Liberal Leviathan | G. John Ikenberry

Summary of: Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order
By: G. John Ikenberry


In ‘Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order’, G. John Ikenberry explores the unique American-built system of international order, how it emerged from World War II, thrived through the Cold War, and met challenges in a post-9/11 world. Delving into the mechanisms of balance, command, and consent, the author illustrates how the United States has exercised an organizational authority that has been effective in promoting cooperation rather than coercion. The summary will take you through the history of the US-led world order, the relationship between the US and other states, rule-based relationships, and how unipolarity has changed the global landscape.

The Fragility of Global Order

Since World War II, the US has been the architect of a successful liberal democratic system upheld by rule-based institutions and Western ideals. However, the Bush administration’s attempt to redefine this order as imperial raised questions about America’s future and the rise of rival political powers like China. The current system’s fragility is being reevaluated, with new actors adding to the negotiating table. Although the focus remains on how to run the system, not whether it is fragile, a reset is underway to redefine the global economic and political order.

Three Mechanisms for World Order

The book explains how international power maintains world order through three basic mechanisms: balance, command, and consent. States either align with each other during power struggles or submit to a powerful nation’s authority to establish a hierarchy. They can also create law-based institutions that check their power to cooperate with other nations, grounded in Western ideas of economics, society, and law. After World War II, the US became the world’s leader in liberal order building, exercising organizational authority through balance, command, and consent. This approach offers mutually agreed-upon rules, rewards for participation, and openness to change, unlike traditional imperial systems reliant on force and control.

Managing International Order

Through institutionalizing power structures, states manage international order, surrendering some independence in exchange for a mutually beneficial arrangement. Such “rule-based relationships” can range from alliances to equal partnerships, with the dominant governance strategy of liberal hegemony being to rule through rules. However, it is crucial for states to balance their independence with credible offers of restraint to avoid losing too much power or creating too many entanglements. By reducing the need for enforcement and fortifying legitimacy, this approach benefits a hegemon like the US.

The Uniqueness of Unipolarity

The US’s unipolar dominance is unprecedented since no country has successfully challenged it after the fall of the Soviet Union. The US’s power is propagated through institutions, which diminishes resistance to its dominance. The US is a welcoming “hub” that offers a share in its benefits and control. Unipolarity, however, poses the risk of internal change, but that would endanger its legitimacy. Creating a counterbalancing power center is difficult and unlikely because other states inherently gain from the current system’s benefits, the prevalence of democratic countries, and the elimination of war.

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