Fernando Gómez Herrero: How would you summarize your recent book, A World Safe for Democracy?
G. JOHN IKENBERRY: This book begins with a question about the character, state, and crisis of the liberal international order—questions I began asking right after the American presidential election in as a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in November of 2016. I had a fairly subdued audience, as people were still processing the election outcome.
Basic questions were on my mind as I wrote this book: What is the nature of the international order? Can liberal democracy survive? How can we reconcile and rebalance capitalism and democracy? Is there a future for liberal internationalism as a way of organizing the world? My first move was to take the long view, to look back over the last 250 years at the liberal international project in all of its manifestations. This shows that the post-1989 period is very much an anomaly, when liberal democracy was the only game in town and the future was very bright for liberal democracy, even perhaps the end of history. But the book really starts with the message that the liberal international experience did not begin then. It began in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with the age of democratic revolution. That larger history of liberal internationalism is one of boom and bust, of crisis and catastrophe, of golden era and breakdown, and of deep contestation between liberal democracy and other rival projects for modernity. One book that really made an impact on me was Desolation and Enlightenment by Ira Katznelson, which tells the story of how liberals in the 1940s rebuilt and reimagined liberal democracy and its world after the catastrophes of their era, which were manifold: the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, total war, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb. Yet even in that darkest hour, there was this effort to rethink and find pragmatic ways to rebuild open societies.
The book has three objectives. One is to show the deep roots of liberal internationalism as a way of organizing and thinking about organizing the world, giving it the sense of gravitas it deserves. It is not just neoliberalism. It is not just Davos thinkers. It is a deeper tradition. Second, to be honest about its accomplishments and failures. It has had many accomplishments but of course it is always a work in progress, literally and figuratively. And thirdly, to reposition liberal internationalism for the future; to look at its past and show that it is not all about triumph and marching to a better world. It is about coping with disaster, holding on, trying to preserve the rudiments of freedom, open society, and constitutional republican government. There is an agonistic side to liberalism, a pragmatic side, and a problem-solving side that have been there all along and that once recovered can be used for a reimagined liberal internationalism for the future.
FGH: Is it fair to say that in relation to the liberal international order, you want to clean it up, fix it, and give it splendour?
GJI: I think I want to give it its due as one of the great traditions of modern thought that provides a way of organizing politics and economics on a global scale. To give it its due but to reminder my readers that it has a centre of ideas and projects associated with it that are about managing the crises and opportunities of modernity. I want to suggest that it is a pragmatic, problem-solving world view that is still relevant today and indeed there is really not, I will argue, an alternative grand tradition that is as suitable as this is to tackling the problems of the twenty-first century.
I think I want to give [the liberal international order] its due as one of the great traditions of modern thought that provides a way of organizing politics and economics on a global scale. To give it its due but to reminder my readers that it has a centre of ideas and projects associated with it that are about managing the crises and opportunities of modernity. I want to suggest that it is a pragmatic, problem-solving world view that is still relevant today and indeed there is really not, I will argue, an alternative grand tradition that is as suitable as this is to tackling the problems of the twenty-first century.
FGH: One question about the mood in the book. There were moments in which you sounded elegiac about liberal international order. One gets the feeling that the Cold War was the golden age of US power.
GJI: Yes. There is an elegiac feeling to the book. There was an emotional feeling. It is not an obituary notice, but there is a sense that we have come through an era. There is a certain sadness, a steeling ourselves for difficulties, and trying to remind people, who have torn apart the liberal international project, finding its faults, whether it is from the inside of the Western world, or from the outside, that there is this life that has been lived: this idea has lived a two-hundred-year life. It’s faced difficulties but there is a kind of golden glow that I want to continue to have attached to it, even as we enter this period.
There is a certain sadness, a steeling ourselves for difficulties, and trying to remind people, who have torn apart the liberal international project, finding its faults, whether it is from the inside of the Western world, or from the outside, that there is this life that has been lived: this idea has lived a two-hundred-year life. It’s faced difficulties but there is a kind of golden glow that I want to continue to have attached to it, even as we enter this period.
FGH: How do you see your discipline of International Relations at this moment? What would the ideal social function of this work be?
GJI: That’s a great question. This work is in some sense trying to speak to the meta-questions of International Relations. It is not a book that is deep down into the trenches fighting wars with other rival theories over who can explain World War One better than the other, or specific patterns of world politics. This book is really about trying to highlight a tradition that has not been fully illuminated in its comprehensive, multi-century history. So, in some sense it is about excavation and illumination of an approach to international relations, but steeping away from the narrow academic exercise of theory-testing, to try to recover the wider world view in which specific theories, theorists, books, and debates have been situated. In the liberal tradition, at least in international relations, there has often been a fragmentation. There are people who study the institutions or democracies or economic interdependence. Some study Europe; others study regionalism, some study international law. And each has its subfield, its own debate and sometimes its own journal. There’s focus on the trees but not on the forest. This is a book about the forest.
FGH: Tell me about the architecture of World Safe for Democracy and this multi-century history you are expounding.
GJI: The temporal organization of the book tells the story of liberal internationalism in different eras. Those features are the nineteenth-century origins of liberal internationalism, the Wilsonian period, which is when where many people have looked for the ideas of liberal internationalism, the Rooseveltian era, which was new for me but I also think it has been understudied for our understanding of the intellectual foundations of liberal internationalism. It is a period in which internationalists who lived through the Wilson era and saw the failures rethought the project into World War Two—I call that the Rooseveltian international period. And, of course, the post-World-War-Two heyday and then the crisis of the post-Cold-War era. Those are five chapters that give a temporal portrait of liberal internationalism. Then, several other chapters are problem oriented. So, the problem of liberal democracy and liberal international relations is very much a chapter on the context, the setting, the deep idea that the foundations of liberal democracy in the Enlightenment, the roots of the tradition, and you might say, the great shifts in the modern world that provided the landscape in which liberal internationalists thought about their projects. Finally, the other preoccupation of the book is how liberal internationalism engaged the story of empire and modern forms of hierarchy and domination, how liberalism and liberal internationalism are entangled with empire, and how I sort out that entanglement.
FGH: How can we connect this book and The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century that you edited with Thomas J Knock, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith (Princeton UP, 2009). A lot has happened in the last decade. What has evolved the most in your thinking?
GJI: The evolution of my thinking from that period has been of several sorts. Number one: much more of a sobering of my understanding of how the world works and where we are going. The optimism of the 1990s has given way in my world. Never before the most recent years did I think we needed to worry about the preservation of liberal democracy itself. In that sense the Wilsonian period was kind of like the period of the 1990s in that there was a sense that liberal democracy was winning, that alternative projects were losing, that power could be attached to great ideas that could make the world better. So, the question within that was: how does one exercise power in a way that leverages the advantages and movements that are going your way. That has since evolved into a much more world-weary understanding that there is very little we can be sure of, not least whether liberal democracy can survive and realize a greater gain for all those who live inside those societies. We are at a moment that I associate with the period of the 1930s and early 1940s when those great questions were on the table, when there was a sense that the struggle is a struggle over the most fundamental things or deep values about what kind of political systems we want to live in. Can open societies exist in an open world system? That question was not one I worried about in the 1990s. I think I have also gained a more balanced view of America as a global actor. I have taken on board the left’s critique of liberal internationalism, which underlines that the liberal international project is not uniformly beneficial to the world and that it has dirty hands. It has entangled itself with empire and imperialism and hegemonic projects that aren’t necessarily faithful to the vision of liberal internationalism. So that is another change.
FGH: You have collaborated in the past with Francis Fukuyama in some projects (the “Forging a World of Liberty under Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century,” the Princeton Project on National Security, co-directed with Anne-Marie Slaughter, Final Paper, 27 Sept. 2006). When he articulated the ‘end of history’ and the ‘there is no alternative’ approach back in the 1980s, did you agree with him in that approach at the time?
GJI: That is a great question. I think I was then more than I am now, though I must say that I am not entirely disabused of this view. I was and am optimistic about liberal democracy as the most functional, legitimate form of governance that I see on way in the world today. So, in that sense I still defend the view that liberal democracy has special features and values that puts it above the others. What has changed, I think, is the view that modernity itself stacks the deck in favour of liberal democracy. The high Enlightenment view of liberal democracy—that there is a deep-hidden hand where rationalism, reason, moral rectitude, and other such deep forces propel the world in the direction of an ever more perfect liberal-democratic future—is a view that I do not hold. This view has appeared from time to time, such as at the end of the Cold War, the modernization theorists of the Cold-War period, and perhaps some liberal folks after World War One. The view of modernity that I think I hold today is a more tempered view that gives weight to much more struggle, agency, tragic choices, and politics. Isaiah Berlin’s view that history does not have a libretto, I think, is right. But there is a capacity that humans have to build institutions that can bend history in a progressive direction. So, I have not given up on that. It is not as bleak as some say, that the liberal project is over, but work is always going to be involved in progress. It is always going to require politics, agency, coalition building, and reimagination to take it to the next stage.
FGH: How do you assess the process of intensification, perhaps degradation and decadence, of the United States in the last decade and perhaps with a focus on the last four years?
GJI: One of the themes in the book, sitting alongside that of modernity, is domestic progressive change. During the last two hundred years, liberal internationalism’s greatest moments internationally (when it had the most influence and the most efficacy on the global stage) occurred when it was tied to domestic movements for social progress, e.g., reformed liberalism of the 1920s, the progressive era of the first decades of the twentieth century, the New Deal period, the Great Society period of the 1960s and early 1970s, and, in a strange way, the new liberalism of the 1990s of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. These different phases tie together movements to build together a new and better democratic society at home with the internationalism that brought countries together in cooperative problem-solving. The high point of course and the best example of this was after World War Two when the social democratic movements that transformed domestic systems in Europe, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere built this container of institutions and partnerships internationally to facilitate efforts at building societies domestically. Of course, on the other side of that, when those domestic projects break down, internationalism suffers and indeed that’s where we are today.
It has not just been four years. It has really been a decade or two of retrogression in the social contract and social democratic systems, with rising inequality, the breakdown of growth coalitions, the breakdown of class compromise, and the erosion of middle-class fortunes. And, of course, the United States is very much at the unfortunate vanguard of that failure without a national health care system, universal health care, the cradle of inequality is greater than almost any other market society. So, that is all part of the failure. Donald Trump has made it worse by further antagonizing the polarizations and divides inside the United States. He made it worse in so many different ways. Whereas some might say, ‘part of what Trump was elected to do was to attend to the working class. We are going to focus on globalization and internationalism; we are going to focus on making American society better for the forgotten Americans.’ But, of course, that was all a façade. It was really about stoking cultural wars. The only big national-level accomplishment that went through Congress was the tax cut for the rich. The inequalities and disaffections inside liberal America were made worse by the culture war and the antagonisms that cut across race and ethnicity, which Trump stoked. We are at a very unhappy moment, and I think it has been brought to a head by the four years of Trump.
The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are really a period when you see the rise of nation-states, states tied to nations, and identities and institutions that can be seen as the embodiment of Westphalian sovereign nation-states. And this nationalism, which begins to emerge in the nineteenth century, triggers its own “other,” which is internationalism. And they both needed each other in some sense. You need a nationalism for internationalism, and internationalism presupposes a kind of nationalism because it is inter-governmentalism. It is inter-nationalism.
FGH: How do you understand the ‘international’? Is it a beyond? A plus ultra? A useful or problematic extension? Extroversion, eversion, projection of U.S. foreign policy, or something else?
GJI: Internationalism is something that can be understood apart from the United States. I think it is, and I argue this in the book, a phenomenon that emerges in the nineteenth century together with nationalism. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are really a period when you see the rise of nation-states, states tied to nations, and identities and institutions that can be seen as the embodiment of Westphalian sovereign nation-states. And this nationalism, which begins to emerge in the nineteenth century, triggers its own “other,” which is internationalism. And they both needed each other in some sense. You need a nationalism for internationalism, and internationalism in presupposes a kind of nationalism because it is inter-governmentalism. It is inter-nationalism. It is not supra-nationalism or globalism beyond the nation-state. It is very much the management of interdependence between nations.
So, internationalism begins, I think, to come into its own as a phenomenon in the nineteenth century and it takes many different forms, some liberal, some not liberal. But the liberal varieties are seen in, for example, the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1840s in Britain, the spread of the free trade movement across the Atlantic world and beyond, the Peace movement, and the peace movement in the sense that integration and trade is part of the project of building a more peaceful, cooperative world. The international law movement is another example, when jurors were mobilized to rethink international law.
Of course, the rise of industrial-era imperialism is itself a kind of internationalism: imperial internationalism, which is both different from liberal internationalism but in some sense part of a broader Amazon of movement that all of these different internationalisms are riding on. There is also a social-policy internationalism that emerges as nation-states and liberal democracies develop administrative states that are building regulatory capacities in the face of both industrial-era capitalism and social movements in response to the excesses of capitalism across the democratic world.
There is also a functional internationalism. We’ve got a mobilised, globalised capitalism. Now we also have time zones and regulatory standards that synchronize movement of trade and people around the world. We have steamships and telegraphs that allow us to coordinate activity on a global scale. All of this is a kind of mobilisation of the world and with it a kind of internationalism that is both normative and pragmatic, imperial and liberal. It is providing the woof and webbing for international society. That is the background, I think, that creates the projects of liberal internationalism.
FGH: Would this be a kind of institutionality, a world wide web, a network?
GJI: There is much more of a theory of how it is emerging and evolving focused on three things primarily: the rise of liberal democracies, which give a particular directionality and impulse to internationalism. They are societies that in some sense see each other as peers and need each other as fellow organizers of the world because they, as liberal democracies, cannot survive alone. So, there is a directionality to internationalism called forth by liberal democracies themselves. Secondly, there is this global transition from empire to nation-state that I talked about that is creating its own kind of dynamic leading to a kind of organization imperative to re-establish order in a post-imperial world, to give order based on sovereign units rather than grand imperial projects. Thirdly, there is escalations or cascades of interdependence that are being generated by science and technology and industrialism that make it necessary for these liberal-democratic units that are now increasingly part of a set of peer nation states interacting with each other to ever more intensely organize their interdependence—economic, security-related, and environmental. So, world wide web does not get at the structures and modernizing forces that are giving directionality to the organizational projects of liberal internationalism.
FGH: Are you not holding a conversation with a very narrow dimension of the ‘liberal West’? I do not see you having conversations with the French, Germans, or Latin Americans—you stay mostly within the Anglo-American community. And I suppose you will say to me, ‘well, Fernando, I cannot talk about everyone…’ To which I would respond that ‘we are looking at the Olympic Games, and we are only focusing on the American athletes. We see some highlights, we see some grand names, we see them winning, at times it is a tough winning, in some cases they do not win the race, but the limelight is on them exclusively.’ That is why I asked you before about the international world. There is a thunderous silence about the world. Even within the West, it is a very narrow Anglo-American Eurocentric understanding and vision of the West. At the level of bibliography, I do not see you opening up to different conceptions of democracy, either.
GJI: I think that’s true. It is a book written in a particular vernacular. It is definitely focused on the Anglo-American era. Pax Britannica. Pax Americana. Again, the liberal internationalist ideas that I am trying to capture in this book are ideas that have had their greatest impact under the auspices of these two nineteenth- and twentieth-century hegemonic eras. So, I am sort of forced to give them prominence by virtue of their historical prominence. In that sense I am admitting what you are saying. It is not a book that comes out of a deep reading of Latin American history or French pluralism, although the story encompasses those stories and countries in various ways that make it more than simply the story of Anglo-America. Europe as a project becomes very important in this book. And if you look at the liberal hegemonic era: it is really about the transformation of industrial societies across the world, and within the West it is as much about continental Europe as it is about Anglo-America. It is about Japan, South Korea, and countries that are making liberal-democratic transitions.
But I want to make another point in response to your very provocative but very perceptive critique and that is that I am trying in this book to separate liberal internationalism from specific historical actors. I am trying to separate the dancer from the dance. It is a book about ideas. I am trying, partly, to detach the ideas from specific power formations to suggest that there is something more globally relevant to the ideas. It is not just a history of Britain in the nineteenth century and America in the twentieth century. There is something brilliant about these ideas that makes them important for the world to the extent that the world is a post-imperial world of rising inter-dependence.
FGH: When you say that you want to separate the dancer from the dance, is it fair to say that your methodology is one of idealism in World Safe for Democracy? I am also saying this in relation to a working paper that you have on your website in which you appear to be repeating Louis Hartz’s vision of the U.S. decades later (I have in mind the working paper, “Culture and Foreign Policy: The American Liberal Tradition and Global Order Building,” dated 9 Sept. 2014).
GJI: I find that comment surprising because I see it much more as an anti-idealist book. At one point we have been talking about how I fit into the IR community. There is a categorization of IR theories that came out of the post-World-War-Two rise of the professional IR field that said that the great debate was between realism (looking at power and capabilities of states) and idealism, which is how liberalism was understood. There was a sense that that tradition was an idealist tradition, even bordering on utopianism. That framing of the IR field was codified by the E.H. Carr of the Twenty Years Crisis, where he saw the liberals, Woodrow Wilson first and foremost, but also the British liberals of that period, as idealists. My book is an emphatic rejection of that framing: liberal internationalism is about managing material reality, modernity, manifest as economics, security and environmental interdependence. In fact, realism is more of a utopian project based on an exaggerated focus on anarchy and power politics. And that misses the material reality that has mattered most in the last two-hundred years, which is this industrial modernizing world of interdependence that has put liberal democracies in a position where they can both take advantage of it and protect themselves from its most dangerous implications.
There is a categorization of IR theories that came out of the post-World-War-Two rise of the professional IR field that said that the great debate was between realism (looking at power and capabilities of states) and idealism, which is how liberalism was understood…My book is an emphatic rejection of that framing: liberal internationalism is about managing material reality, modernity, manifest as economics, security and environmental interdependence. In fact, realism is more of a utopian project based on an exaggerated focus on anarchy and power politics. And that misses the material reality that has mattered most in the last two-hundred years, which is this industrial modernizing world of interdependence that has put liberal democracies in a position where they can both take advantage of it and protect themselves from its most dangerous implications.
FGH: Why is the liberal international order currently in such trouble?
GJI: A chapter in the book talks about the post-Cold-War crisis of liberal internationalism and of the international order and there are multiple sources of crises. In some sense I think the crisis is less about the rivals in the horizon, which include China. The crisis is in some sense a crisis of success. Liberal internationalism had this golden era during the Cold War when liberal internationalism was inside a larger global system defined by bipolarity and a two-world contest between a Soviet, Communist project of modernity and a free-world project of modernity and that these two rivals were competing for decades and, in some sense, one won and one lost. By the 1990s, there wasn’t an alternative to liberal internationalism out there, and then there was a globalization of the liberal project. Countries wanted to transition into it, whether they were Eastern European countries wanting to join the EU and NATO, Latin American countries throwing off authoritarian and military dictatorships, and in East Asia there was South Korea transitioning from military dictatorship, Taiwan moving to democracy from the Kuomintang (KMT) period, and Thailand, Indonesia. There was the so-called ‘third wave of democratisation’ that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s that presented the liberal order with the opportunity to expand. At the heart of liberal democracies there is this story of imperfection: needing projects to make the liberal international system ever more inclusive, and more just and comprehensive. So, all of that augured in favour of a post-Cold-War expansion of the liberal project. The failure, problem, or crisis comes precisely at that moment of triumph, when ever more societies are connecting to the liberal order, including countries that have not yet fully transitioned towards liberal democracy. That is really Russia and China. So, the crisis of liberal internationalism is a failure of success, a kind of expansion and globalization of liberal internationalism that led to a breakdown of the underlying political bargains and institutions that supported the liberal international order. That’s my punchline: a crisis of success, a Karl Polanyi problem rather than a E. H. Carr crisis, a crisis of mobilization of a system that overruns its foundations.
You get a glimpse of the character of my argument by suggesting that the liberal order turned from its old foundation—from being a club of liberal democracies, the G-7 countries, which include Japan, Western Europe, and North America—to something that is global, a kind of shopping mall, where countries could come in to the liberal order and join parts of it. They could join the WTO, but not necessarily the OECD… There was a breakdown in the underlying logic of the order, from the club logic to the shopping-mall logic or the public utility. If you are going to be a member of the liberal order you need to buy into a suite of obligations, rights, and responsibilities. It is like the EU. The liberal order lost that ‘order of conditionality’ and states could come in opportunistically, get what they wanted, but not necessarily actively support the overall framework and foundations.
Complete interview: https://www.fernandogherrero.com/single-post/no-plan-b-for-the-neo-liberal-internationalism-of-the-anglo-american-tradition-now-admittedly