Liberal Leviathan | G. John Ikenberry

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


Embark on an insightful journey through the origins, success, and potential evolution of the American-led global order with the book summary of ‘Liberal Leviathan’ by G. John Ikenberry. This summary delves into the dominating position of the United States since World War II and its critical role in shaping the world’s political and economic systems. As you explore this summary, you will discover the intricate mechanisms that have maintained global order, as well as the unique nature of American ‘liberal hegemony’. Furthermore, gain insights on how different approaches could impact the future of international relations and the possible roles that the US might adopt.

The State of the World Order

The United States has been the driving force behind the liberal democratic political system that dominates the world since World War II. This stable world order was successful due to cooperative rule-based institutions and progressive Western ideas that outlasted the Cold War. However, President George W. Bush attempted to redefine the US-led order in imperial rather than democratic terms. Although this recalibration was unsuccessful, questions arose regarding the stability of the system. Despite this, the focus remains on how to run the current system instead of debating its fragility. A resetting of the negotiating table is underway, involving new actors to redefine economic and political order.

Principles of International Power

International power is maintained through three mechanisms: balance, command, and consent. The balance arises from the self-interest of states to protect themselves, leading them to form alliances during power struggles. Command occurs when a powerful nation exercises authority over subordinate countries, creating a hierarchy based on coercion, autonomy, bargaining, and reciprocity. Consent involves creating law-based institutions, grounded in Western ideas, that check state power to cooperate with others. The US has established a liberal hegemony that combines all three mechanisms to create mutually agreed-upon rules, rewards for participation, and openness to change, without relying on force or control.

Rule through Rules

The dominant governance strategy of liberal hegemony is rule through rules. A leading nation can maintain international order by imposing strictures or through consultative treaty bodies such as the World Trade Organization or the European Union. States limit each other’s autonomy by signing mutual accords that perpetuate acceptable collective behavior. Institutionalizing power structures appeals to nations in hegemonic positions, but states must remain independent and not bargain away their power or create too many entanglements.

The Uniqueness of Unipolarity

The US has been the dominant world power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The prevalence of democratic countries and the reduced use of war make it difficult for other nations to challenge the current system. The US maintains its power through a range of institutions, including an open market system that invites others to participate. While unipolarity can bring benefits, it also presents the risk of policy shifts that threaten its legitimacy. Nevertheless, the current global order remains unique and challenging to replicate.

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