Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Realism, liberalism and the world order

The liberal world order may be in crisis, but there are no better options with which to replace it

I recently read a most interesting debate in an old issue (May/June 2014) of the influential US magazine Foreign Affairs opposing US academics Walter Russell Mead and John Ikenberry.

Mead’s paper was entitled “The Return of Geopolitics: the Revenge of the Revisionist Powers”, and Ikenberry’s “The Illusion of Geopolitics: the Enduring Power of Liberal Order”. Mead’s title indicates his two main ideas. The first is that we (Americans and Europeans) thought that after the collapse of the former Soviet Union global governance would supplant old-fashioned geopolitics.

We thought it had been proven that countries that wanted to rise had to adopt our democratic and capitalist model, and that if they did so they would no longer have any interest in toppling us. We were wrong. We now risk losing the “battle for Eurasia”, Mead says.

His second idea is that owing to our blindness, revisionist powers such as Russia, China and Iran have made major gains that have “undermined the Eurasian geopolitical order in ways that complicate US and European efforts to construct a post-historical, win-win world”. We should draw the conclusion that geopolitics are more relevant than the project of establishing a liberal world order.

Ikenberry’s answer to these ideas is a sophisticated one. First, he says, the liberal world order is well-tailored to American geopolitical needs. Geographically, the US is isolated, and as a result it needs free trade, free circulation and open frontiers. Second, the liberal order is healthy, alive and kicking, and in progress. Third, the US is by far the strongest country in the world. Russian and Iranian activism is a proof of weakness, not a sign of strength. Despite all appearances, US hegemony is stronger than ever. It is more powerful, more creative, and more dynamic than the three so-called revisionist powers, and it has many more friends and allies. Democracy is progressing in the world.

Lastly, neither Russia nor China nor Iran can be called “revisionists”. They don’t have the means, they don’t have the ideas, and they don’t have the projects to enable them to change the rules of the game and the nature of the world order. They want a “greater say” in it and nothing more, Ikenberry argues.

My guess is that Mead should have drawn a distinction between the “liberal order” and complacency or blindness. I think he is right when he criticises the irenist world view that prevailed during the 1990s and when he has harsh words for former US president Barack Obama’s passivity and underestimation of threats and their impacts. I also think he is right when he says that this complacency, sometimes verging on stupidity, have allowed some powers to challenge the US, at least regionally, and when he says that the world is now a more dangerous place and American mistakes are partially responsible for this.

On this count, Ikenberry’s arguments are not entirely convincing. Of course, the balance of power is hugely in favour of the US, and of course, as he rightly emphasises, America is (or was) extremely good at building alliances. Neither Russia nor China nor Iran can match it on this count. Moreover, none of the so-called revisionist countries can win the battle of ideas or that of hearts and minds, and none can even plausibly envision a change in the liberal order.

But a very strong position does not allow you to permanently bungle. And a succession of bad foreign policies (swinging from one extreme to another) has consequences. It is no secret that US presidents George W Bush and Obama badly damaged Washington’s credibility. And, like it or not, credibility matters. If, as expected, this trend of declining credibility continues, many countries will reconsider their options. Of course, those countries that need military protection do not have many options, at least for now. But I am not so sure that China will perpetually remain self-centred, as Ikenberry seems to think.

Ikenberry says the liberal order is necessary for America’s geopolitical interests, and he also writes that the American model (a combination of democracy and capitalism) has more appeal than anything Russia, China and Iran can propose. I would concur on both of these statements. Nevertheless, things are more complex than they may appear, and many American voters beg to differ on the first.

Globalisation has lost much of its appeal. And if I readily concede that most countries would prefer an alliance with the US to any other option, this is because America remains by far the strongest and most powerful country in the world. Russia and Iran do not and cannot play in the same league. America’s political model is not the key variable.

What can we learn from this? America is by far the most powerful country in the world. The liberal world order is in crisis and may be in bad shape, but nobody has a credible “Plan B”. Dismantling that order is neither a plausible nor an interesting option. In themselves this liberal order and the spread of democracy are not guarantees of American hegemony. Neither China nor Russia — and Iran is far weaker — can change the rules of the game. But they can use them to rise.

Of course, Russia may win some battles, but it will probably lose the war, as Ikenberry writes. However, things are less clear regarding China, and the world is doubtless a more dangerous place today, notably in Asia where there are many nuclear countries (India, Pakistan, Russia, China and North Korea) than it once was.

Jihadism is another very serious threat.

Obama once said that as a realist he had a vested interest in creating and sustaining a world order ruled by law as military force could not solve all problems. He was right. But the sentence can be reversed: if you think the liberal world order deserves to be preserved, you must accept that it needs to be actively protected. Rightly or wrongly, many states have an old-fashioned realist approach to international affairs, and they must be prevented from causing considerable damage.

The fact that many countries tend to be free-riders on security and defence issues does not change these harsh realities.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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