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By Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck, University of London,

I talked with G. John Ikenberry on 22 December 2020 in dramatic dates for the U.S. and the rest of the world during the global pandemic. There is great anxiety and disorientation at the general turbulence and the U.S. appears to be the epicentre, at least in the West democracies, currently under clinical scrutiny. Squalid and squally weather, surely due to climate change, but it is fundamentally political. This interview is finished soon after the storming of the Congress in Washington on 6th of January, in the early moments of transition of the American Presidency from Trump to Biden, with a record number of covid deaths in the world for the U.S., a massive economic fallout, Black Lives Matter unrest, fracture of democratic rules, explosion of misinformation, even strong anti-science tendencies... We are writing the new chapters of the “Revolt of the Masses” announced by the Madrid philosopher a hundred years ago. There are momentous transformations inside and outside America and all models are called into question as they should. There are also calls for restorations.

Our Kansas-born, German-heritage (originally, Eichenberg), Ikenberry (born 1954, 66 years of age) is after the Trump trauma among the latter members of the restoration camp. There is some healthy soul-searching too. From the privileged position of Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University (, he may have a chance to be influential in the next months and perhaps years since there are connections with the Biden administration ( Princeton has made its name on the Democratic side of the U.S. political equation with the Hoover Institution on the other side of the big country, and there are bridges between the two. What will happen in the next few months, years, the next decade, also to the world of ideas and knowledge dealing with the world at large? How does the United States of America fit with the visions of a “post-American world” (a world not dominated by the United States)? What seismic movements are taking place inside and outside in the “RoW” (“rest of the world” as the rubric in International Relations (IR) has it)? What does historical intelligence do when it is automatically (not) tethered to the national interest of this or that powerful nation? Ikenberry is responding to a few questions about these vital matters.

This is a conversation across the pond, in the global North if you wish, with the excuse and the pretext of the recent publication of Ikenberry’s A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order (Yale UP, Sept. 2020; simplified as World Safe for Democracy from now on). Each noun included in the title is important and only one of the five is in the plural form. How so? The three adjectives in the title are also crucial, and the plural form must be the right form, even if the English language allows no variation, but others do, for example, the Romance Languages. The tension is already between the singular and the plural, the lingua franca and all the others, universe and pluriverse, “the one and the many if you wish,” even identity and differences. Let us thus underline the plural modalities of democracies and capitalisms in the many societies in the world in relation to this all-American and English-language-only work of great ambition and considerable scope.

Ikenberry is a celebrated author with a considerable output beginning in the late 1980s. These are his major books: After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (2001, 2019), Liberal Order and Imperial Ambition: American Power and International Order (2005), and Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American System(2011). There are too many articles and collaborations. I highlight these two items that capture the febrile tempo and general sombre mood: the article “The end of the liberal international order?,” International Affairs (94: 1, 2018, pp. 7-23), and the collaborative document “Forging a World of Liberty under Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century:” Final Paper of the Princeton Project on National Security, co-directed by G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter (2006), the association with the latter is a long one, and this document connects Princeton University and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the shade of this U.S. superpower state and its national interest, it is World Safe for Democracy that catches the light of the critical attention.

Fernando Gómez Herrero: There are no Ikenberries on this side of the Atlantic. I would like the initial explanation from you about your name. Where does your name come from? I think I know, but I would like to hear it from you.

John Ikenberry: The name is an Anglicisation of a German name, Eichenberg. The original Ikenberry came to the United States before there was a United States in 1760s from Germany via Switzerland, Peter Eichenberg. That name, which means, Oak Mountain, was anglicised in the Nineteenth Century and the family name unfolded from there.

FGH: Where in the U.S. are you from?

Ikenberry: I grew up in the Mid-West in Kansas. My father is a retired college professor of biology. Our family followed him on his professorial appointments. That’s all very good.

FGH: A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of the Global Order (Yale UP, 2020) [abbreviated as World Safe for Democracy from now on]: your own synthesis.

Ikenberry: This book begins with a question about the character and the state and the crisis of the liberal international order. And it begins as a series of lectures I gave at the University of Virginia in November of 2016 right after the American presidential election. So, I had a fairly subdued audience, should we say, as the election was being processed in people’s heads. During that time, I was asked in these lectures to speak to the crisis of liberal internationalism. And from that point on I decided that the issues were so important. They required us to look not only at the future but also look further into the past to where we’ve come. Basic questions were on my mind when I wrote this book: What is the nature of the international order? Can liberal democracy survive? How can we reconcile and rebalance capitalism and democracy? Is there a future for liberal internationalism as a way of organizing the world? My first move was to take the long view, to look back over the last two-hundred and fifty years at the liberal international project in all of its manifestations, thereby allowing us to note that the post-1989 period is very much an anomaly, when liberal democracy was the only game in town, and the future was very bright for liberal democracy, even perhaps the end of history. But the book really starts with the message that the liberal international experience did not begin then. It did not even begin in 1945. It begins in late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century with the age of democratic revolution. And that larger history of liberal internationalism is one of boom and bust, of crisis and catastrophe, of golden era and breakdown, and of deep contestation between liberal democracy and other rival projects for modernity. One book that really made an impact on me was Desolation and Enlightenment by Ira Katznelson, which tells the story of how liberals in the 1940s rebuilt and reimagined liberal democracy and the world liberal democracy inhabited after the catastrophes of their era, which were manifold: the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism and Totalitarianism, Total War, the Holocaust, the dropping of the Atomic Bomb. And yet even in that darkest hour, there was this effort to rethink, rebuild and find these pragmatic ways to rebuild open societies. To answer your question, the book has three objectives. One is to show the deep roots of liberal internationalism as a way of organizing and thinking about organizing the world, [and] give it a sense of gravitas, which it deserves. It is not just neoliberalism. It is not just Davos thinkers. It is a deeper tradition. Second, to be honest about its accomplishments and failures. I am sure we will talk about that. It has had many accomplishments but of course it is always a work in progress, literally and figuratively. And thirdly, to reposition liberal internationalism for the future; to look at its past and show that it is not all about triumph and marching to a better world. It is about coping with disaster, holding on, trying to preserve the rudiments of freedom, open society and constitutional republican government. And there is a kind of agonistic side to liberalism, agonistic as in the Greek term for struggle, [also] a pragmatic side, a problem-solving side that has been there all along and that once recovered can be used as a reimagined liberal internationalism for the future.

FGH: What do you intend to do in this work? Is it fair to say that in relation to the Liberal International Order, which I may abbreviate as “LIO,” you want to clean it up, fix it and give it splendour?

Ikenberry: I think I want to give it its due as one of the great traditions of modern thought that provides a way of organizing politics and economics on a global scale. To give it its due but to reminder my readers that it has a centre of ideas and projects associated with it that are about managing the crises and opportunities of modernity. I want to suggest that it is a pragmatic, problem-solving world view that is still relevant today and indeed there is really not, I will argue, an alternative grand tradition that is as suitable as this is to tackling the problems of the Twenty-First century.

FGH: One question about the mood in the book. There were moments in which you sounded elegiac, others certainly eulogistic about LIO… One gets the feeling that the Cold War was the Golden Age of U.S. power.

Ikenberry: Yes. There is an elegiac feeling to the book. There was an emotional feeling. [It is] not an obituary notice, but [there is] a sense that we have come through an era and a dear friend of mine is experiencing hard times and I am writing a memoir of my dear friend, reminding him of all that has been done with the idea that it will help fortify us for the future. There is a certain sadness, a steeling ourselves for difficulties, and trying to remind people, who have torn apart the liberal international project, finding its faults, whether it is from the inside of the Western world, or from the outside, that there is this life that has been lived, that this idea has lived a two-hundred-year life. It’s done great things. It’s faced difficulties in the past. But there is a kind of golden glow that I want to continue to have attached to it, even as we enter this period.

FGH: How do you see your discipline of International Relations at this moment? What would the ideal social function of this work be?

Ikenberry: That’s a great question. This work is in some sense trying to speak to the meta-questions of International Relations. It is not a book that is deep down into the trenches fighting wars with other rival theories over who can explain World War One better than the other, or specific patterns of world politics. [This book is really about trying] to illuminate a tradition that has not been really fully illuminated in its comprehensive, multi-century history. So, in some sense it is about excavation and illumination of an approach to international relations, but steeping away from the narrow academic exercise of theory-testing, to try to recover the wider world view in which specific theories and theorists and books and debates have been situated. In the liberal tradition, at least in international relations, there has often been a fragmentation of the tradition. There are people who study the institutions, or democracies, or economic interdependence. Some study Europe; others [study] regionalism, some study international law. And each has its subfield, its own debate and sometimes its own journal. There’s focus on the trees but not on the forest. This is a book about the forest.

FGH: This is about the architecture or the planning of World Safe for Democracy. There are nine chapters in the book: how did you put them together?

Ikenberry: It unfolded organically. The core of the book has a temporal organization to tell the story of liberal internationalism in different eras. Those features are the Nineteenth Century origins of liberal internationalism, the Wilsonian period, which is when where many people have looked for the ideas of liberal internationalism, the Rooseveltian era, which was new for me but I also think it has been understudied for our understanding of the intellectual foundations of liberal internationalism. It is a period in which internationalists who lived through the Wilson era and saw the failures rethought the project into World War Two, I call that the Rooseveltian international period. And, of course, the post-World-War-Two heyday and then the crisis of the post-Cold-War era. Those are five chapters that give a temporal portrait of liberal internationalism and then of course several other chapters are problem oriented. So, the problem of liberal democracy and liberal international relations is very much a chapter on the context, the setting, the deep idea that the foundations of liberal democracy in the Enlightenment, the roots of the tradition, and you might say, the great shifts in the modern world that provided the landscape in which liberal internationalists thought about their projects. And the other preoccupation of the book is how liberal internationalism engaged the story of empire and the modern forms of hierarchy and domination, how liberalism and liberal internationalism are entangled with empire, how do I sort out that entanglement.

FGH: There are four initial quotes. Should we make much of them? Or is it a social scientist who wants a bit of (literary) embellishment?

Ikenberry: They are important for me as evocative of ideas that I carry with me as I wrote the book. The little quote from Pericles conveys this sense of lineage, heritage and inheritance, that we are always working on things that have been worked on before us, and passed on to us. That’s important. The quote by FDR has some significance as well in that here you have an American President, a war-time President, who really finds his country at a point where the future can go any way. We don’t know whether the world as we know it and knew it will survive. Democracy is really at a turning point. And yet there was a sense, even at that darkest hour, that on balance the world had an upward movement. So that conveys a sense of the underlying optimism of the liberal internationalists. It is emblematic of the larger tradition. And it speaks to this theme in the book, one of a handful of themes, what I call “moves,” ways in which I organize the portrait of liberal internationalism, and that is to focus on the problem of modernity as a central point of the last two-hundred years of liberal international thinking.

FGH: The image of the book cover. Is it your choice? Is it a good choice?

Ikenberry: Yes. I brought that to the publisher. It is an iconic photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London surviving the Blitz. It is a symbol of one of the citadels of freedom, you might say, at its darkest moment when it was under siege by fascist bombing.

FGH: I want to make the connection between World Safe and The Crisis ofAmerican Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century that you edited with Thomas J Knock, Anne Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith (Princeton UP, 2009). A lot has happened in the last decade. What has affected your thinking the most? Two or three features…

Ikenberry: The evolution of my thinking from that period has been of several sorts. Number one: much more of a sobering of my understanding of how the world works and where we are going. The optimism of the 1990s has given way in my world. Never before really in that period and in my career, before the most recent years, did I think we needed to worry about the preservation of liberal democracy itself. In that sense the Wilson period was kind of like period in the 1990s in that there was a sense that liberal democracy was winning, that alternative projects were losing, that power could be attached to great ideas that could make the world better. So, it was, how does one exercise power in a way that leverages the advantages and movements that are going your way. That has given way to a much more world-weary understanding that there is very little we can be sure of, not least whether liberal democracy can survive and move forward to realize a greater gain for all those who live inside those societies. We are at a kind of moment that I associate with the period of the 1930s and early 1940s when those great questions were on the table, when there was a sense that the struggle is a struggle over the most fundamental things or deep values about what kind of political systems we want to live in. Can open societies exist in an open world system? That question was not one I worried about in that period in the 1990s. So, that is number one, a kind of much sober view about liberal democracy. I think a more balanced view of America as a global actor. I have taken on board what I call the Left critique of liberal internationalism that I understand the view that the liberal international project is not then uniformly beneficial to the world, that it has dirty hands. It has entangled itself with empire and imperialism and hegemonic projects that aren’t necessarily faithful to the vision of liberal internationalism. So that is another change. So those are the two that, I think, stand out.

FGH: I know you have collaborated with Francis Fukujama or he with you in some projects (the so-called “Forging a World of Liberty under Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century, the Princeton Project on National Security, co-directed with Anne-Marie Slaughter, Final Paper, 27 Sept. 2006). When he articulated the end of history and the TINA (“there is no alternative”) approach back in the 1980s, were you at that time with him in that mode or mood or not?

Ikenberry: That is a great [question]. I think I was more than I am now. I think I am of the view, and I must say I am not entirely disabused of this view. I was of the view and I must say I am of the view in a slightly different way optimistic about liberal democracy as the most functional and legitimate form of governance that I see on way in the world today. So, in that sense I still defend the view that liberal democracy has special features and values that it enshrines and puts it above the others. What has changed, I think, is the view that modernity itself stacks the deck in favour of liberal democracy. So, to go back to this theme of modernity, the high Enlightenment view of liberal democracy, that there is a deep-hidden hand where rationalism, reason, moral rectitude, [that] these deep forces propel the world in the direction of an ever more perfect liberal-democratic future is a view that I do not hold. That has appeared from time to time, [at] the end of the Cold War, may be in certain forms of thinking during the Cold War, the modernization theorists of the Cold-War period, and perhaps some liberal folks after World War One. There have been of course these moments. The view of modernity that I think I hold today is a more tempered view where there is much more need for struggle, agency, tragic choices and politics. Isaiah Berlin’s view that history does not have a libretto, I think, it’s right. But there is a kind of capacity that humans have to build institutions that can bend history in a progressive direction. So, I have not given up on that. It is not as bleak as some have that the liberal project is over. But it is the way that there is always going to be work in progress. It is always going to require politics, agency, coalition building and re-imagination to take it to the next stage.

FGH: We are mostly concerned with international domains or dimensions, but I would like a bit of introspection from you. How do you assess the process of intensification, perhaps degradation and decadence, of the United States in the last decade and perhaps with the focus on the last four years?

Ikenberry: One of the moves in the book that sits alongside the modernity theme is the theme of domestic progressive change. At each moment across the last two-hundred years of liberal internationalism, its greatest moments internationally, when it had the most influence and the most efficacy on the global stage, was when it was tied to domestic movements for social progress, reformed liberalism of the 1920s, the progressive era of the first decades of the Twentieth Century, the New Deal period, the Great Society period of the 1960s and early 1970s, and, in a strange way, the new liberalism of the 1990s of [Tony] Blair and [Bill] Clinton, perhaps. These different phases tie together movements to build together a new and better democratic society at home with the internationalism that tied countries together in cooperative problem-solving. The high point of course and the best example of this was after World War Two when the social democratic movements that transformed domestic systems in Europe, Britain and the United States and elsewhere were tied to building this container of institutions and partnerships internationally to facilitate domestic efforts at building domestic societies. Of course, on the other side of that, when those domestic projects are broken down, internationalism has suffered and indeed that’s where we are today. It has not just been four years. It has really been a decade or two of retrogression in the social compact, the social democratic systems, that have been the core countries of this post-War international order of rising inequality, the breakdown of growth coalitions, the breakdown of class compromise, the erosion of middle-class fortunes. And, of course, the United States is very much at the heart of the unfortunate vanguard of that failure without a national health care system, universal health care, the cradle of inequality is greater than almost any other market society. So, that is all part of the failure. [Donald] Trump has made it worse by further antagonizing the polarizations and divides inside the United States. He made it worse in so many different ways. Whereas some might say, “part of what Trump was elected to do was to attend to the working class. Think about all the promises, we are going to focus on globalization and internationalism, we are going to focus on making American society better to the forgotten Americans.” But, of course, that was all a façade. It was really about stoking cultural wars. The only big national-level accomplishment that went through Congress was the tax cut for the rich. Trump made it worse. And those inequalities and disaffections inside liberal America were made worse by the culture war and the antagonisms that cut across race and ethnicity. We are at a very unhappy moment. And I think it has been brought to a head by the four years of Trump.

FGH: How do you understand the “international”? It may sound almost like a silly question talking to you. Is it a beyond? A plus ultra? A useful or problematic extension? Extroversion, eversion, projection of U.S. foreign policy, or what else?

Ikenberry: Internationalism is something that can be understood apart from the United States. I think it is, and I argue this in the book, a phenomenon that emerges in the Nineteenth Century together with nationalism. Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century is really a period when you see the rise of nation-states, states tied to nations, and identities and institutions that can really be seen as the embodiment of Westphalian sovereign nation-states. And this nationalism, which begins to emerge in the Nineteenth Century, triggers its own “other,” which is internationalism. And they both needed each other in some sense. They were like Siamese twins. You need a nationalism for internationalism and internationalism in some sense presupposes a kind of nationalism because it is inter-governmentalism. It is inter-nationalism. It is not supra-nationalism or globalism beyond the nation-state. It is very much the management of interdependence between nations. So, internationalism begins, I think, to come into its own as a phenomenon in the Nineteenth Century. And it takes many different varieties, some liberal, some not liberal. But the liberal varieties are seen in, for example the free trade movement, the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1840s in Britain, the spread of the free trade movement across the Atlantic world and beyond, the Peace movement, in actors like Richard Cobden, John Bright in Britain are tied both to the trade movement and the peace movement in the sense that integration and trade is part of the project of building a more peaceful, cooperative world. The international law movement. Jurors are mobilized to rethink international law. Of course, the rise of industrial-era imperialism is itself a kind of internationalism: imperial internationalism, which is both different from liberal internationalism but in some sense part of a broader Amazon of movement that all of these different internationalisms are riding on. [There is also] a social-policy internationalism [that] is emerging as nation-states and liberal democracies as social policies developing the administrative states are building regulatory capacities in the face of industrial-era capitalism and the excesses of corporate capitalism bringing it more to heel in the face of social movements inside and across the democratic world. And [there is also] the functional internationalism. We’ve got a mobilised, globalised capitalism. And now we have time zones, regulatory standards that are allowed to synchronize movement of trade and people across time zones and around the world. We have steamships and telegraphs that allow us to coordinate activity on a global scale. All of this is a kind of mobilisation of the world out of the kind of vanguard Western societies and with it a kind of internationalism that is both a normative and pragmatic, imperial and liberal. It is providing the woof and webbing for international society. That is the background, I think, that creates the projects of liberal internationalism.

FGH: Would this be a kind of institutionality, a world wide web, a network? You seem to operative at that (general) level. It is not the case that you go to one organization or one institution that you like and you give us a through reading of it. You like to have a more general plateau of things and you talk about a generalist vision of world-wide-web interconnectivity. So, that would be internationalism. Is this what you are getting at?

Ikenberry: There is much more of a theory of how it is emerging and evolving focused on three things primarily: the rise of liberal democracies, which are given a particular directionality and impulse to internationalism. They are societies that in some sense see each other as peers and need each other as fellow organizers of the world because they, as liberal democracies, cannot survive alone. So, there is a directionality to internationalism called forth by liberal democracies themselves. Secondly, there is this global transition from empire to nation-state that I talked about that is creating its own kind of dynamic leading to a kind of organization imperative to re-establish order in a post-imperial world, to give order based on sovereign units rather than grand imperial projects. Thirdly, there is escalations or cascades of interdependence that are being generated by science and technology and industrialism that make it necessary for these liberal-democratic units that are now increasingly part of a set of peer nation states interacting with each other to ever more intensely organize their interdependence, economic, security and environmental. So, world wide web does not get at the structures and modernizing forces that are giving directionality to the organizational projects of liberal internationalism.

(Ahn Hoon photography, The Korea Herald)

FGH: With so much xenophobia out there, would you like to give me a good example of xenophilia in your book? In other words, internationalism must engage with foreignness. As a knowledge producer in relation to your book, do you have an example in which John Ikenberry learns from foreignness and brings that good knowledge into the vision of liberal international order?

Ikenberry: Definitely, foreignness comes into the story of liberal internationalism in different ways. I have to say that the book is written, you might say, from the inside out in the sense that it is about liberal democracies. It is trying to emphatically argue in a way that I don’t feel it has been fully argued in the past that liberal internationalism is about making the world safe for democracies. So, there is a sense of “we” in the democratic world have things to do together and we better do them together otherwise we are going to be losers [and] lose things we value. So, there is a kind of inside-out process that is part of the approach. It is in that sense different from one of the great rivals to liberal internationalism, realism, which does not start from a particular set-up of state or type of state. My type of state is liberal democracy. Realism starts with states and anarchy. Something that can be studied in Ancient Greece or the various rivalries in classical Chinese history. You can study international relations wherever there is anarchy. In that sense, liberal internationalism is more the scope of what it has to say and who it has things to say to is more limited. That’s the first point. In that sense, if you are a liberal internationalist, you don’t wake up in the morning and the first you say is, “What about China?” You are really asking the question, “How can we strengthen the fabric of relationships among liberal democracies so that those countries can survive in a hostile world?” The second impulse that gets you to talk about China is that there is an openness to the liberal international project that does not make it simply a close system. It is forever thinking about you expand, include and evolve in a way that brings more of the world that wants to be inside of a liberal international order into its system. Think about liberalism and liberal democracy for a moment. The American founding, one of the first liberal democracies, which does not yet at its founding use that name. It is a Republic. In fact, the American founders were not happy about the word democracy. Democracy had a negative connotation. That was Athens. That was the majoritarian system that could potentially jeopardize stable republican rule. Again, the founders did not include whole classes of people as members or voting citizens: women, slaves, men who did not have property… But, over time, the liberal international vision, and the liberal democratic vision I should say, brought more and more of society into its hold. That is what the Civil War was fought over, ultimately. And, of course, the spread of the franchise, the amendments to the constitution. We are celebrating the centennial of the rights for women to vote. So, there is a kind of ongoing unfolding. The work is never finished. We have an imperfect union. And our job is to make it more perfect. So, too, internationally, the liberal international project is about building, expanding, improving, inviting in. Think about the end of the Cold War inviting countries on the East, who formally were in the Soviet space into the European Union, NATO. So, there is a kind of openness that obviously China saw as an invitation it could take advantage of. Join the WTO. Becoming part of this multilateral order. So it is at some level kind of an evolutionary system that does not put an ironclad wall around itself and excludes those on the outside.

FGH: World Safe for Democracy is a very ambitious vision of the world in the last two centuries and you engage with no less than “world order.” How do you get to it? What would you say about your own perspective or angle of vision? What is your observational platform?

Ikenberry: I am very sympathetic to the liberal international tradition. So, John Ikenberry in this book is excavating, rehabilitating, illuminating, repositioning a body of ideas and projects that sprawled out over the last two centuries tied to the rise of liberal democracy. I am very sympathetic to those ideas and projects and I am trying in this book to understand where they came from, what they entail, how they can be reinvented and re-imagined for the Twenty-first century. My starting point is very much the starting point of the book, which is, we have these liberal-democratic societies that have within them a certain kind of Enlightenment ideas that I think are worthy of preservation, rule of law, accountable government, freedom of speech, independent judiciary, transparency of institutions, civil society that is beyond the reach of the surveillance state… Think of these as a cluster of values or features of polities that you want to preserve. So, the starting point for my analysis is, “What have these societies done? What kind of an international order have they created over their two-hundred-year history of the liberal international period?” So, that’s my answer to your question, starting with a series of ideas and projects and looking at what they have done with those ideas and projects and how they might be re-imagined for the Twenty-First century.

FGH: Do you want to admit to any limitations or even handicaps in the book?

Ikenberry: My very first statement to you, the second of the three objectives, was about [that]. The first objective was about showing the deep roots and the gravitas of this way of thinking and acting in the world. The second goal was to show the accomplishments and the failures of the liberal international approach to the world order. And in that regard that is where you are focused now. And what I think the book shows is that the failures have been there all along: in the Nineteenth century, failures of complicity with racism and imperialism, civilizational hierarchies, and in the period of American hegemonic dominance, failures of liberal internationalists’ complicity with military interventionism, and the third basket of failures, we might say, the neo-liberal turn in liberal-democratic societies that has brought forth the kinds of maladies that we talked about earlier, the inequalities and injustices, that are tearing liberal democracies apart today.

FGH: In the previous question I was thinking about your own modus operandi. You are holding a conversation with a very narrow dimension of the “liberal West.” I do not see you having conversations with the French, the Germans, the Latin Americans… You are mostly within the Anglo-American community. And I suppose you will say to me, “well, Fernando, I cannot talk with everyone…” I am going to say it at the anecdotal level, “we are looking at the Olympic Games, and we are only focusing on the American athletes. We see what they say, we see some highlights, we see some grand names, we see them winning, at times it is a tough winning, in some cases they do not win the race, but the limelight is on them exclusively.” That is why I asked you before about the international world. There is a thunderous silence about the world. Even within the West, which you called it the vanguard, it is a very narrow Anglo-American Eurocentric understanding and vision of the West. At the level of bibliography, I do not see you opening up to different conceptions of democracy... I do not know if you find that fair.

Ikenberry: I think that’s true. It is a book written in a particular vernacular. It is definitely focused on the Anglo-American era. Pax Britannica. Pax Americana. Again, the liberal internationalist ideas that I am trying to capture in this book are ideas that have had their greatest impact under the auspices of these two Nineteenth and Twentieth-century hegemonic eras. So, I am sort of forced to give them prominence by virtue of their historical prominence. In that sense I am admitting what you are saying. It is not a book that comes out of a deep reading of Latin American history or French pluralism… Although the story encompasses those stories and countries in various ways that make it more than simply the story of Anglo-America. Europe as a project becomes very important in this book. And if you look at the liberal hegemonic era: it is really about the transformation of industrial societies across the world and within the West it is as much about continental Europe as it is about Anglo-America. It is about Japan, South Korea and countries that are making liberal-democratic transitions. But I want to make another point in response to your very provocative but very perceptive critique and that is that I am trying in this book to separate liberal internationalism from specific historical actors. I am trying to separate the dancer from the dance. It is a book about ideas. I am trying, partly, to detach the ideas from specific power formations to suggest that there is something more globally relevant to the ideas. It is not just a history of Britain in the Nineteenth Century and America in the Twentieth Century. There is something brilliant about these ideas that makes them important for the world to the extent that the world is a post-imperial world of rising inter-dependence.

FGH: When you say that you want to separate the dancer from the dance, is it fair to say that your methodology is one of idealism in World Safe for Democracy? You say you want to disembody those ideas. I am also saying this in relation to a working paper that you have on your website in which you appear to be repeating Louis Hartz’s vision of the U.S. decades later (I have in mind the working paper, “Culture and Foreign Policy: The American Liberal Tradition and Global Order Building,” dated 9 Sept. 2014).

Ikenberry: I find that comment surprising because I see it much more as an anti-idealist book. At one point we have been talking about how I fit into the IR community. There is a categorization of IR theories that came out of the Post-World-War-Two rise of professional IR field that said that the great debate was between realism, very much looking at power and capabilities of states, and idealism, which is how liberalism was understood, Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, international law… There was a sense that that tradition was an idealist tradition, even bordering on utopianism. And that framing of the IR field was codified by the E.H. Carr of the Twenty Years Crisis, where he saw the liberals, Woodrow Wilson first and foremost, but also the British liberals of that period, as idealists. My book is an emphatic rejection of that framing: liberal internationalism is about managing material reality, modernity, manifest as economics, security and environmental interdependence, and that in fact realism is more of a utopian project based on exaggerated focus on anarchy and power politics. And that misses the material reality that has mattered most in the last two-hundred years, which is this industrial modernizing world of interdependence that has put liberal democracies in a position where they can both take advantage of it and protect themselves and safeguard themselves from its most dangerous implications.

G John Ikenberry, copyright Princeton University.

FGH: Why is the Liberal International Order currently in such big trouble? Who are the bad guys?

Ikenberry: A chapter in the book talks about the post-Cold-War crisis of liberal internationalism and of the international order and there are multiple sources of crises. In some sense I think the crisis is less about the rivals in the horizon, which include China, and think we need to talk more about China in a little bit, what kind of challenge it presents to the liberal internationalism and liberal order. But the crisis is in some sense in my view a crisis of success. Liberal internationalism had this golden era during the Cold War when liberal internationalism was inside a larger global system defined by bipolarity and a two-world contest between a Soviet, Communist project of modernity and a free-world project of modernity and that these two rivals were competing for decades and, in some sense, one won and one lost. And, by the 1990s, there wasn’t an alternative to liberal internationalism out there. And what happened was that there was a globalization of the liberal project. Countries wanted to transition into it, whether they were Eastern European countries wanting to join the EU and NATO, the Latin American countries throwing off authoritarian and military dictatorships, and in East Asia, South Korea, making a transition from military dictatorship, Taiwan, moving to democracy from the Kuomintang (KMT) period, Thailand, Indonesia… There was the so-called “third wave of democratisation” that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s that in some sense presented the liberal order with the kind of opportunity to expand, and of course as I said earlier, at the heart of liberal internationalism there is an invitation to include more, to involve an ever-better union, whether inside or in between these countries. At the heart of the DNA of liberal democracies, there is this story of imperfection needing for projects to make the liberal international system ever more inclusive, and more just and comprehensive. So, all of that augured in favour of a post-Cold-War expansion of the liberal project. The failure, or the problem, or the crisis, comes precisely at that moment of triumph, when ever more societies are connecting to the liberal order, including countries that have not yet fully transitioned towards liberal democracy. That is really Russia and China. So, the crisis, the bad guys in the story of the breakdown or the failure of liberal internationalism is a failure of success, a kind of expansion and globalization of liberal internationalism that led to a breakdown of the underlying political bargains and institutions that supported the liberal international order. That’s my punchline: a crisis of success, a Karl-Polanyi problem or crisis rather than a E. H. Carr crisis, a crisis of mobilization of a system that overruns its foundations. As I say in the book, you get a glimpse of the character of my argument by suggesting that the liberal order turned from its old foundation from being a kind of club of Western liberal democracies, the G-7 countries, which include Japan, Western Europe, and North America, the kind of core club of democracies, to something that is global, kind of shopping mall, where countries could come in to the liberal order and join parts of it. They could join the WTO, but not necessarily the OECD… There was a breakdown in the underlying logic of the order, from the club logic to the shopping-mall logic or the public utility. That’s my underlying story: countries could come in without the old logic of the club, what I call the “logic of conditionality.” If you are going to be a member of the Liberal Order you need to buy into a suite of obligations, rights and responsibilities. It is like the EU. You are going to be a member? You are going to be buying into a set of responsibilities and obligations. And if you are not buying into them, you are not going to be part of it. The Liberal Order lost that “order of conditionality” and states could come in opportunistically, get what they wanted, but not necessarily, actively support the overall framework and foundations.

FGH: I understand that you have to be careful with the language. You would not go as far as saying that the bad guys have clearly been the U.S. and Britain for example in the Iraq war…

Ikenberry: Without using the term “bad guys,” the failure of the Order is as much a failure from the inside as it is from the outside. The breakdown of the bargains and the social contracts, the growth coalition of the class compromises inside these industrial democracies… Those were the things we were talking about earlier. That is where all comes down to. If these countries had been able to reproduce those bargains and coalitions, compromises and contracts, we would not be here, so to speak. There would not be the crisis, even with China and Russia on the outside doing their best to undermine the Order. It is really a breakdown from inside that is really the more profound challenge.

FGH: The terminology of “liberal” is most often used inside Anglo-American circles. This question is about helping me understand for the sake of the wider public. You attach the adjective “liberal” to important nouns (democracy, West, capitalism, etc.). So, “liberal” in 2020-21, for you it is not neoliberal. You are resisting the word “neoliberal.” That is globalization and that is bad.

Ikenberry: The term “liberal” has so many meanings… The book invites confusion. Why liberal? What do you mean by liberal? And what liberal means is different in the Nineteenth Century and the Twentieth Century. It is different in Europe, the United States… That is definitely a confusion that requires some careful attention by me and by the readers.

FGH: But you still believe that “liberal” has analytical value and capabilities. It is not merely a shibboleth and you use the sign that behaves like a brand or a mark so that people on the politically Conservative, Republican side know that you are on the Democratic side… It is more than setting up boundaries in the IR discourse… You still believe that using the word “liberal” in an international arena allows you for analytical capabilities in 2020-21 [that other terminologies would not].

Ikenberry: Yes, I do, in some sense more than ever before because you can see more of the world that exists outside of that term, the “illiberal world” has more activity and weight to it politically around the world, so the word “liberal” is still doing a lot of work as a signifier of a type of politics that is expansive, capacious, multifaceted… Even as there is debate inside of itself as well as with others on the outside as with any tradition of international relations and narrative of the global order. So, liberalism, as you know, and as you refer to in your question, means different things. To some it means laissez faire capitalism, the modern version of that would be neoliberalism, and for others means the social welfare state. It is a big tent. On balance, it helps illuminate ideas and projects that can be seen as within it and in showing where the boundaries are to demarcate those outside of it, despite the ambiguities.

FGH: And John Ikenberry is going down with it. There is no plan B.

Ikenberry: (Laughter). That’s right. Let me make one caveat or one footnote to that. And that is, when liberal internationalists go out into the world, and engaged illiberal states, when I speak with my Chinese friends about world order, I don’t cut corners and sand off edges and say I am not in the first instance interested in building and preserving the democratic world. But I find one can make headway in conversations with those outside the liberal international camp coming down one level of generality to more particular values: rule of law, autonomous civil society, accountable government, freedom of the press… In other words, one can come one level down and say, “do you agree with this or that? Let us not use the word “liberal,” let us talk about a bundle of values and principles that are potentially available to describe and organize political orders, domestic and international, which ones do you buy into?; which ones do you disagree with?” I think you can have useful conversations without using the word “liberal.” And those conversations are particularly useful with those who are confused by the term “liberal” or who might, quite frankly, see themselves as part of the “illiberal” world.

FGH: I understand, but for example, if we have in mind the people at the Hoover Institution, I do not know if you have been up there, or someone like Robert Kagan, who uses the terminology of the “liberal West,” who is very different from you… I am sure when they look at you they may think “feel free to talk about liberal as much as you want, it is a nice embellishment, but when it comes down to conflict, you will be close to us against the Chinese…” They will not see liberal holding much analytical power except for demarcation of different schools of thought inside the IR enclaves and inside U.S. politics… I am reconstructing a type of thought of those who would not be you and they would call themselves conservatives, Republicans, realists...

Ikenberry: I use liberal internationalism to define a body of ideas and projects that are not simply found in the centre-left democratic world. The term is not synonymous with the way the term is used to define domestic liberals and conservatives. There are conservatives, there are Republicans, for certain, that would see themselves as living inside and supporting a liberal internationalist world view. It is a bigger tent. Over two-hundred years, there is a ongoing debate over who’s in and who’s out. Are neo-liberals in or out? Neo-conservatives, in or out? Those are definitely boundary questions where there is never a final resolution. It is an ongoing conversation about who’s in and who’s out. Are we in the same project or not? I don’t find it useful to develop a dogma that finally settles who’s in and who’s out. On balance, one of the interesting things about liberal internationalism as a body of ideas and projects is that it is capacious and to be efficacious in the world it has found itself affiliating with projects and social formations and geopolitical hegemonic projects that don’t buy into the full slate of ideas, but see it as useful. During the Cold War, liberal internationalist ideas were for means rather than ends. Those who took America into Iraq, they may have been some liberal internationalists who were part of that coalition, but there were others who saw it as primordially a hegemonic project and liberal internationalist ideas were more a façade. It was really about maintaining American primacy in the Middle East, making sure Saddam Hussein did not challenge America’s hegemonic dominance in that region. That is not a liberal internationalist project. But liberal internationalism was brought into the framing of what was going on there.

FGH: That’s what the anthology I mentioned earlier is all about. You and your group at Princeton are trying to defend the good name of Wilson or [at least fight against] the misuses of Wilsonianism. Paying attention to a more subdued tone, without reaching contrition, without big statements or proclamations, yet admitting to the limitations: what would you say if I said that World Safe for Democracy is in essence a reprise of neo-Wilsonianism, a kind of a Wilsonian encore? You are probably going to say no.

Ikenberry: (Chuckle). You are starting to get to know me. The most fundamental move of the book, and we talked about modernity and the domestic corollary to liberal internationalism, is the notion of safety. It is more about safety and the re-reading of Wilson’s iconic phrase, “to make the world safe for democracy,” as I say in the preface to the book, that has been read across the generations since Wilson as an idealistic statement about spreading democracy worldwide, about bringing the fruits and blessings of liberty to all distant shores, whereas that phrase, “creating the world safe for democracy,” can be read differently, and more literally, as creating conditions to make liberal democracy safe, those that are democracies. I think that is a fairly important reframing of liberal internationalism and of Wilson. Whether Wilson believed in Versailles, my contention is that over two-hundred years, the notion of creating a world that will allow for democracy to be safe captures more of what was going on and, quite frankly, what needs to go on forward.

FGH: Who is doing Wilson with you? Who is joining forces with you? I do not see many voices singing Wilsonian, not the Republicans, a few internationalist Democrats. You must have seen it, it came out this Saturday, the Financial Times gave a very easy review of your book (Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, “Free thinking,” 20 Dec 2020), and Chatham House will give you the easy space too. But I do not honestly think that the international world within the West that I am familiar with is singing the praises of Wilson.

Ikenberry: I want to be clear that a careful reader of the book will not see John Ikenberry singing the praise of Wilson. I see him as a tragic figure, almost Periclean, morally blind. I grapple with his racism. I think, as you know, he is not a hero in the book. He is, as I said, a tragic figure who failed to fully embrace what might have latter become a fuller vision of liberal internationalism during the Roosevelt generation. I see this book as very much re-centring liberal internationalism away from Wilson. I would not live and die or sink or swim on Wilson’s standing in the world today. If he sinks, I still swim.

FGH: (Chuckles). I agree. Good. I suppose that “safety” is the terminology to use in the shade of the Leviathan today. It seems to me that the book conveys a sense of the circling of the wagons around the liberal society that you want to vindicate. You move away from equality and egalitarianism. You use from time to time the word “equity,” which is peculiar. I suppose “safety” is the value one has to invoke now to “rally the troops” around you. I agree with what you do with Wilson. We are in 2020. I mean, Wilson’s racism is well known, watching Birth of the Nation [the classic 1919 film by D.W. Griffith] in the White House, a wonderful anecdote never to forget, yet in your bibliography and your approach to Wilson you always follow the white Anglo engagement with Wilson and you still give him a central spot in the chorus line. If you had approached him from a different angle, it would have been even harsher. I suppose that you would tell me, “I [simply] want to build that genealogy…It is clearly an important moment in my own heritage and we are building the parallel 2020 to 1920, with enough depth to try to wiggle and see different options…” You are looking at your own society and you are looking at the intellectual tradition that you want to identify with, you are sensing trouble, turmoil, you clearly acknowledge deficiencies, you want to push that [tradition] forward, and you say very carefully at the end of the book that it [this “Liberal Order”] may become a sub-regional area of the world. You talk about the two-orders. It is as though you were envisioning an immediate future of one-to-three decades in which your advocacy of LIO is going to be second or even third to something else…

Ikenberry: You have picked up on something very important in the book. I haven’t resolved it. I leave the book with a certain open-endedness about how this internal liberal-democratic world which I think has to be rebuilt for reasons we have been talking about which I can say a little bit more about, how that world interacts with the world beyond it. You are correct to say that I follow the implications of my argument to what seems to be the conclusion, which is that liberal democracies, if they want to preserve their values and their social purposes and if they want to create a working relationship, or if they want to create an ecosystem or environment internationally, where they can grapple with their unending problems of how they reconcile their own societies, their commitment to liberty and equality, individualism and community, sovereignty and interdependence, they have to have a working international order around them to do that. They are uniquely vulnerable because they are open societies that are trying to live in an open system. So, that is another reason why they have to think about their ecosystem or environment. And they are also uniquely committed to a certain type of fabric of international relations. John Rawls, among others of course, made the observation that countries that have constitutionalized the rule of law, that they celebrate that as a deeply felt commitment to a polity principle that is not capable of being negotiated away, the rule of law, a rules-based society, that everyone, including the state itself, is subservient to the rule of law, those kinds of society have an unusual respect for international relations based on the rule of law as well. So there are multiple reasons why these states, we will call them liberal societies, want to create a type of international order that countries that are not liberal societies don’t care about. There is a subset of values and relations that are not global that these countries have. To put it this way: liberal democracies have a series of social purposes that cannot be sustained in a Westphalian order when these liberal democracies are not cooperating among themselves. So, to go simply one’s own way, just Westphalian all the way down, and all the way up, and after cooperating with China, and global warming is more important than preserving a commitment to a certain set of human rights, or political-economic, labour and environmental standards, inside of these countries, then, that is a different world. But if you do think that you want to build a higher more exacting international order, it can’t be a global order, because those values will not survive in that global order. They have to survive in a congenial subset system of countries that believe in those values. That is the reason why liberal internationalism is not a global system, until and at last all of the world is populated by countries like that and that is not the way it is today and indeed it is going in the other direction. That is why you get the sense of “circling the wagons” implication to this theory.

FGH: And the moment is particularly delicate because if you look at Brexit Britain, it is not endorsing the type of vision that you are envisioning and obviously now the U.S. is coming out of the tremendously traumatic Trump experience in the hopes that it is going to be some healing and some return to at least wanting to uphold and defend the ideals that you are also upholding and defending against the previous two decades… I suppose it is a recognition of an inner vulnerability and fragility that does not allow for bombast or excessive music or loud proclamations. It is a mood or a mode, as you said before, that is more [sober] and subdued, I do not know whether to call it more mature…

Ikenberry: Yes. I think [that]s right]. The words in the book are world-weary, sober, cautious, defensive… A liberalism for hard times. A liberalism for winter rather than spring. Those are some of the terms that try to convey the sense of repositioning for the storms that are upon us.

The Interview took place on the 22nd Dec. 2020. Transcription, edition, final-version completion by FGH on the 21 January 2021, Warwick, UK.

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