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"Dealing with illiberal states is a chronic problem"

Power, Order and Change – in World Politics
Forfatter: John Ikenberry
USA / We've talking to John Ikenberry about 'after victory moments'. Is there any real incentive for the powerful state to spend money to rebuild and foster better order? The liberal international vision is not globalism, it is intergovernmentalism.


After virtually all conflicts – and especially after major wars – it has proved crucial how the victory was handled. John Ikenberry, a professor of political science at Princeton University, has been working extensively on the subject for many years, and in 2001 he wrote the book. After Victory where he explains his theories. It happens through a deep analysis of three great “after victory moments,” as he describes it, as we meet in his office at the university. He read the situation closely in 1815, ie just after the Napoleonic Wars, in 1919 after the First World War and in 1945 after the end of the Second World War. And he relates this to the situation immediately after the end of the Cold War.

Liberal institutionalist

Ikenberry is what in political science is called a liberal institutionalist. He argues that the new order, which has had to be established after each of the major conflicts, has moved in the direction of greater international cooperation, and this has increasingly been created within the framework of institutions. A few notable examples in recent times are the UN and NATO, which, as you know, were both created in the wake of World War II. And because development had come so far, and the respect of the world community for institutional cooperation at that time was so entrenched, the post-war period became a period of unprecedented stability. That, in Ikenberry's view, is the main reason why the end of the Cold War was so relatively undramatic.

After Victory was reissued last year. In his new preface writes Ikenberry, that the book originally seems to have been written in a different era than today, and it is almost in the air that with the republishing he wants to test whether his theories from that time still hold true. But does he do so?

Trump's rejection of globalism is not nationalism, but tribalism.

Ikenberry calmly looks ahead, then begins: “This is a very good question. There have been surprising developments that challenge the theory. For example, it is part of my theory that a victorious state has an incentive to invest in the losing state in order to create economic and security policy ties that consolidate its dominant role, while at the same time creating incentives for weaker states to join the leading state. . And it is a management model in which democracies have a special capacity and a presumed interest in taking on the role. But it certainly does not appear that Trump has read my book, for he does not seem at all to pursue a policy that is consistent with that logic.

So I wonder and am alarmed. What we see today in no way undermines my theories, even if Trump does things that the theories would not foresee. The United States does not behave in a way that the book sets out theoretically, but it turns out that the world is reacting to it. The actions of the United States have negative consequences for both the United States and the world. In this way, Trump proves that I was right that it was in the interests of the United States to act in a certain way – let's call it liberal supremacy – and that it was in the interests of the world in terms of stability and protection, the establishment of partnerships and frameworks for cooperation in areas such as climate change. "

United States supremacy

You write that after a victory the victor stands with a mighty one power that will gradually fade away. It's been a long time since the new order was established in 1945, so are we about to reach the point where the power of the victors from that time is about to be gone?

"Yes, US sovereignty is very much on the decline, and its role in relation to, for example China is definitely changing. The United States is not what it was after 1945 and certainly not after 1991. So we are definitely in a situation where no one is able to use force to make the world behave as one would like. One has to build on the accumulated investments – partnerships and institutions, multilateral networks, agreements; all that it has taken decades to build – to replace the sheer power benefits. So right now it's up to the US administration to build on these investments, and not throw the investments away in the belief that one can intimidate other countries, because it does not work. It’s like a human being getting older: You save up for retirement and don’t want to waste it all on card games in Las Vegas. Trump is a Las Vegas thinker at a time when we need someone who preserves the values ​​in the long run. ”

It seems as if your theories are based on states with roughly the same cultural background. One of your colleagues, Professor John M. Owen of the University of Virginia, writes in his book Confronting Political Islam that a state may well be ideological and rational at the same time. He mentions Iran as an example, and that is exactly where we are up against a completely different set of values. How does the current situation with Iran fit into your theories?

"It is clear that the international, liberal order that I am describing encounters countries that are not liberal and that, in a sense, do not recognize liberal countries and their way of doing things at all. This means that there will always be some antagonism, whether it is the United States against Russia or England against Germany earlier in the century. How to deal with illiberal states is a chronic problem. There are no easy answers.

Liberals tend towards a two-pronged thinking: One option is to engage these states, as liberal thinking implies an optimistic view that as soon as these countries see the light and benefits of operating within an open order, which includes trade and investment and politics gains, then they will implement reforms towards liberal democracy. The people who shaped American foreign policy after the Cold War thought exactly about China in this way: They brought China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and created incentives to promote their change towards the democratic liberal system.

China has a vision of capitalism without democracy.

As for Iran, I believe that the regime thinks rationally, but it is a theocratic state with a very dynamic society that is ambivalent about the regime. Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, American decision-makers have wanted to see an Iran that changed away from this, but I do not think that a desire for regime change has been any dominant factor in US foreign policy towards Iran. Overthrowing the regime does not make political sense, even though there are people in Washington, and in particular the Trump administration, who clearly want to put pressure on Iran for just that purpose. The alternative is a commitment to negotiation, as is the case with North Korea. One accepts some compromises to make them show restraint. That is what was behind the agreement that the Obama administration entered into with the Iranians, and which Trump has now destroyed. "

Global movement

But is it not a big part of the problem today that it is no longer an East-West conflict as during the Cold War, but about North-South, where one faces a different culture and a different world?

"After the Cold War, much of the thinking was that many states were moving towards democracy – even countries like China, Russia and the Arab states. The Arab Spring was seen as proof that it was a global movement. All that is now turned upside down, and many countries are moving in the opposite direction.

I am convinced that we need to imagine a world that is more pluralistic – and that development we need to make happen. We can not fight it. I believe that democratic countries have an interest in – and a moral obligation to – speak in favor of liberal democracy. "

How do you explain that religion and nationalism are taking up more and more space? Israel, which defines itself as part of the Western world, is becoming more and more religious, and the same trend is being seen in the United States.

The new order, which has had to be established after each of the major conflicts, has
moved towards greater international cooperation.

Religion, nationalism, religion and Blut und Boden [Nazi slogan meaning 'blood and land', editor's note] are something we associate with a morbid nationalism in the 1930s, fascism and totalitarianism, imperialism – but it is never disappeared. That said, liberal democracy is linked to the nation. In the 19th century, when the liberal revolutions came sweeping, it all happened within the framework of the nation state. Internationalism and nationalism went hand in hand. Therefore, it is a mistake to say that the controversy today is between globalism and nationalism. The liberal international vision is not globalism, it is intergovernmentalism. Trump's rejection of globalism is not nationalism, but tribalism. The same can be said of the Israelis and Eastern Europeans. So the controversy is not quite as it is described. The liberal reaction to the emergence of this 'Blut und Boden' traditionalism must be to make room for it on one level or another. We often forget that even liberal democracies recognize the importance of a civil society that includes many forms of identity politics. "

In the Middle East, there have been several "after-victory moments", for example in connection with the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war and the fight against Islamic State. What has happened to all these chances?

These are all minor cases of "after-victory moments" because it was not wars between great powers, but a very powerful state that overthrew a weak state. There was no real incentive for the powerful state to spend money to rebuild and foster a better order. There were incentives, but for democracies it is very difficult to see that the civilian side is as important as the military. For a man like John Bolton who was part of the Bush administration, it was about breaking down the old order, and he was not interested in building a new one. Others did not want it either.

The most successful example of an "after victory moment" was the United States and the Western powers against Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, for it was a complete victory, unconditional surrender, and one had an external threat by virtue of the emerging Cold War, which made it even more crucial that those countries entered the United States' orbit. And they were already so developed that one did not have to start from scratch. In many ways, they were as advanced as the countries that occupied them. So many of the elements that make an 'after victory moment' possible were simply not present in Iraq.

Democratic solidarity

In many ways, it can be said that institutions such as NATO, the EU and the UN are helping to define the Western world. How relevant are they today?

This is a very precarious situation for Western institutions. I think there will be another turning point of democratic solidarity, especially as a result of China's growing influence and Russia's threatening power. There are quite obvious incentives for Western democracies to stick together: Europe wants to see continued American engagement, especially in light of Trump's rejection of NATO and the EU. He undermines the EU completely undisguised, and he has a very divided view of NATO. But Trump is not America, and he will not stay in office forever. A political leader is not the total sum of any country. In the Congress in Washington, there are many members who support Trump, but who at the same time are strongly in favor of a solid partnership with Europe. Britain has left the EU, but young people in the country are largely supporters of the EU. Let's see if Britain does not return. I think Europeans need to find a way to stay connected to Britain. In the meantime, they must let Boris Johnson and his people live out their imagination.

Iran's regime thinks rationally, but is a theocratic state with a very dynamic society that is ambivalent about the regime.

There are powers on the way forward that seem to have a different social order. China and India are clear examples. Does this mean that right now we are trying to maintain our own, somewhat old-fashioned order while they overtake us?

"I do not think they are overtaking us – but I think there is a dispute going on. It will consist of a battle between two competing forms of world order. China has a different vision than ours, and it is deeply rooted because it is about how modernity in an industrial society develops. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called it modernity projects. At the end of the Cold War, there was only one modernity project left. Earlier in the 20th century, we had the Japanese Empire along with the German and Soviet. But they are all banished to the landfill of history. There is only one other project left: the Chinese. But right now – especially under President Xi – China has a vision of capitalism without democracy. This is certainly a different view of how society can evolve to reach the highest level of development in an authoritarian communist state.

That's the big question in the 21st century: China is forcing the world to submit to the experiment. If it succeeds for them – which is not certain – it will change the world. If China can do everything Western democracies can, and more, then they will find themselves at the top of the international system, and then countries will slowly move in the direction of the Chinese sphere of influence. That's where I think we're headed. But I doubt whether China can handle it. For China has many challenges, which coronathe pandemic that broke out in the central part of the country. One tried to cover up the seriousness of the situation and did not want the regime involved and punished for the disaster. There is a lack of transparency and a lack of will for international cooperation, and therefore I am not sure that the China model will succeed. I do not want to bet on that, but we are facing a period in which we will witness a competition between the two systems. "


See also G. John Ikenberry:
After Victory. Institutions, Strategic Restraint, & the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton University Press, USA

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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