John Ikenberry: China and the liberal order

Professor John Ikenberry rendered a forceful defense of the global liberal order and its various firmaments at the Douglas Dillon annual lecture at Chatham House last week. With the rise of several major powers, the legitimacy of the order is being increasingly called into question. Powers like China and India alongside Russia and Brazil are chafing against the rules based aspects of the order and contesting its legitimacy. Ikenberry argues that despite this percipient power shift and the arguable divergence between the hegemon and rising powers, there are four reasons why this liberal international order will sustain.

The first argument for the sustenance and durability of the order, Ikenberry argues, is that over the past fifty years it has evolved into a complex, multi-layered edifice that gradually absorbs and embeds countries of different political orientations and stripes. It is thus an extremely easy one to join than past orders, an easy one to fit into but much harder to overturn. Second, through this process, the order has developed through the institution of newer forums and mechanisms that aim to manage collective action gaps as they arise. These institutions not only enable countries to mount efforts to manage and neutralise problems but also rely on the partnership of other countries who would similarly act given purportedly convergent interests. The order is thus adaptive and innovative. Thirdly and quite importantly, the order allows for the spoils of modernity to be shared between countries. The order and various rules enable countries to engage in trade and commerce, binding them into arrangements that are remunerative and redistributive. The institutional architecture provides an array of material and functional benefits that cannot be secured elsewhere. And finally, Ikenberry argued that there is no other alternative. Rising powers do not have the power nor the inclination or interest to erect an alternate order; indeed, these rising powers do not even resemble a common bloc, they hold variant interests and are marked by the differences they share. For these reasons, Ikenberry argued the order will sustain and thrive going ahead despite the emergent thrust of the multipolar world that threatens to roil the underpinning crux of the liberal international order.

However, Ikenberry’s arguments fall short due to three problems. First, the order that he enthusiastically advocates for did not emerge out of common interests or values or norms. A heavy dose of power underpinned the creation of the order and now that this power is ebbing, the fundamental core and tenets of the order are being questioned. It was only a matter of time that these powers as they rise will seek to contest and redraft rules to their interest. For Ikenberry, other powers are unfortunately conceptualised as static entities with rather functional interests but this is not the case; going ahead, we should expect this trend to continue. Second, the spoils of modernity or the ‘fruits’ generated by closer economic engagement with various parts of the institutional establishment do not arrive quite automatically. In between, there exist domestic political orders that intervene and re-direct processes of material redistribution and across the emerging world, this process is riven by innumerable conflicts, political and social. Instead of unconditionally accepting that the global liberal order engenders unvarnished benefits, we need to better understand and map how the domestic and global political orders are connected in order to better understand and conceptualise how states should direct and manage their relationship with the order. Good global governance rests on stable and robust national governance. Next, the order as Ikenberry describes it is now considerably diffuse and plural. Public and private actors are engaged in collaborative governance arrangements to tackle transboundary problems. In some cases, these plurilateral actors of groups even fund multilateral organisations given the budgetary constraints experienced by states of late. We urgently need a different lexicon and vocabulary in terms of the international order than the one Ikenberry provides.


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