Tuesday, June 19, 2007


We here at Phronesisaical have been saying this over the life of this blog and beyond: it's a matter of legitimacy (do a keyword search of "legitimacy"). Now Princeton's John Ikenberry says it too and Harvard's Dani Rodrik thinks it's "the best thing I have read from a political scientist in a while." Sigh. Ikenberry (.pdf):

The most serious threat to American national security today is not a specific enemy but the erosion of the institutional foundations of the global order that the United States has commanded for half a century and through which it has pursued its interests and national security. America’s leadership position and authority within the global system is in serious crisis – and this puts American national security at risk. The grand strategy America needs to pursue in the years ahead is not one aimed at a particular threat but rather at restoring its role as the recognized and legitimate leader of the system – and rebuilding the institutions and partnerships upon which this leadership position is based. America’s global position is in crisis, but it is a crisis that is largely of its own making, and one that can be overcome in a way that leaves the United States in a stronger position to meet the diffuse, shifting, and uncertain threats of the 21st century.

The grand strategy I am proposing can be called “liberal order building.” It is essentially a 21st century version of the strategy that the United States pursued after World War II in the shadow of the Cold War – a strategy which produced the liberal hegemonic order that has provided the framework for the Western and global system ever since. This is a strategy in which the United States leads the way in the creation and operation of a loose rule-based international order. The United States provides public goods and solves global collection action problems. American “rule” is established through the provisioning of international rules and institutions and its willingness to operate within them. American power is put in the service of an agreed upon system of Western-oriented global governance. American power is made acceptable to the world because it is embedded in these agreed upon rules and institutions. The system itself leverages resources and fosters cooperation that makes the actual functioning of the order one that solves problems, creates stability, and allows democracy and capitalism to flourish. Liberal order building is America’s distinctive contribution to world politics – and it is a grand strategy that it should return to in the post-Bush era.

The Bush administration did not embrace the logic of liberal hegemonic rule or support the rules and institutions on which it is based – and America is now paying the price in an extraordinary decline in its authority, credibility, prestige, and the ready support of other states. Along the way, the Bush administration has made America less rather than more secure and its ruinous foreign policy is fast becoming an icon of grand strategic failure.

UPDATE (20 June):

I should clarify a bit. Legitimacy is the key issue for me here, not "liberal order building." The US has indeed represented some decent liberal values, ones that are hardly exclusive to the US. It has also engaged in some terrible actions that belie those values (Iraq being only the most recent). One reason other countries have, in spite of the horrible actions, continued to support the US is its economic influence and their economic dependency. Another reason is that the US could be counted on to stick up for - even when hypocritical, and even when highly selective - some notion of a decent international order representing widely shared values we might call "liberal." These two strands run throughout US history, especially during the 20th Century. But the current administration in my view has decided that international relations are about force and turning the screw of economic dependency alone. They've horribly misunderstood that, given alternatives, a country that disdains any international order than one that serves its own interests is one that is undeserving of support and ultimately will only receive cynical and opportunistic support. And when it comes to legitimacy, economic dependence is either too weak a factor to sustain the underlying values that constitute claims to legitimacy or so strong as to deceive political leaders into believing that they can get away with anything. For many in the world, the latter is what they view as American "liberal order building" where the rules are always written by America in America's favor. The Bush Administration has confirmed this view both implicitly and explicitly.

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