Princeton University Professor G. John Ikenberry is not a household name and his books on the theory of International Relations are written for scholars, not the general public. Yet he is arguably one of the most important and, possibly influential, thinkers of the post-Cold War period
G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Internationalism of the Next Generation: Liberal Order & Imperial Ambition (2005)
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
It may seem to some readers to be a stretch too far when I list Princeton University Professor G. John Ikenberry among the leading post-Cold War American thinkers on international relations. To be sure, his is not a household name and his books on the theory of IR are written for fellow scholars rather than undergraduates, not to mention the general public.
And yet there are strong reasons for his presence on our list. Within the American foreign policy establishment and the broader circle of those who regularly follow world affairs, Ikenberry’s writings appear before them every two months or so. The 160,000 subscribers of Foreign Affairs magazine know Ikenberry as one of the ten ‘in-house’ book reviewers whose responsibility is for the ‘Political and Legal’ genre.
Ikenberry is also an occasional contributor of articles to American Interest magazine published by (former) neoconservative theoretician Francis Fukuyama which aims to inform the non-specialist public. His name appears on the magazine’s masthead as a member of the Editorial Board. For reasons we shall explore below it is not in the least surprising that he would find common cause with Fukuyama. But then again Ikenberry is on the Editorial Board of a half dozen other periodicals read by the foreign policy establishment.
As was the case with Stanley Hoffmann, I would put the emphasis on ‘influential’ more than on ‘widely read’ in justifying Ikenberry’s place among our great thinkers. His position as leading theoretician is inextricably associated with an issue which has been at the forefront of attention both in the profession and in the broad public ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union: namely the nature and staying power of American hegemony.
Hegemony has been Ikenberry’s abiding interest going back to his earliest scholarly articles in the 1980s. However, at that time, like other academics, he was responding to the widely expected loss of hegemony. After all, the hegemonic position in military force which the U.S. came into as the main victor of WWII was built upon the world’s largest . economy by far, with economic might which soared above the war-ravaged landscape of its erstwhile competitors in Europe and the Far East. With the restoration of peacetime economies among both the vanquished and the allied nations over the course of several decades, the relative world economic standing of the U.S. had significantly declined by the late 1980s, placing the question of the new world order on the agenda of political scientists led by exponents of the realist school, for whom a rise or fall in these measurable indicators determines the configuration of international relations. Ikenberry emerged at this time as a contrarian, arguing that the hegemony would be more durable than many supposed because of the way it was institutionalized.
In the early 1990s, doubt about the staying power of American world leadership found another leg to stand on. Many scholars anticipated the system of American-dominated military alliances and economic institutions would unravel now that the common cause of resisting world Communism had disappeared. Once again Ikenberry gathered persuasive arguments why this would not be the case, telling us that the free world had developed not merely as a counterweight to Russia’s empire of unfree but had all along found its own justification in shared benefits of liberal democracy and participative decision-making of the security alliances.
In the mid-1990s, generalized euphoria in the American foreign policy establishment put paid to all doubts over the longevity of American domination of the global landscape. The collapse of the Soviet Union upset all previous calculations of the world pecking order. Talk about a Pax Americana and the ‘indispensable nation’ signaled the revival of imperialism as a respectable ordering of international relations after a half-century of ignominy.
The rise of a new age economy built on advanced telecommunications and the internet enhanced both the reality and the perception of American dynamism. Ikenberry quickly picked up the new questions relating to America’s unipolar moment and its fast accelerating advance on the Rest of the World in measurable military force, technological prowess and relative economic buoyancy, not to mention its role of worldwide arbiter of popular culture.
At the very end of the ‘90s, Ikenberry explained to those at home and abroad who were worried by the emergence of the new Leviathan why America’s liberal-democratic, open-markets and rule-based hegemony served the world’s interests nearly as much as it did U.S. interests. And in the new millennium, when the Bush administration opted for reckless unilateralism in its first term, Ikenberry rose to the occasion, boldly reminding all who would listen why restraint and strengthening rather than overturning existing alliances was the better way to serve American security.
In this way, Ikenberry has been in the thick of the debates over U.S. foreign policy for a couple of decades and his theories on structural liberalism as the best way forward in international relations have been built upon incrementally to form an imposing body of scholarship.
In many respects, G. John Ikenberry may be said to be a younger version of Stanley Hoffmann, from whom he is separated by one generation. Both are the intellectual’s intellectual, with a high level of abstraction in their thinking. Ultimately their contributions have directional bearing on public policy rather than providing solutions to specific issues arising in one country or another.
Set against the senior statesmen and philosophers who populate our list of great thinkers, Ikenberry is one of the youngest. He is a mature scholar in the prime of his career who shares some of the habits of his peer group. First among these is what I would call a ‘team’ approach to the métier, something akin to what goes on in a think tank.
For much of his career, he has co-authored. In the late 1980s, his first partner was Charles Kupchan, a realist school political scientist who eventually found his home in Georgetown University. From the early 1990s to today, Ikenberry has collaborated repeatedly with Daniel Deudney, now at Johns Hopkins University, who stands outside the classical division of realists and idealists.
Besides jointly written analytical essays, Ikenberry’s bibliography also lists many books where he figures as editor. I mention these features of his work because they make it somewhat difficult to select a volume that is uniquely Ikenberry’s own. The 2005 opus Liberal Order & Imperial Ambition which we are about to analyze comes as close as any, though even here we find two co-authored chapters.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010
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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from amazon.com and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.