blogs

The Challenged American Liberal World Order

Preeminent international relations scholar G. John Ikenberry’s article ‘A World of Our Making‘ is his latest piece defending and promoting the extension of the liberal world order. Ikenberry is a strong believer in international norms and institutions that have been building since the end of World War II and supports the United States leading this so called ‘liberal world order’. In his latest article he posits that the current liberal order is being challenged:

There is a new urgency for a renewed American commitment to international order building. The Arab world is embroiled in turmoil, but this is only part of a larger global drama of crisis and transformation that includes the world economy’s struggle to find a path to stable growth, conflicts driven by resource scarcity, looming environmental threats, and the rise of developing countries—India, Brazil, and particularly China—into the ranks of the great powers. Even today, amidst these grand shifts in the global system, the United States remains the critical player in the rebuilding of international order, and three broad tasks confront it: It must integrate the rising powers into that order, ensuring continuity; it must make sure that China has the right incentives and opportunities to participate; and it must forge a “milieu-based” grand strategy that structures the general international environment in ways that are congenial to its long-term security.

However, Ikenberry is confident that not only can the current liberal order handle these changing times, but that it is still the best bet for a positive outcome for all involved, including China. Ikenberry spends about a third of the piece detailing how a rising autocratic China will challenge the modern system led by the United States, but concludes that the Middle Kingdom has already seen the fruits of the current order and with careful management can be integrated further:

Three features of this Western-oriented system are particularly relevant to how China makes decisions about whether to join or oppose it. The first relates to the rules and institutions of the capitalist world economy. More so than the imperial systems of the past, the liberal international order is built around rules and norms of nondiscrimination and market openness, creating conditions for rising states to participate within the order and advance their expanding economic and political goals within it. Across history, international orders have varied widely in terms of whether the material benefits that are generated accrue disproportionately to the leading state or whether they are more widely shared. In the Western system, the barriers to economic entry are low and the potential benefits are high. China has already discovered the massive economic returns that are possible through operating within this open market system.

Together, these features of evolving liberal international order give it an unusual capacity to accommodate rising powers.

Ikenberry lays out in further detail how China’s rise can be peaceful and beneficial for nearly all involved. Ikenberry concludes his article with various recommendations as to how the United States can help reinvigorate the liberal world order, but some of his recommendations are facing headwinds. For instance, he strongly advocates the building or rebuilding of security alliances with NATO as a prime example. Unfortunately, NATO is not the best example for a coherent, effective alliance at the moment and its future seems more bleak than bright. In fact, Ikenberry says that in return for a downgrade in American decision making power, the other members could provide more ‘manpower, logistics, and other types of support—in wider theaters of action’. According to Secretary Gates, these are the exact substances that the European side of NATO is currently lacking. Secondly, Ikenberry argues that the United Nations’ stature needs to be strengthened, another tall order.

Though Ikenberry has more faith in the tenets of international law and institutions than I do, his framework for a liberal, capitalist world led by the United States is one I firmly believe is the world’s best bet for prosperity and peace. The challenges it faces are well-known and formidable, but it has so far shown itself to be the most resilient system yet.



Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO