May 22, 2024

The Unsustainablity Of American Power – A Sustained Critique of G. John Ikenberry (Fernando G. Herrero), Part 1

G. John Ikenberry’s article “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” deserves a close reading. This very visible International-Relations (IR) modality of knowledge production, unlike postmodern and postcolonial competitors, does not shy away from making big or outrageous claims to the totality of social existence or the globality of political life, call them “foreign” affairs (whenever the word “world” shows up typically in the subordinate position to a predictable dominator).

The article colludes “idealism” and “realism,” conventional division in IR fields one should not hold dear. Its prose is propagandistic and desiderative over apodictic or demonstrative. Masks off: this is about “American power.” Let us parse this grammar somewhat slowly.

The fundamental structure is a “we-they” in which America-West-liberal is unbroken identity series or virtuous triple triad. And there is a perceptible debilitation in the “West” portion with no inside dissenting voices breaking rank, let alone outsiders. Who appoints Ikenberry to be a good representative of that West in the first place, remains a legitimate question that lingers until the end. How come he claims monopoly of power / knowledge also lingers, worryingly. I bring instant warning signs to the subject position in the article (the enunciator or first person singular or plural, the collection of readers and interpreters interpellated, the “we,” in the suggestion of an agreement or even a working complicity with the author’s ideas and goals, which is a different type of phenomenon from the “mere” grammatical subject position in the sentence typically in agreement with the main verb of the sentence as the closing line of my article at least in my interpretation will make crystal clear). I am not in that “we.”

And I suggest to the reader that neither should s/he be, whether s/he is Western or American or liberal or any of those nouns that demand a sustained interrogation inside expansive frames of intelligibility that do not stop at national borders. Perspective or angle of vision and the construction of political belligerence are always at stake, here, too. Ikenberry’s construction of an ideal community is at any rate put against others (i.e. sceptical readers, the others, the two main culprits, China and Russia, the East, the neglected global South, etc.). Europe is not mentioned much. But it is clearly a docile and subordinate allied position, launching pad of American power, or even chorus girls to the diva.

Ikenberry’s profession of internationalism is at the core a methodological nationalism devoid of economics. “Capitalism” shines in its absence.  “Security” now assumes a central role. If the term “nationalism” remains obscene, it is largely –falsely– what the others do. In fairness, there is some recognition of the internal problems in the U.S., and how could this not be the case in the last decade? But our IR author exonerates his own powerful nation and his prose glides and slides: Uncle Sam, qua allegorical figure, here skates between nation, state, society and “power.” The rink is all his. The figure jumps from one noun to the next and back and forth and never breaks his neck, his ”sins” do not break him either, rest assured, according to our social scientist.

The U.S. remains the only game in town. Other allegorical figures are not approached significantly except for the quick denigration or vituperation without further ado. Two take the cake. No prize for you if you already the names of the culprits. Our “good liberal” messenger is decipherer of world affairs in the last one hundred years. “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is elite history, of the “winners of history” variety that requires no nuance or poetry, slight reformulations. This is a kind of Apologética Historia Sumaria that grants, unlike Bartolomé de Las Casas who challenged his own sources of authority greatly, no intelligence to the rivals or competitors (spectators and non-aligned others are ignored).

Such IR knowledge production kneels like gracious menina to the will of the prince, who represents the most powerful nation on earth, for now, which is also a state, and a society of irresistible force, apparently. Such conflation of state-nation-society is to be dislodged from now on. The article never opens up to a quorum of voices. Ikenberry’s small world is something of a primitive allegorical play of virtues and vices on some imaginary stage as it is rendered in the global American lingua franca without “languages,” but never movingly. Conveniently, our IR scholar occupies –undisturbed, impassive, apparently imperturbable– the role of virtue and knowledge. If the others are full of vices, they will remain at a safe distance like lepers in the old times or those with the covid virus of original China provenance in ours. Two of these others are at the top, China, Russia –predictably– inside the dark clouds of illiberalism. Now they are “brazen.”

Emotional intensities and dark passions are all theirs. Aggression is theirs (they are the ones “rush[ing] forward to aggressively challenge”). A second identity chain predictably surfaces: U.S. hegemony, liberalism and democracy. These are four big nouns begging explanation, but never mind. The basic  message is that there is no serious decline, no fatal crisis in the “order.” The sleight of hand: the U.S. is not personalized in the name of the leader (Biden is mentioned fleetingly once), but the rivals visibly are (Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, no Europeans, no other Asians, no Latin Americans, etc.). If the mention of the King’s head suggests the chop off, symbolically speaking, we are with the generality of allies and rivals. The foreignness of the names automatically conveys pernicious connotations from the perspective of the contemporary American idiom.

If the typical American temperament is never introspective nor pessimistic publicly, neither is our Princeton scholar who recommits to the belief system that has sustained him all along. This article is propaganda fidei. His IR knowledge is identity of “empire” and study, although the first term is somewhat disavowed, unless it is by “an invitation” as we will see soon (translatio imperii et studii is the Latinate that inserts this type of social-science inside vaster timespaces). And to vaster timespaces we must go.

No fine brush stroke is needed however, apparently: Empire is awkward terminology suggestive of force, coercion, brute “strength” sometimes, like the bad deeds of past imperial powers. The U.S. is different. It draws its “power” from those awkward terms but also from “ideas, institutions and values that are completely woven into the fabric of modernity.” No postmodernity –that is the gardem of humanists and aesthetes—and no neo-liberalism either, which is ruthless version of modernity that our IR scholar would not endorse publicly.

Coloniality is always missing in action, probably hiding in the pockets of “the global South” also gone missing. “The global order the U.S. has built” is “a world system, a sprawling multifaceted political formation rich in vicissitudes that creates opportunity for people across the planet.” People, the vague noun, is used 14 times. The non-specificity of the final relative clause is classic apologetics in Ikenberry. The sentence says nothing. It is weasel phrase and filler. This world system is like a bastard child, unnamed (“capitalism” is not used once). Events will be many. Vicissitudes, you bet. The sentence has zero content except for the nationalistic self-affirmation of a restless U.S.

What triggers the defensiveness of this apologetic writing? Russia’s war in Ukraine, probably, but there is also China’s ascendency, although our analyst does not want to give them too much space or credit. Ikenberry adjectivizes the reaction to that war as “global.” So, this one does not help. The allegorical dance, the US and its rivals, China and Russia, follows –without explanation— from the mention of the said war. Cause and effect or vice versa? But how do we connect the dots? And what map do we see out there? Apologetics: seventy-five years of U.S.-led order, “open, multilateral, and anchored in security pacts and partnerships with other liberal democracies,” is now pitted against that of China and Russia “dethron[ing] Western liberal values.”

Weary lies the head that wears the crown, wearier still without, but if it does, it is not yet or at least it does not emotionally say so. The whole point of the article is the subtitle: the no decline of the endurance. Hence, the article is measured, phlegmatic, respectably academic for the general public. There is convention of  Karl-Popperism in this American idiom: “I am open, you are not.” These rivals are “more hospitable to regional blocs, spheres of influence, and autocracy.” Ideology of free flows, no frictions of transnational capitalism as long as the subject position, the allegorical Uncle Sam, runs the general show. And what happens when it does not?

That’s the rub that the article does not want to address head-on. A predictable manicheanism lies in the “solution:” liberal democracy is one type of order, the one defended by our author, authoritarian rule is the other order. We do not know if we are in a war of positions, of alleged or exposed sabotage, cold war or dirty war or sanctions, open and less open, morbid symptoms, sovereignty challenged and interregnum. There is one open confrontation, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and there is multiple positioning around it. The formula of “authoritarian rule versus liberal democracy” is one convention in the liberal West. Like simplistic schemata or bad stigmata, “empire” is attached to the “nostalgia” of the current leaders of Russia and China in contrast to “a vision of a postimperial global system” offered by the U.S. (ominous silence of the European and its Asian allies).

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be briskly dispatched shortly. As the reading continues, the terminology of “empire” enters muddy waters, also in relation to the willing adoption by previous U.S. administrations since 9/11 (Rob Suskind, allegedly citing Karl Rove, “we are an empire now and we create our own reality” is one example not mentioned here). Ikenberry’s response is more sotto voce, but still remains in these muddy waters. Its euphemistic prose contains not too many temporal and geographic markers and a few slogans. There are the predictable binaries for the habitual readers of Foreign Affairs.

Ikenberry’s prose kicks the can down the road most taken by your conventional IR analysts making a living in the U.S., which is the history of U.S. primacy or supremacy, the latter nouns tend to be excised, almost prudishly. This history Ikenberry naturally upholds whilst replacing those revelatory nouns with “power” and intersecting it with internationalism (leadership is the most natural and accepted phraseology, “hegemony” is a less common one). Like central conflict film theory, liberal and illiberal battle each other like gigantic forces battle not yet in the open in the Pacific Rim, vicariously on the eastern limes of Europe and virtually elsewhere too, I am sure.

Who is confused? The U.S. is “progressive agenda for world order.” It is forward-motion and success story. Its “power” is based on capacities: economic, technological, military. Polyphemus is big. The ogre is philanthropic (Octavio Paz). Future projection of our Tiresias: it [the U.S.] will remain at the centre of the world system. The reasoning is circular, predictable, catechistic: capabilities and capacities put Uncle Same there and its centrality rests on the emanation of “ideas, institutions and capacities… building partnerships and alliances.”

Ikenberry does not call the latter “soft power,” which is Joseph Nye terminology, but he clearly means something like that, except that the nominal series appears to be ghost-like self-sustaining in the Americanity of the world, the “order” created in the last seven decades, say from end of WWII until today, which is now undergoing a serious challenge and not only by Russia and China. But the Godfather can also bring ideas, institutions, capacities and build partnerships and alliances, at least in Francis Ford Coppola’s great film. It is not far-fetched to call our moment one of order collision, and not necessarily according to the terms used by our IR analyst, of suspended sovereignty and uncertain illegitimacy; thus, interregnum. The others cannot provide similar nominal series apparently, but it is ludicrous to assume they do not. Ikenberry is simply not taking a good look or not showing it to us. Tantalizingly, there is a “secret” to U.S. power and influence. What will it be? Ikenberry is adopting a “realist” ethos of mounting belligerence whilst giving no symbolic inch to other great-power rivals.

Power and order and chicken-and-egg dilemma: order-creating powers are great powers and this is the quid of the “history” that concerns our all-American scholar. The fingers of one hand suffice to keep count of those powers. Three, four, five? The article is a simple drawing of a triangle or a triad or perhaps it is still a polarity with the U.S. and its allies on one side and the two heads of a medusa amid non-descript others lurking in the darkness.

There is a lot of mist around the U.S. and its allies and the two others and theirs. Are there no no-aligned parties? The Cold-War Three-World picture (Carl Pletsch and others) is undergoing mutations. It is still early to see its new configurations (‘global North,’ global South, West/west, etc. is one, Culture Fudge in the Anglozone: Gideon Rachman’s “global west” (sic, in lowercase). ( If the disposition is ambitious to follow up on the next grand strategy, post-Kennan’s containment, this is not yet forthcoming.

There is however something like an insinuation of substantialism of ‘cultural differences’ generated by this self-assigned exceptionalism of the virtuous position of enunciation operating in the vacuum of a resourceful chorus line (you will catch no British, French or German, Japanese or South-Korean Prime Minister giving good tips). This social-science prose making claims about the world remains above all over-determined and propagandistic, Americanist-faithful. The main interest to me is not what it says about the world out there, but what it reveals about its speaker, blindness and insights (Ikenberry).

Its main interest is to me the political unconscious of the ideological self-disclosure behind the “liberal” smokescreen or stalking horse if you will that occurs in this inveterate process of “America” construction (nation, state, society, etc.) that cuts a clear line of demarcation with the bigger category of “world” and typically enough puts other voices on silent mode (we will soon see Ikenberry’s celebration of the uniqueness of the nation emerging out of the distancing oceans mostly for the benefit of our interconnected digitality and Paul-Virelian timespace compressions).

But the mess of wars is “out there” on the Eastern borders of Europe and perhaps soon enough in and around the Taiwan strait in the vast Indo-Pacific region of recent highlight in the last few years. Our American scholar hast not moved ideologically or geographically as far as I can see since the anthology on neo-Wilsonianism co-edited with Anne-Marie Slaughter in the years of the Iraq war. The Eurocentrism remains foundational, if it is showing fractures.  

The analogy is not pretty, “like an onion [FGH emphasis], the U.S.’s LIO [liberal internationalist order] has “several layers.” “No woman no cry,” as the reggae songs has it. But there is worry, mine, in that the inner core of alleged congruity or coherence, labelled “liberal,” remains tautological and solipsistic, thinly mythical, which is probably to rejoice about, non-humanistic, deliberately non-ideographic and supremely, strategically vague. Such core is cogito interruptus since it is never convincingly developed, much less historicized outside official slogans. It includes outer layers of compromise and adjustability, flexitarian diet and what is now called in the UK, “cakeism,” which is cute form of ugly cynicism.

Western Europe is probably not far away from this core that is bypassed in silence, the U.K. will go along the EU and NATO federations, and Anglophone circles take off to go elsewhere if and as needed. What about a tilt to the East? But how easy is it to do intellectually, emotionally? Will the next book have in the cover instead of St. Paul’s in London a picture of skyscrapers in Dubai or Shenzen or Seoul or Beijing, perhaps Taipei, or Hong Kong, or Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City or Kuala Lumpur? I very much doubt it.

The “outer layer” is, we are told, the “third way” provided by the U.S. between the “anarchy of states furiously competing with each other” and the “overweening hierarchy of imperial systems.” The reader is encouraged to sit down and pause and re-read the previous sentence that is beautifully ideological in its double disavowal. The mode of the pose is one of modesty and emotional calibration. It is the excessive others who are involved in the “anarchy” of state competition (this is the vision of the realist tradition, mind you).

It is those “bad” others who show excessive pride and hubris in hierarchical imperial ambitions. The U.S. like a good honest allegorical virtue, cardinal or theological, you pick, does not do these bad things according to our interpreter. Uncle Sam is modest and peaceful in the orderly exercise of horizontal coalition building. This is good for “people.” The U.S. is stand-in for good collaboration and global cooperation jumping over the shock and awe and fury of state competition and imperial hierarchies. One must think about the type of mind that would dare set up this triangle of options with a straight face after the last seventy-five years or so in world history.

But “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is a soliloquy. Given the radical absence of social groups operating inside and outside the U.S., no Greek soldiers are hiding inside no Trojan horse, some very silly celebration of the “unique“ geography –“oceans apart” from Asia and Europe– takes place. But it is bogus spatialization. Our IR scholar is no geographer and there are one too many glaring absences like Mexico and Brazil in the Americas, no Middle East, the entire continent of Africa, and no other big entities in Asia like India inside what is routinely talked about as the most dynamic economic region in the world.

Borrowing from English historiography, “global power balancer” and “unique role” are used, no surprise there, as still valid self-descriptors for the definition of the history of the United States, the only form of collectivity that is invoked. There is nothing underneath such big name. Above it, the pale blue quiet sky of institutions and coalitions in a massive generality of plenty of sun and no menacing clouds whatsoever. For whom the good weather forecast down here on planet earth? Coalition building of “like-minded states” is the virtue celebrated. But whose intent or good will available inside what type of brain pushing forth the forward motion of what type of political collectivity and social muscle achieving what type of desirable goal, I wonder. And it is only the U.S. who gets such abstract good deed done?

There is an equally brutal lack of comparative perspective: the “multiracial and immigrant base” of the U.S. “connects the country to the world in networks of influence unavailable to China, Russia and other powers.” So, multi-raciality and immigration are serviceable “goods” qua building connectivity to their countries of origin. It is a curious thought by our white IR scholar. There are no specifics. Would the non-white and recent-immigrant types of say, the Biden administration, should there be any, build better connectivity and coalition-building sensibility with other non-US enclaves by virtue of their ethnic origins compared to their white colleagues?

Other nations do not do that with the same success or zeal as the Americans, apparently (it is always healthy to remind ourselves that the millenarian civilization of China comprises 1.44 billion people compared to the 331.4 million of the United States of America since the age of the Founding Fathers, one of them will show up shortly, and the 145.98 million of Russia, also of millenarian history passing through the Soviet-Union bipolar Cold-War superpower experience). Another trick of the pen has been detected: the apparent working through of contradictions or opposites presumably taking things to another stage or level; that is, the “greatest strength” of the liberal society is working through its “vulnerabilities and errors…and its capacity to fail,” unlike that of their “illiberal rivals,” older, bigger or smaller, who supposedly will never  be able to do so due to their reduced multiracial and immigrant component.

What races, ethnicities and mobilities our IR scholar is contemplating is a valid question. What races, ethnicities and mobilities our IR scholar is contemplating in the composition of his own valid knowledge production is a second valid question. The belief or the self-affirmation of the ideal symbolic space occupied by the speaking subject or the writer’s position (“America” for our American writer of high places) transcends specifics of international relations in the past, present and the future. Ikenberry’s prejudicial and predetermined ideological position has not changed in the last two decades. Nor is it likely to change any time soon.

Ikenberry clings to the comparative advantage of the United States since the end of WWII which he sees on all fronts. He extends it with no end in sight. This colossal destruction is the beginning of U.S. primacy, although at the aftermath we were dealing with a bipolar system of competing ideologies, one of them anti-capitalist. This period is now gone since Chinese communism overlaps with state and private capitalism and analysts will have to tell us how. So, we have now different ‘cultural’ modalities or variations of global capitalism. The name of the nation, minus the invocation of the state—hides, or tries to–the underpinning identity of the aforementioned nominal serialism; that is to say, the fetishism of statism at the core of belief of the speaking subject who affirms the uniqueness of his own nation and society but only in so far as the latter nouns are put to good official use by Uncle Sam in some “outside.” But the name of the colossal nation is always up for grabs, is it not?, and how could any other (state, society, civilization, etc.) be any different?

Ikenberry singularizes these options. He is after all after the singularity and not the plurality of “order.” The plural “others” are statist articulations in anarchic struggle going beyond themselves (do not think of Mikhail Bakunin, but simply of big-enough nation-states battling each other under no unifying horizon, sky or telos). The U.S. is constructed as inter- and transnational entity of inspirational ideal-creedal impetus:  the ‘core’ of the ‘onion’ will be USMCA [U.S.-Mexico & Canada in North America], the close layer is that of Western Europe, NATO and EU Europe, with some extensions into the East, somewhat outer layer is that of noted Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, to which we can add South Korea, Japan and a few others, in the outer onion layers, in the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions). Latin America occupies a marginal, peripheral location, minus Mexico, and is never present in these ‘liberal’ considerations.

Would this be the general world of allies envisioned by Ikenberry? How useful is this spatialization? What is the glue that keeps this “order” together for our international-relations professional if not the federal government as it spreads its eleven Combatant Commands across the world? We are apparently moving towards a “global vision of an open and rules-based system in which people can work freely together to advance the human condition.” Calculated non-specificity that home-runs in this “humanism” undisturbed by racial or ethnic affiliations, linguistic identifications, historical trajectories, imperial and colonial projects, post-imperial and postcolonial dispositions. “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is a deliberate supreme exercise in calculate vagueness circling around “people” and “rules.”

Here, ideas are like things, reified, and Ikenberry is not sourcing inputs from abroad, as the trade terminology would have it. The provenance is “home,” the production is in-house and the consumption is primarily in the rarefied Anglophone zone. Would our speaker willingly accept others’ rules?: rhetorical question. We know the negative answer. His is a “perfect,” read irony, universalism, typically a geopolitical concept that has run many times into collision with the American nation-state qua dominant portion of Western cultures in the second half of the 20th century decades of the late or post-industrial capitalism as exposed and denounced by intelligent thinkers at least since the 1950s if not earlier. Ikenberry is wilfully ignorant of this type of critique.

If you read the prose with a magnifying glass, it trips, falters and fails to move hearts and minds forward convincingly, at least not mine. The past is reduced, warped version of the past that is omitted lest it serves well the latest intent at US primacy. Albion is a diminished “butler Britain” (Oliver Bullough) and “all purpose equerry” (Perry Anderson) implicitly here, but explicitly in book versions. Ditto, Europe. Like Tony Blair’s slogan of modernized social democracy, the U.S. is now portrayed as some kind of a “third way” between states competing for power and privilege and imperial powers dominating others haughtily, hierarchically. It is a breath-taking assertion that could only operate in rarefied settings (Brownen Maddox’s Chatham House appears at least for now equidistant, unlike the former Director Robin Niblett’s collaborations with Ikenberry in the past, but things may change). “Liberal internationalism” self-fashions itself in the “happy” middle –neither fierce statist competition nor brutal and coercive hierarchical imperialism.

Would changing the adjectives do (from fierce to firm, from brutal and coercive to determined, proud and confident)? We appear to move from within the economic field and yet out because it is geopolitics that takes centre stage. Yet, the ideal endorsed is that of jumping, legs firmly pressed together, into the oceans apart of the gentlemen’s trade civilization or the theoretically egalitarian transactions among business partners. Who is happy with this type of answer, besides our author, presumably? Again, there are no stakeholders or shareholders sitting at the polite table. This is a phantasmatic vision of society that is utopian: its ideal is abstract nowhere. It is not clear if this is a private club, or a franchise, a nation of legendary past, or a state of long or short reach, perhaps a civilization of lands closer to sunset, but from which advantage point? Religious coordinates are nowhere. Languages, gone. What type of benchmark do we apply?

The article is no big history lesson either although it claims to be. IR never needs a big history lesson, particularly to those varieties that want to sit near and feed policy suggestions and politically correct language to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of the federal state of the United States, which is what Ikenberry did in the past and possibly still does to the Biden / Blinken administration. Conventionally, IR sticks its guns to the immediate synchronicity of foreign-policy advising rather than roaming the big vistas of world system exegesis a la Immanuel Wallerstein and Aníbal Quijano to name but one type of “Americanity” where Ikenberry will never go. Instead, readers are invited to take a quick, reassuring look at the post-Cold War aftermath of WWII. Here, he mentions, no democracy or hegemony, but “institutions” and “alliances,” as though these nouns were in and of themselves some sort of magic, incantation and great charm that fell ever so gracefully on everybody’s souls like golden dust, snowflakes, gossamer or mana.

There are never providers, actors, concrete circumstance or timespace, what are the gains or losses, what is the big game, and why these abstract rose-like nouns would do wonders without its thorns and buds, leaves and roots, belligerence and coercion, imposition and domination, these tasks haughtily or modestly and dutifully performed by the various commands out there. United Nations, NATO are mentioned as examples. No EU. Any secret operation? More faceless and nameless “people:” “people across the world have connected to and built on these intergovernmental platforms to advance their interests.”

This is a perfectly filler sentence that says nothing in particular and my reader’s guess builds on circumstantial evidence to assert that it is such perhaps the main point of this authorial intention because it is a play or dance of virtue and the roles are pre-arranged, vice is the others with China and Russia named in this order of preference. There is no mention of the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, but no names of foreign thinkers who may take exception to this liberal internationalism and would say a thing or two of a different persuasion. Foreignness always brings a menace potential. Why on this earth to go there?

Perhaps one step back to go two forward?: the Enlightenment is invoked in the nominal series of “reason, science, and measured self-interest [my emphasis], [and how] societies could build political orders that improved the human condition.” The gravitational pull is in the middle of the italics. Ikenberry self-fashions himself as this general or transcendental view from afar or the view from some universalist nowhere, but it is not that difficult to situate his writing. This is the impetus behind mine, to present a situationist and contextualist approach that clips those universalist flights promised by the wings of the bald eagle. There are big lacunae here (the entire Hispanic and Latin American world whether intersecting with the U.S. or not is but one).

The invocation of the said favourite benchmark –the Enlightenment– lands in the generality of humanity and humanism that is surely Eurocentric in inspiration and projection of American power. Our IR social scientist will go conventional historian and seek shelter in one or two assertions of the Founding Fathers and that’s that, as though one could afford this type of undergraduate gesture any longer. Look in vain for groups competing with each other for power / knowledge circling around Hamilton, FDR or Wilson. The invocation of the name of the nation is supposed to behave like a successful sublimation of disparate interests. Woodrow Wilson “anchors” the international order of the liberal internationalists. Upon this “rock,” our IR scholar builds his secular church of liberal internationalism, no matter the defenestration of our Southern gentleman.

Strictly come “Anglo” on both sides of the Atlantic: thus is the projection of this provincialism. States are never far away: “states could tame factious, belligerent power politics and build stable relations around the pursuit of mutual gains.” Who, whom and whose opens up nationalistic personifications are embedded in this quintessentially American IR type of international relations that remains reified dictum or slogan, which is propaganda. Its deliberate indeterminacy fools no one. Invoking “cooperative ecosystems,” the speaking subject puts himself within “liberal democracies.” Political belligerence is clear. If it is not “unique” to “the U.S., Western liberal or the modern era,” but it is indeed “unique” for the U.S. to put these “ideas” at the “centre of the country’s efforts.”

Milking the incongruity, Uncle Sam has greater appetite for those previous quotation marks than any other allegory. Our superpower brings “solutions” to the “basic problems of international relations.” What are those problems? “Anarchy, hierarchy, and interdependence.” The U.S. is a problem-solver of great dimensions about situations not created by him. The article reads like a catechistic indoctrination of believers, naïve or supremely cynical, to reach the foreclosed confirmation in the public faith of Americanism.

“Prophet” is, however, a term of derision in this article. It refers to the sceptical others who are willing to put American decline on the dissecting table. Not so, Cassandra, says our IR Pollyanna whose professionalism is built on such ‘optimism.’ The article of faith is that those unnamed prophets are in the wrong. Double check the parallelism of the title of the article (power endures and the order is not in decline, and Uncle Sam is named twice). Like the three little pigs who smell the big bad wolf moving around outside the house, Ikenberry affirms cooperation blocks above state competition as a way of bringing less anarchy and a more “balanced” competition. The invocation of “institution” –thus typically put forth as an isolated noun in no specific timespace—must do a lot of persuasive work for the readers, too much work.  

Same as before: whose, who, whom? Examples?: “United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions [World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), FGH addition], and multilateral regimes in diverse areas of trade (sic), development (sic), public health (sic), the environment (sic), and human rights (sic).” No G7, no G20, no EU either, no BRICS, no PIGS, no Security Council, etc. Once you step outside the “liberal West,” his nomenclature, you bet there will be none either (ASEAN, LatAm, Eastern partnerships in Europe and Asia, the African Economic Community…).  No universities and no civil society represented by this NGO or that “quango.” Who is happy in this isolated planet of unnamed institutions and empty cooperations? The nominal series does not stand pretty on its feet. The generalist gesture should be supremely suspicious by now to any reader.

We run into the following sentence: “grand shifts in the global distribution of power have occurred in the decades since 1945, but cooperation remains a core feature of the global system.” Turn the sentence up and down and sideways and it will refuse to say anything substantial. This lack of substance is the fundamental rhetorical feature of the proposed generality behind this propagandistic version of liberal internationalism. What if the whole thing is about not to say anything concrete so that one’s fingers are not caught in the international fire? But domesticity delivers no comfort zone (by the time I write these lines, Trump leads among the Republican contenders for a third attempt at the White House).

Let us consider further the casuistry and phantasmagoria in the below nominalism free-floating in no specific timespace: 

The problems of hierarchy are the mirror opposite of the problems of anarchy. Hierarchy is political order maintained by the dominance of a leading state, and at the extreme, it is manifest as empire. The leading state worries about how it can stay on top, gain the cooperation of others, and exercise legitimate authority in shaping world politics. Weaker states and societies worry about being dominated, and they want to mitigate their disadvantages and the vulnerabilities of being powerless. In such circumstances, liberal internationalists argue that rules and institutions can simultaneously be protections for the weak and tools for the powerful. In a liberal order, the leading state consents to acting within an agreed-upon set of multilateral rules and institutions and not use its power to coerce other states. Rules and institutions allow it to signal restraint and commitment to weaker states that may fear its power. Weaker states also gain from this institutional bargain because it reduces the worst abuses of power that the hegemonic state might inflict on them, and it gives them some voice in how the order operates. 

Order, principle or arché is the object of desire among unnamed state actors. Allegedly, such ideal order is non-hierarchical and non-dominant if it is conducted by a leading state that is willing to exercise self-restraint (like the good cop who follows the rules of state monopoly of violence and not the bad cop who doesn’t). State actors are the only ones considered. There is no explicit timespace. We are faced with a diorama, a parable-like set-up of virtues and the temptations to do otherwise, but only for great-power nations (the small ones will suffer what they must). Hierarchy and anarchy mirror each other like Narcisus sees the image in the pool of water: such is the phantasmagoria. One extremity of a leading state is hierarchical empire.

The speaking position invokes rules and institutions which are “protections for the weak and tools for the powerful.” Double-edged sword: it depends who is handling them. The ideal-type liberal order defended thus by Ikenberry stipulates the restraint and commitment –indeed “the consent”– of the weaker states and the leading state and the leading state with itself to act strictly within those rules and institutions. No examples are provided. The leading state agrees “not to use its power to coerce other states.” Such virtuous self-restraint of the leader state gives weaker states “some voice [FGH emphasis] in how the order operates.” Consider the massive demonstrations in London and other cities against the Iraq invasion: that is your “some.”

Or the UN resolutions about the Iraq war. Why would the strongest party agree to such a deal, the right hand giving a shake to the left hand so to speak? Why would the weaker parties go along the strongest party, if they can help it, after a long series of crises (1970s collaborations in coup d’etat, 1980s interventions in Latin America, post-9/11 suspensions and violations of democratic rule, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, wars from Vietnam to Korea to Iraq and Afghanistan)? Ikenberry’s modality of internationalism always strikes me as the “externalization” of problems and issues, i.e. a serious failure of sustained introspection about the construction of the identity of the U.S., if one wants to use an identitarian language. This foreign-affairs disposition looks out the crises of American democracy looking for competitors, rivals and enemies to beat. Ikenberry never dwells at length in these internal crises which the nation deemed synonymous with success will solve abroad. He tiptoes on the former and moves ahead to a re-commitment with primacy out there in the “RoW-world” at large. His song remains the same, rain, hail or thunder. This is Uncle Sam, number one forever.

There is ambition. Our IR scholar is after what he calls “logic” of history since 1945 in a situation of “uniqueness” in world history. It is a secular account with no strong mythic component but there is an insinuation of messianism (“America” is the blessed cog-in-the-wheel mechanism or deus ex machina to lead the world to political “heaven”). Fittingly, the biological clock of our interpreter (our author is born in 1954 according to Wikipedia) almost perfectly coincides with the 70-odd story of his superpower nation capturing “the world” as told by him). For his entire life, our IR scholar has seen his superpower nation take over the world!

Times may be changing but the whole point of the article is to slow things down, fix and reform what you can and see what happens playing the comparative advantage. No one steps down from such a high horse willingly and Ikenberry is not willing to do so. Working through paradoxes, this seventy-year-old order was “hierarchical… with liberal characteristics.” Bipolarity is de-emphasized. The Soviet-union challenge almost entirely disappears from sight or even memory like a bad nightmare. Third World undergoing decolonization since the 1960s now becoming the Global South is an unmentioned collection of bystander nations.

The U.S. is in this post-Cold-War situation the sole power offering “the public goods of security protection, market openness, and sponsorship of rules and institutions.” The collapse of the Soviet Union generates a restive Russia which is now not willing to go along with the order of such “liberal West,” that “invites participation and compliance [FGH emphasis] by other states, starting with the subsystem of liberal democracies mostly in East Asia, Europe, and Oceania.” The Monroe-Doctrine encirclement of the Western Hemisphere is clear: Latin America does not even exist by name. There is some acknowledgement of troubles:

The U.S. has “frequently violated this bargain; the Iraq War is a particularly bitter and disastrous example of the United States undermining the very order it has built. The United States has used its privileged perch to bend multilateral rules in its favour and to act unilaterally for parochial economic and political gains.”

Just when we thought we were beginning to have a contrite Uncle Sam…

Never mind, “the overall logic of the order [FGH emphasis] gives many countries around the world, particularly liberal democracies [FGH emphasis] incentives to join with rather than balance against the United States.”

Hopscotch: square one is the final square: circular reasoning, the strongest party is A and non-A at the same time. Uncle Sam is liberal in his heart of hearts, despite imperial, hierarchical articulations in the no so distant past, his rules have exceptions but these exceptions never take over the norm (Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben remain oceans apart from Ikenberry’s bibliography). Uncle Sam sets up a general deal, he violates the deal, the empire is liberal, but the overall picture set up by the strongest party is good for “many” parties, particularly those called “liberal,” who are better off with rather than “balancing against” the U.S. It is not only the circularity of the generic sentences, it is also the flattening of perspectivism (this is all-American dictum with no dissenting voices within and without such “America”).

“My mother, drunk or sober” (as Chesterton’s mocking formula for nationalism). The false syllogism suspends timespace parameters that fly out the window into some kind of timelessness everywhere and nowhere with no precise geographic boundaries. Where are “we”? Whistling in the wind of an unimpeded all-American order that is said to benefit “many” parties always already labelled “liberal” who benefit from the said order more than not and those who don’t still cannot do anything about it to bring it down. No one raises the hand to say otherwise. Ikenberry does not give the floor to any other IR analyst, his fellow American realists included. You can almost feel the pulsation of the illiberal limes yonder. Substitute U.S. for the name of any nation, put admittedly funny name instead of Uncle Sam, Bugs Bunny or Corleone for example and observe the reasoning:

The “logic” of history since 1945 is “unique” in world history. Bugs Bunny’s order is “hierarchical… with liberal characteristics.” He offers “the public goods of security protection, market openness, and sponsorship of rules and institutions.” He “invites participation and compliance by others, for example, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Road Runner, Wiley E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Tasmanian Devil, Marvin the Martian, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, etc., and there are so many and why should they have to go to the same cartoon sequence. Some of them are located in the liberal-democracy subsystem in East Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Some of them will be in the outer layers of the onion in the Middle East, the Gulf region, etc.

The immense Indo-Pacific is ominous. All is quiet on the Western hemisphere for now. India, who knows for certain, etc.” Bugs Bunny’s home, the “US and the Americas,” as the region has it in some Anglo think tanks. It requires no further explanation and it fools no one. No existentialism of the immediate circumstance is required, although we are now acquainted with the expression “existential threat.” The Bunny may have misbehaved in the past but the others would rather join than go against him, etc. The narrator is on the side of the Bunny. If you wish to add the Coppola film, he is in the vicinity of Don Vito Corleone, so the narrative is very predictable indeed.

Fernando Gómez Herrero is a lecturer at the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at Birkbeck College, the University of London.

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