The Waning of the American World

Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order By G. John Ikenberry Princeton University Press, 392 pages, $35.00

The current state of the world, G. John Ikenberry suggests in his new book, Liberal Leviathan, is reminiscent of a business that has for years been controlled by one shareholder and now faces a crisis over ownership. Instead of continuing to be run as "a semiprivate company," this business--the international order--has "an expanding array of shareholders and new members on the board of directors."

Ikenberry argues that this situation poses a fundamental challenge to the order that emerged after World War II. His book lucidly explains how the end of the Cold War allowed the U.S.-dominated Western system to expand to the rest of the world. Most of the former Soviet bloc joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. China joined both and then won entry to the World Trade Organization (Russia may join the WTO soon as well). Meanwhile, Eastern and Central Europe slid into NATO's embrace, and the European Union expanded. The predictions of realists that a no longer bipolar world would split into competing regional blocs proved untrue.

For a while, it all appeared seamless. But now, as the emerging powers sprint forward economically, the existing order is starting to chafe. And that is why, according to Ikenberry, we are at a moment when authority in the international system is contested as it has rarely been.

Ikenberry's account has an intuitive appeal. There's always more than enough chaos to argue that the world is in crisis. And while he writes thoughtfully about the challenge of integrating rising powers into global governance, he is hard-pressed to show that the system today faces any more of a crisis than it's been through before.

The system is adapting. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have tweaked their voting shares to reflect growing Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian power, and the World Bank's chief economist is now Chinese. The G-20 replaced the G-7 as the world's financial steering committee.

To bolster the case for crisis, Ikenberry leans heavily on an account of the unilateralism of George W. Bush. He contends that Bush and his advisers aggravated the already fraying global consensus on U.S. leadership by demanding to renegotiate America's deal with the world: "The United States would serve as the unipolar provider of global security, but in return the world would be expected to treat the United States differently." Ikenberry highlights some of the most hubristic Bush administration outbursts and trots out the familiar litany of follies involving Iraq, Kyoto, and the International Criminal Court. Neither the world nor the American people accepted Bush's new deal, Ikenberry says, and the Obama administration is now restoring a more agreeable arrangement with other nations.

There is more than a little sleight of hand in this account. To magnify the existing tensions in world order, Ikenberry characterizes the institution-building of the 1940s as much more consensual and rule-based than it actually was. The U.N. Security Council--the cornerstone of the world security architecture--is actually anything but rule-based; it accords its permanent members vast discretion in maintaining peace and security, all while exempting them from effective oversight. At the San Francisco conference establishing the U.N., the big powers negotiated the council's powers exclusively and in secret and then imposed their draft on smaller states.

What's more, Ikenberry glosses over the frequent unilateralism and rule-bending that occurred before 2000. When the Security Council seized up in the late 1940s because of the Soviet veto, the United States broke its basic deal with the Soviet Union and worked through the General Assembly, pretty much in defiance of the U.N. Charter--and when the General Assembly was no longer politically friendly, the U.S. quietly shelved that tactic.

The United States abandoned the Bretton Woods exchange-rate system unilaterally in the early 1970s, leaving the world scrambling for a new monetary order. In Vietnam, the United States had little time for international institutions or for the views of key NATO allies.

The list goes on: Central American interventions under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, airstrikes in Libya, the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and bombings of Iraq and Kosovo without U.N. approval during the Clinton administration. The merits of all these decisions can be debated. But the notion that the United States had been largely restrained by a network of institutions and agreements until George W. Bush arrived is a fiction.

Moreover, Ikenberry's account of the Bush administration is basically about Iraq and a handful of other issues. On Iraq, he seems not even to consider the argument that the war was, in part, an attempt to protect Security Council credibility by ensuring that Iraq not flout its commands. Nor does he produce much evidence that Bush's "Vulcans" were engaged in a broader attempt to restructure international governance. Were they plotting to sabotage the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund? Was the Bush administration hostile to the World Trade Organization or averse to signing free-trade agreements? Ikenberry's notion of what it means for the United States to set itself above the rules is a cramped one.

Ikenberry cites the diplomacy surrounding the International Criminal Court as an example of just that tendency, but even here, the story is more complex than he allows. In effect, the United States has demanded that the ICC not undo the special privilege that permanent Security Council members enjoy on security -- related issues. At the 1998 Rome conference, the United States therefore insisted that the council have the central role in authorizing investigations. That demand was unacceptable to most of the world, which resents the council's privileges in any case, and was rebuffed. U.S. policy may have been mistaken, but was it an example of the United States rejecting international order or merely defending the prevailing one?

If the book's history is spotty, its policy prescriptions are anodyne. Play well with others. Obey the rules. Encourage others to do so. It's all good advice, but it's also easy advice to offer. Ikenberry slides over most tough policy questions. Should NATO bring Georgia into the alliance or would this unnecessarily antagonize Russia? Should the United States actually join the International Criminal Court? Can states intervene in a humanitarian crisis without United Nations approval? There are no answers here.

As a clear and informed synthesis of the existing scholarship on global governance, this book is a success. In other respects, it falls short. Its scope is too vast to deepen our understanding of any particular historical periods or key institutions. Nor does it challenge the conventional wisdom. Regular readers of The New York Times will feel very comfortable, maybe too comfortable, in its pages.