The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.
The moment the reader tinkers thus with the subject position in “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline,” the demonstrative logic is arrested and we are in the prejudicial domain of habitus, belief and self-assertion. What sustains Ikenberry’s belief system necessitates no facts or logic, rhyme or reason. In other words, political ideology of professional self-interest needs no further horizon of radical difference. Ikenberry will not explore Chinese or Russian thinking about world order, not even European thinking that does not endorse the American primacy, no matter the hypocrisies or the “bugs,” as he puts it.
Abroad gives him no “input:” foreignness americanizes our American IR scholar as the joke has it. Should we ask about what happens to the other characters in the Loony Tunes of the world at large? Should we give them the microphone and have good translators handy? Their words are missing in action. These subalterns do not speak at least in this silent motion picture. Ikenberry is interpreter, referee, mouthpiece, prompt and apologist of Uncle Sam or the Bunny in the funnies. He monopolizes all the roles. His writing does not aim to develop a coherent argument and demonstrate multi-perspectivism despite the theoretical advocacy of multilateralism. His discourse is not dialogic but apodictic, increasingly “creedal,” and “moral,” in the faithful to the ancestors thus included in the Hamiltonian vignette, more “white” than Black Slave if its general tendency, more majority than minority despite the flaccid celebration of the immigrant nation.
The article would like to become prophetic in a quintessentially optimistic kind of way for public consumption: double down on the nation as in the title of the article and affirm the order or the supremacy against the mere insinuation of a decline. Nothing else is entertained that may put in doubt the belief and faith in the forever status of supremacy of his nation (cynical or sceptical is the wrong ‘negative’ attitude that questions such ‘optimistic’ conviction). Ikenberry will have none of such ‘negativism.’ This internationalism is like the sheep in wolf’s clothing of nationalism, which is a provincialism at the core since it refuses time and time again to find anything valuable –intellectually or emotionally—in foreignness.
This IR internationalism is mostly or exclusively about the salvation of American power –and if that was not enough, this is the kicker—for all those nations populating the ‘funnies’ of the world who will not generate a different discourse to Ikenberry at least in his own pages (it is a bit like the Hollywood strategy of buying all the time slots in the cinemas not to let competitors exhibit their products). Alternatives to this American projection will not be explored intellectually or emotionally. There is something crippled and phlegmatic to this intellect that fails to emotionalize the intelligence or comprehension of the surely excessive category, for all of us, of the world at large inside which the U.S. is but a part, or “a” centre, but not “the” centre of things, and the whole tension between my writing and his might be in between the indeterminate and determinate articles. I go for the first whereas Ikenberry goes for the latter opposite.
Plurality or indetermination would for him be impossible decline qua the debilitation of the singularizing force of his superpower nation, which even as a hypothetical he will not address seriously in public (almost like a patient in hospital who cannot bring himself together to contemplate the nurse’s news of the possibility of a fatal disease). Order competition is what focuses his mind but as long as Uncle Sam stays on top. “Humanistic” alternatives “below” great-power orders are not explored, neither the civilizational dimensions, prior to and following US primacy, including its intersections and mixtures, non-alignments, delinks and hyperlinks.
Revealingly, “interdependence” and “countries becom[ing] more entangled with each other” is a bad thing for our internationalist, one must suppose because of the presumption of equality underpinning such connectivity. The intimate inter- or trans-spaces are repudiated as a matter of principle. No mestizajes and interculturality here. The cuts are clean between “us and them.” Would Bugs Bunny be happy if he needed Daffy Duck as much as the Duck needs Porky Pig as much as Road Runner needs Wiley E. Coyote, etc.? What is the nature of the interdependence of Corleone family with others? The answer must be in any case in the negative and Ikenberry keeps the list of the countries that matter manageable and not only in this article (two, three, four, five?).
Provenance of knowledge production of IR discipline is predictable (other disciplines are for the birds, probably with the exception of “history”). One wonders how to take the invocation of “rules and institutions to facilitate flows and transactions across borders.” This is fantasy of frictionless capitalism with no men and no women and no modifiers either to those flows and transactions, and which national borders are those? When proper names pop up, the expectation is for American names of elite groups preferably on the Democratic side of the political divide (Wilson, FDR for example). One or two “baddies” and that’s that. “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is no crowded room. There is an awful lot of common nouns. The few proper names are supposed to be the lighthouse in the general darkness of world history that illuminates the future projection of supremacy.
Another “logic:” the balancing of free flows with domestic protections from “destabilizing economic actions taken by irresponsible governments. Such logic is in wide application today within the U.S.-led liberal order.” “Balancing” is the type of euphemistic verb that does not mean anything in particular and commits to nothing in particular, but protectionism is invoked (the offshore power “balances” the illiberal powers is a typical formulation in Anglo circles in the same way that Britain did it within the history of the old continent). The culprits (those “irresponsible governments”) are not named, but it is clearly not the U.S., since it is always already the virtuous personification of “the liberal system of order that offers institutional solutions to the most basic problems of world politics.” Nominalism shakes hands with idealism and moralism.
It is all beautifully self-serving and unconvincingly abstract. Liberalism is conservative institutionality, which was Huntington’s formula, and it is problem-solving institutionality to “basic problems of world politics.” The emphatic adjective (the “basic”) jumps into the totality or globality, always close to the expansionist universalism pursued by Ikenberry. The U.S. is nothing if not “incontinent” in the freedom from timespace containment, symbolic and otherwise, and here the lack of geographic knowledge or clumsiness towards deep chronologies is surely a “bliss.” If you excise the first adjective (liberal”, who finds room to quarrel with the aforementioned empty sentence? But, let us keep up with the reasoning:
The United States has been an imperfect champion of these efforts to shape the operating environment of international relations. Indeed, a great deal of the criticism directed at the United States as a global leader stems from the perception that it has not done enough to move the world in this “third way” direction and that the order it presides over is too hierarchical.
Yet, what matters is what follows, “But that is precisely the point—if the world is to organize itself to address the problems of the twenty-first century, it will need to build on, not reject, this U.S.-led system.” Imperfection –the euphemism embedded in the negation of the abstract positive noun—is not a major problem. “Nobody’s perfect!” remember the final line in Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like it Hot.” Bugs Bunny has not done enough to be a good Bunny, but we still root for him. Don Vito Corleone is surely an imperfect champion of the good Catholic values of his Italian-American upbringing but we still need him to build relationships in some quarters in the city.
The point is clear: exculpation, kick the can down the road, always look forward, Uncle Sam is a priori blessed with all the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude) and at least two of the tree theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) according to our liberal internationalist. If the other Loony Tunes characters do not want the occasionally erratic Bunny, they will have no easy choice because the alternative splits into the “extremes” of anarchy and hierarchy. Bunny is not hierarchical, nor anarchic most of the time, but here or there, or where?, according to our IR scholar, only sometimes somewhere, others, guess which two bad nations, are “reactionary” and step backward in the telos of the modernity of history. Ikenberry offers no choice but the institutional conservatism, possibly with some reformism, behind the nation-state “America,” also naturalized misnomer, deemed uniquely imperfect. Others are more so.
Ikenberry plays with paradox but never in the sophisticated manner of the historical Baroque. The U.S. is here constructed as an “anti-imperial empire,” a “world power like no other before it.” Supreme peculiarity, idiosyncrasy, exceptionalism: “the new world” (sic) indeed is a world apart from other great powers in the history of the world.” We must pay attention to the sliding between nation, state and power. What matters to our IR scholar is the symbolic buttressing of a symbolic domain created by “America” (the term is mentioned 24 times in the article).
This emphatic naming of the nation-state pushes all others to a corner, “in [their] crowded geopolitical neighborhoods, struggling for hegemonic space.” There is a distancing fantasy that the covid situation may have enforced: Uncle Sam is “far from its main rivals.” Those are the ones with “dangerous and violent efforts… to expand their empires and regional spheres of influence.” If they have their “spheres,” there is no geometric shape for the preferred order, which is spaceless and seemingly timeless from the 20th century onwards. In the age of digitality, Ikenberry invokes “distance from other powers,” and more uniqueness.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary adds to its usage: “strictly speaking, since the core meaning of unique is “being the only one of its kind,” it is logically impossible to modify it by adverbs such as really or quite. However, unique has a less precise sense in addition to its main meaning, special or unusual (i.e. really unique opportunity). Here, unique does not relate to an absolute concept, and so the use of really and similar adverbs is acceptable.” Hence, I would say that the “unique” [history, power, etc.] of the U.S. is treated like an absolute concept in its own isolated and nomothetic benchmark. It is also totem and taboo, something like magmatic force of nature that does not break apart into concrete and situated, solid or at least recognizable, radically plural, proper-name and diverse historicities.
By contrast, Ikenberry’s American history of supremacy is tidy, too tidy, and is not tied to the rest of the history of the world that is beneath in more ways than one the nation of our author. There are no allowances to comparativism. There is no need to go to world history to learn anything from it (perhaps a bit of the Anglo island, but there is not an awful lot of it either in his books and nothing in this article). The gesture is similar to that of an arrogant teenager who says to himself that he does not need to learn anything from his predecessors to know how the globe of the world rolls around to his feet. He is “unique” (the adjective shows up 12 times in the article). I would say that there is no maturation into anything else, different, other.
“Liberal” (showing up 64 times) must be understood in similar fashion as a form of arrested historical development that springs from some mists in the past and has no end in sight. If it is progress, it does not progress beyond the slogan that tolerates no “post” to either liberal or modern. No “post-“ nothing, except in the affirmation of the same primacy over its negative form (“illiberal” is the others) and no desire to grow into anything other than what “one” already is. If there is no genuine reformation, metamorphosis or maturing into anything else, different or other, then we already know where we stand with this profession of liberal internationalism: this is an incredible construction of American orthodoxy or sameness of an explicitly empty liberal subject position. There has not been any significant movement, intellectual or emotional, that I have detected at least from the last twenty years. I am happy to be corrected.
Where will our Phileas Fogg go in the six thousand words of the article in Foreign Affairs? He will approach one of the cliches of the Founding Fathers in the pursuit of the ideal of “splendid isolation.” There is fantasy of self-reliance, autarky, but also segregation and even apartheid, “oceans away” from foreignness: the “American experiment could be safeguarded from foreign encroachments.” Ikenberry ventriloquizes Hamilton’s adoption of Britain’s distancing from and balancing with the old continent, which he now translates for his own postcolonial nation of imprecise borders.
The U.S. was “lucky,” also in Hamilton’s times, compared to other European powers geographically closer to each other. Waste no time in other smaller political creatures: the political game is always about “big game.” I sense some irony in this IR professionalism: “great remove,” “isolation” and history of “success.” Never was the English channel so fundamental. There is almost a geographical determinism underlining differences in human nature. Ikenberry’s Anglo-framed Eurocentrism of the world is self-serving and perhaps unwarranted for the challenges ahead (translatio imperii et studii truly, but only in the last two centuries!).
This concern, of course, did not stop the United States from joining the world of great powers or from ultimately becoming the world’s largest military power. Nonetheless, this republican worry kept alive the liberal internationalist notion, dating back to Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, that societies can protect their way of life best by working together and creating zones of peace that push tyrannical and despotic states to the periphery.
The commonplace is installed, the one of separation from all other nations, or independence, or “freedom,” which is still by 2023 the ideal situation of our IR scholar who vindicates in the same breath institutions and coalitions and rules. The mirror gives the world its (distorted) image via a formerly imperial Europe –but it is now NATO and EU Europe, plus disobedient UK too, which now matters only as long as it is useful to the projection of American power beyond its borders, add coalition-building as needed. The (dramatic) irony is embraced:
The ligaments are broken in the middle of that “nonetheless,” as expected in that “of course.” Whose concern? “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is by now resembling an empty house of invisible (wo)men of no proper name. The generality of the new Republic running the thought process of the Founding Fathers? “Liberal internationalist” is retroactively taken back to the official date of birth of the nation and the midwives are not of slaves, but of the cliched of the Enlightenment by the German idealist thinker.
Re-read the IR sentence backwards: societies’ protection push tyrannical and despotic states away and the combination with liberal internationalism, add Kant and the Enlightenment or not, allows for the one nation named among all other nations to become the superlative military power in the history of the world. The irony runs until the end of the article. Hamilton sounds Ikenberrian three centuries earlier and Ikenberry sounds cliched Hamiltonian for our immediate future. The military invocation is sign of state monopoly, deterrence, brute force, coercion, destruction and war. Military and liberal-internationalist are the two legs of our allegorical national figure that is generalized (“societies”). The periphery is the imaginary place of what is undesirable where tyranny and despotism reside (also in Hamiltonian times?). No doubt where our IR scholar puts himself: at the core of power / knowledge, liberal and military and the further away you move from him, the undesirable thickens.
This silly postcard of history is supposed to buttress the argument of liberal imperialism when needed. There is no need to linger in the past centuries. The prose runs quickly forward. The “U.S.” is this mirage of idealism that always trumps any negative opposite but none mounts a serious threat because all opponents remain underdeveloped. There is no fatal flaw of psychological character in Uncle Sam because his core intent is healthy, according to our interpreter (we remain faithful to Corleone not despite but because of his faulty faith in Italian-American Catholicism so to speak).
The article will continue reading like an article of faith. Faith, either you have it or you don’t have it and the prose that plays with contradictions never touches its core. Foreignness is always already imperfect and subordinate figment of the imagination of our sole narrator who covers the world order and claims omniscience. There is something like a fairy-tale structuring of a political unconscious, a Hollywood good guy-bad guy rendering of useful history that in Ikenberry’s case must be good for U.S. geopolitics. There are all sorts of overdeterminations embedded in this account that will not mature, hence the suggested figure of the aforementioned teenager sitting comfortably on the pillows on the throne. Ideas, institutions and capacities fall on a rather desolate landscape like thin flakes of snow with no sense of direction or purpose.
There is spatialization of a small number of big units that slide noiselessly, forward and backwards, downwards and upwards as though the U.S. among the empire were on some smooth and sloping surface. The 1930s see Nazi Germany Imperial Japan, the Soviet-Union and the British Empire. Which one among these constructions are “we” supposed to pick? What about in 2023? The methodological nationalism leaves no doubt. The nationalistic provenance of those “ideas, institutions and capacities” is nativist. Ikenberry sits at the table of American policy-makers and analysts and behaves like an omniscient narrator inside their heads: is historically the Western Hemisphere enough for an incipient superpower? Power has to be global. Was the Monroe Doctrine ever enough?: rhetorical question. Wait for the justification:
…the United States would need to have access to markets and resources in all corners of the world. Economic and security imperatives, as much as lofty principles, drove this judgment. U.S. interests and ambitions pointed not to a world where the United States would simply join the other great powers in running an empire but to one where empires would be swept away and all regions would be opened up to multilateral access.
Again, suspend the “multilateral access” bit and Bugs Bunny, or Corleone, calls the shots, puts principle and interest like peanut butter and jelly together on the big piece of toast, and eats the sandwich alone whilst pushing all others –kids and empires—away to their crowded corners. Our personification, the U.S. (United States is mentioned 112 times in the article) “needs” –supreme euphemism is there ever was one— “access.” No limits. Mobility is the value explicitly defended but darker hues and textures of others implicitly lurk nearby and underneath. Underline the adverb “simply,” assume a cavalier pose of elegant sprezzatura or undisturbed naturalness. Circle the “but” and the final push of a justification comes out unconvincingly (whose multilateralism?). It is Robinson-Crusoe fantasy of single-nation existence getting away with it.
I would argue you can do the same with our IR scholar. Ikenberry “sits” at the centre of the new order by the end of WWII and defends the limitlessness of his favourite nation. “Lofty principles” and “economic interests and security imperative, interests and ambitions” of the always personified U.S. form a perfect “union,” something like semi-molten natural material, or the stuff of the billiard balls hitting each other on a lot of green surface of an empty table of a prostrate world, as the grand illusion has it of noiseless traffic in faceless societies without social-group interests, tensions and fractures.
Ikenberry’s prose is pure ideology of American primacy of late-capitalism a la Thomas-Friedman (“the world is flat” globalization type), now compromised:
In this way, the United States was unique among its peers in using its power and position to undermine the imperial world system. It made alliances and bargains with imperial states at various moments and launched a short-lived career of empire at the turn of the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. But the dominant impulse of U.S. strategy across these decades was to seek a postimperial system of great power relations, to build an international order that would be open, friendly, and stable: open in the sense that trade and exchange were possible across regions; friendly in the sense that none of these regions would be dominated by a rival illiberal great power that sought to close off its sphere of influence to the outside world; and stable in the sense that this postimperial order would be anchored in a set of multilateral rules and institutions that would give it some broad legitimacy, the capacity to adapt to change, and the staying power to persist well into the future.
Underline the “unique.” Circle the “but,” which signals the main meaning of the sentence (apologetics, summary history of a good-future projection). Put the three adjectives (open, friendly, stable) like plastic ducks in a row. Imperial for a moment, but the “dominant impulse” of Uncle Sam was to “build an international order that would be open, friendly and stable.” Inter-regional trade and exchange, but no parties are named inside a capitalistic system that finds no opponent worthy of the foreign name in a world undergoing two world wars and reaching a bipolar Cold War. “Friendly” means that the old “rival illiberal great power” [the Soviet Union?] was not allowed to “close off its sphere of influence to the outside world” Ikenberry does not mention the Kennan’s containment theory during Truman presidency, but I suppose it is always in his mind to come up with something similar (Fukujama’s “end of history” of liberal telos in the 1980s and Huntington’s war of civilizations, West and Islam, in the 1990s had been two other proposals).
Stability means a postimperial order, multilateralism, rules and institutions, legitimacy, capacity to change and persist. Whose good features are those if not those of the only kid on the block, the aforementioned one with the peanut-butter sandwich, who is running unopposed in the paragraph? There is a rhetorical device that we could call “sparse spatialization.” Geographic separateness acquires a “distinctive strategy of order building.” The “offshore location” vis-à-vis “bids for dominance by autocratic, fascist, and authoritarian great powers in East Asia and Europe.” As though you saw yourself reflected in the sunglasses of indistinct others, the U.S. occupies the desirable virtuous-allegorical position. Its nation-state singularity is general, abstract, singular. This is an America with no different Americans leaking out of the 335 and odd million. Once Hamilton and Wilson are quoted, they can be put in the bin too.
The immense singularity of a solid and proud nation among the theoretical plurality of all other nations is addressed by the lingua franca in the same way “world languages” are addressed by multilingualism initiative and the so-called “languages for all” options in Anglo domains. Something like geographical determinism is added to the “liberal” traits making the U.S. “unique” in its ability to work with others. How so? 60 “security” partnerships in all regions of the world, whereas China has only “a scattering of security relationships with Djibouti, North Korea, and a few other countries.” Popularity vote wins the day, but it is at all not convincing, but we get the drift that invocations of (national) security need nothing more.
What type of American great power are we talking about? One that is not achieved through “conquest,” but through “opportunistic stepping into geopolitical vacuums created at the end of major wars to shape the peace [my emphasis].” Peace-shaping wars leave historical vacuums into which the U.S. steps into. Mutatis mutandis: wars in the near future, preemptive or not. Uncle Sam’s virtue: great state coalition building. Aggressivity is however always the others’ disposition. Coalition building is the order of the day (Wilson, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and George H. W. Bush are emphasized; interestingly Carter, Clinton, Obama and Biden are missing). Yet, there is always caution in our IR scholar: he is mostly talking about historical figures who cannot talk back and not about those who are still around the all-American neighbourhood. In case you wonder, the “gangsters” are always “the others” (Roosevelt quote in 1944—the gravitational pull of the chronology of the article goes back in the 20th century rather than moving it closer to 2022). But there are blurred lines:
Of course [FGH emphasis], liberal states have always been willing to ally with nondemocracies within larger coalitions. During the Cold War and again today, the United States has allied itself and partnered with authoritarian client states around the world. Nonetheless, in these eras, the core impulse [FGH emphasis] has been to build U.S. grand strategy around a dynamic core of liberal states in East Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania.
Back to the onion: inner layers are good. Middle layers may be o.k. most of the time. Outer layers may be dirty, damaged or rotten. It reminds me of the Donald Rumsfeldian distinction between “old and new Europe” (“new,” meaning those nations giving enthusiastic support to the Iraq war). Security dictates alliances. National interest or security is the currency. Today, there are new opportunities against the “autocratic rivals China and Russia.”
Ikenberry milks the “unique” (12 mentions). The U.S. is a society “at home in the world.” This is brutally not so in my experience where the foreign world is always “out there,” very far away, subordinate and abject and subjected to predations and gross generalizations, barely speaking in the original languages, and most rarely deviating from convenient geopolitical filters, also in university life (perhaps popular cultures escape a typical neutralization). Yet, if the world is homey for Uncle Sam, it is not so epistemologically for our observer who finds no one single valid “translation” of a foreign episteme from “there” to “here.”
Triple crown: “[the U.S. is] a country of immigrants, multicultural and multiracial, a “global republic”[Frank Ninkovich].” The U.S. is a distillation of the best in the world, which in my experience, it is probably true in the best days of the year, but not always. Such exceptional identity creates ties throughout the world. Uncle Sam, simply, knows more about the world than other nations: “The United States is more knowledgeable about the outside world.” The follow-up clause is the most telling: “and the outside world has a greater stake in what happens in the United States.” Let us underline the garrison mentality of “outside” and “inside.” The multicultural, multiracial, immigrant condition of American identity is mediating factor. There is facile paean to immigrant culture with great numbers of Nobel-Prize winners, Chinese students flocking more to the U.S. than other foreign students flocking to China –at least for now.
No dissonance in this multiracialism and no dissidence in this multiculturalism. Ikenberry does not hop on the “civilizational state” rhetoric. Yet, the U.S. has greater “diversity” than other nations –there is a brutal loss of comparativism of significant diachronic and synchronic timespaces—and contains more civil groups engaging in transnational advocacy of “environment, human rights, humanitarian assistance, the protection of minorities, citizenship education, and so forth.” These groups endeavour to “hold those states to account.” China and Russia are bad on that account too, when I come to think of it, there are no good at anything: the former is cracking down in Hong Kong. Double sandwich: the overwhelming influence of the U.S. state apparatus finds the self-correction of a more developed civil society than any other in the world. What is not to like about this number-one lead in double general abstraction? “A multicultural immigrant society is more complex and potentially unstable than more homogeneous societies such as China.”
It makes you wonder what Ikenberry may understand by “homogeneity” and how to even make sense of this uneven comparison with a millenarian society of 1,425 billion people, found faulty, whose languages he does not know, has not visited, etc. Ikenberry puts the U.S. as a better defender of minorities than China (this is coming out of the deep trouble of “Black Lives Matter,” police brutality of George Floyd and others, Trump presidency, U.S.-Mexico border situations, etc.): “its minorities suffer intense discrimination and repression.” This is the binarism of an automata: the U.S. is enormously diverse “in terms of creativity, collaboration, knowledge creation, and the attraction of the world’s talent.” Ikenberry swings happily in this nominal serialism. China? China has a “shrunken civil society that is closed to the world” [FGH emphasis].
Ikenberry resists the narrative of decline admitting a bit to the peak of internal problems in the U.S. since the 1930s. No establishment or government in the world will endorse its own fragility and our scholar is no exception. His loyalty to the institution of his employment and the nation of his birth remain unbroken until the end. Debilitation of American supremacy is totem and taboo that will not be broached more often than not in public analysis. Our IR scholar presents his public belief in the “progressive impulses” of his powerful nation.
What would happen if he said otherwise from the Princeton platform? It is the “idea” of the United States that has “stirred the world over the last century.” Like the aging actress Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis in Mankiewicz’s All about Eve (1950): we still inspire them and they still want us. It is always a one-way street: Gandhi, Havel, Mandela, Hong Kong youth look up to the idea of the United States. It is a salad bowl of dead enough foreigners, except for the generic youth of the former British colony, which is now part of China. But never mind, it is the idea which is the ideal of the United States that the “world” takes on board. This idealism, which is nominalism, also solipsism, is genuine and our IR scholar is not shy with the superlatives: “no other state aspiring to world power, including China, has advanced a more appealing vision of a society in which free individuals consent to their political institutions than has the United States.”
Amplification: “people around the world held their breath” in the last election won by Biden and the Jan. 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol. The brutal contrast: “the world simply shrugged” when Xi Jinping became “dictator for life” in 2018. Our Tiresias interprets the world for us: “People across many parts of the world seem to expect more of the United States than they do of China, invariably measuring U.S. actions against the standard of avowed American principles and ideals.”
This “idealist” liberalism is increasingly conservative qua institutionalist. Our liberal internationalist approaches the realist positions happily quoting some banality from Samuel Huntington: “America is not a lie, it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” You can say anything you want about the U.S. and it will be true –and false—with or without the use of the copulative verb, particularly in simplistic coordinated sentences such as these ones. The citation is revelatory of an increasingly comfortable ideological proximity, besides the fact that there is a strong incongruity in approximating the social-scientist of civilizational clash and brutal anti-Mexican disposition who is also dead (so much for the world-connecting pro-immigrant multiculturalist stance!).
The “pithy” dictum is self-serving and circulates in the circle that goes from dead American to the living American inside the echo chamber of the world that wants to be American –or at least not Russian or Chinese. Hold the “liberal ideal” like an Olympic-Games torch and run fast and far and chase it down already knowing that you will never reach it. No lie and no disappointment, twice, but hope: that is the point of the “imperfection.” Run Road Runner that Wiley E. Coyote will never catch you. Nobody’s perfect, not even Don Vito Corleone. Uncle Sam will never fully absorb perfectly the seven virtues in question but it is the heart and mind, and the right push that matter, with or without disappointments and deviations.
But wait, Ikenberry acknowledges “hypocrisy.” Will this admission amount to anything or change the course or stop anything? No, like an unrepentant smoker who lies to the wife to get to the next smoke. Will this recognition force serious reformation? Do not count on it. There is no repentance nor contrition. Is our IR scholar removing the fig leaf from the Emperor’s nakedness? Perhaps, but the admission of hypocrisy makes both, the Emperor and the interpreter, more shameless. Discourse is polyhedric rather than the simplistic assertion of one-sided good intentions of supremacy. Circumstantial evidence tells us so: the admission of the ‘sin’ of the United States is done in such a way that it does not constitute an impossible stumbling block.
The recognition does not fundamentally change anything in the toolbox or modus operandi of the superpower. If this article is a soliloquy, it offers no apology to anyone for such a sincere admission. No world forum is voting on it. The political craft remains the same, better even, once you admit to the use of rhetorical dirty tricks, all of a sudden you are more supple and flexible, more resilient and cunning. “Hypocrisy” is strategic, not essential. It is “a feature, not a bug [FGH emphasis] of liberal order, no impediment, to making the liberal order better.”
It does not paint in shame-red the whole face of Narcissus in the mirror, but only a portion, a detail, a beauty mole or a wrinkle, not the heart and the whole character of Uncle Sam. “Hypocrisy” is but a small part of the whole psychological arsenal that must be used in the big game of geopolitics (worse things could be said about any national allegory than this psychological imputation). The United States remains one-off, one of a kind in the history of the world, “unique,” as it stands apart oceans apart in its geography and “liberal” at the core.
The reader is witnessing a shameless football player running the length of the pitch with the football unimpeded because the opponents are discursively missing and the self-appointed referee is on his side. “Hypocrisy” may be a nagging thing, like an itch, a twitch, a coquettish pulling of a face, a harmful microorganism, nothing lethal, according to our IR analyst, a piercing insect, a tickle, perhaps a poker-face in the joke or a complicit giggle. Perhaps the whole Foreign Affairs article is this suppressed giggle in complicity, passing idealism and realism through the blender of liberal internationalism, and adding a lot of Americanism for the “good” readers already in the pocket. Porky goes hunting for ducks and uses decoy ducks and gun shells and tells the ducks and us that the gun isn’t loaded and we are told that he is sincere about his hypocrisy.
Wile E. Coyote’s natural guile and elaborate plans fail him every time he chases down Road Runner and he tells us he will do better next time. Corleone has “liberal” features, you only have to ask around his coalition partners and allies. He has got more friends than anyone in this part of town. Ikenberry provides no structuralism of larger social forces (democracy is hardly mentioned and capitalism, not mentioned at all), post-structuralism of empty liberal subject, you better do not ask. His is the occasional psychologism of the elite groups operating the allegorical figure of the collective nation, which is left off the hook.
Never to pursue an indictment, his disavowed nationalism, which is the nationalism of the superpower, is agglutinative, magmatic, solid ‘identity’ against its challenges, a la Huntington. Ikenberry’s liberal identity of the American nation may stem from Louis Hartz but moves in the Huntingtonian direction: it is officialist and public-faith elitist, identitarian, ‘white’ from above, and as such it is presiding over, if not against non-white minority identity positions from below, which could very well land at the feet of an abject foreignness sooner rather than later unless they are willing to go along or better endorse the latest geopolitical policy to buttress forever supremacy.
“What will keep the United States at the centre of world politics is its capacity to do better.” The sceptical reader may substitute the name of the country for others and see what happens. The “world” is here pathetic fallacy of an amplification device (“the order over which the United States has presided since WWII has moved the world forward”). Ikenberry’s prose sounds Robert Kaganesque. The U.S. is the force for good that moves forward the world put together. Agent or subject position is always already the U.S., the rider part of the subordinated whole or the world of a restive horse.
Ikenberry is Prospero and Ariel flies around him, there is no Caliban on stage in sight, but always lurking in the outskirts of town with Chinese or Russian names. Our IR is the one who writes this Tempest of a play of history that always goes the American way: zero surprise. There are one too many overdeterminations (birth, upbringing, professional habitus, community of readers and interpreters, seven-decade-or-so of longevity of the superpower status of the U.S. and the personal lifetime of our IR scholar, etc.). Where else to go to make a better living?
There is excision: the U.S. portion is cut out of its world totality. “America” is on its own and at least in this article owes zero to the world (“America” is conventional misnomer of a single-nation appropriation of the plurality of nations in the Western Hemisphere, the spectrum circumscribed by the Monroe Doctrine, the fans in international competitions do not chant “America,” but tellingly, “U.S.A.”!). The bigger part, “RoW,” is a follower to the part-turned-whole of “America” according to its leadership, also detached of and separated from the multidirectional complexities of the United States. This official version of an IR knowledge production constitutes a colossal collapse of idiographic differentiations of world dimensions.
Ironically, it claims to provide a correspondingly monumental, nomothetic construction of world union, or order, which refuses to go into any great detail about the thousand and one idiographic timespace specificities and diverse social-group configurations. As such, this article is perfect ideology fantasy of liberal “post-“liberalism that puts the block to the wheels of history and refuses to acknowledge its own historicity. The image of the “RoW” that comes out of this profoundly distorting mirror of IR knowledge is of the liberal internationalist variety, arrested development of an immensely flat and empty world at large that does not speak, feel, taste, sound… American in the way our IR scholar deems America to be. This vast world is subaltern and does not speak except to signify the negative value of the positive value that our IR scholar attributes to himself and his nation in toto. No different voice comes across here since such a voice would be inevitably filtered through an institutionalist and conservative, stifling form of lingua franca that is not at all persuasive, at least to me.
Inside distorting mirrors in the echo chamber, the American idiom of this lingua franca corresponds to an impoverished version of the “ego cogito” projection of an American type, that closes time and again upon itself, and there are already decades. It corresponds, without doubt, to a fantastically disembodied, impossibly de-ethnicized “white” from nowhere etherised upon the table of operations of his professional affiliations. Needless to say, this type will not hold transformative conversations about pre-and post-American supremacy histories of the world at large.
“Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline” is one good example of the IR knowledge type of a supremacist monologue in which the national allegory of Uncle Sam is put up as the pathetic-fallacy device of the speaking subject. Ikenberry ventriloquizes America since Hamiltonian times to today. Our IR scholar hides behind the construction of an identity of the United States in which the United States operates like a lifeless stalking horse to go hunting un-Americanness or foreignness that must be captured, subalternized, silenced and ideally turned into a good tool or an ally.
Such construction goes along the delusions of grandeur of the aforementioned legendary teenager who loses all sense of proportionality, comparative desire and awareness of the historical and social densities that may have preceded and will follow him. The challenging question for all of us is how to insert the history of the United States inside the larger narrative of the North Atlantic portion of Western hegemony or the century-long universalism that is still coming out of a “triumphant” and expansionist Europe and what to do with it and where to go next to seek inspirational post-imperial and postcolonial alternatives not only to world-order constructs. The world order before and after US primacy is of no concern at all to Ikenberry and others who to stick their luck to figures such as Woodrow Wilson no matter how many DuBois critiques are piled on the head of the genteel and racist Southener who has been somewhat removed from the general brand of schools of international affairs at Princeton and elsewhere.
Our interpreter lets the player run the pitch solo with a yellow or red card time and time again. He wins. This is success and one wonders what that means. Like the fan who is besotted with her favourite actress, Ikenberry is besotted with statism if it is American. He thinks the world of it as the expression has it so much so that he subordinates the gargantuan portion to the Lilliputian portion of the U.S. state apparatus, which, to him, is the totality that matters most. In point of fact, our IR scholar will tell you time and time again that there is nothing like it.
His faith in liberal internationalism is really at bottom the fascination with this statism that goes by the name of “American power,” and our liberal internationalist plays with nominal overlaps (allegorical nation, state, invited empire, society, power, civilization of the liberal West, liberal democracies…) as if there were all valid options in the same pack of cards. Our IR scholar celebrates the world only in so far as his overdetermined superpower of a federal-nation-state formation owns it. Publicly, he learns nothing from other states, nations, civilizations or societies, at least according to the written record (this article exemplifies identical mindset as the books).
Foreignness carries no epistemic value worthy of consideration, which is a terrible and accurate thing to say about any internationalism. This jingoistic aberration is done in the name of “institution, cooperation and advancement.” But there is never any specific timespace and no proper names or good dates, no good or dirty deeds done carefully or cheaply. Add hypocrisy to the mix for salty flavour. The world wants more U.S. order and they will get it, as far as our IR interpreter is concerned. He preaches to the Foreign-Affairs choir in its lingo. When consent breaks down, we have, we are told, an “empire by invitation” (Geir Lundestad is cited, but his statements are more nuanced than this slogan). It is, what else, but a history of seventy-year-old “success,” says our all-American author who is about the same age.
Such happy proclamation depends on “legitimacy” and “appeal” and “not on the capacity of its patrons to force obedience.” Coercion is not explored. Consent to American leadership is given willingly, according to Ikenberry. China and Russia are different cases. The “crises” over Taiwan and Ukraine –in this order—underline this “fact.” The present situation is ripple effect of three dates (1919, 1945 and 1989), First and Second World wars, the fall of the Berlin War and the beginning of the post-Cold War. The 20th century is history lesson of the U.S. “success” and [of] other democracies “resisting the aggressive moves of illiberal great powers.”
The article is quiet about post-1989 dates probably because these are too close for comfort. That is when our IR scholar collaborated with Anne-Marie Slaughter in putting anthologies together about neo-Wilsonianism and the Iraq War. There is a Princetonian proximity to the Obama administration. But tact and caution beckon since all these actors are still around and they could still say a few things if provoked. Still, this is the Democrats’ side of foreign affairs that is now, admittedly, speaking the language of separateness, circling the wagons, playing defence and survivalism as he did in the interview with me about his latest book (short version).
The slogan remains one in favour of “the open, multilateral system of world order.” The call is now one of reformation, but there are never specifics. The objective, “to draw states and peoples together in new forms of cooperation, such as to solve problems of climate change, global public health, and sustainable development.” G. John Ikenberry’s public faith in liberal internationalism is truly, as I hope I have demonstrated, the cynical reason in American power forever at bottom. It is cynical in the true sense of stating multilateralism as long as American primacy sits on it, “liberal” in the sense of transnational capitalism of flows and supply chains sincerely or hypocritically or both as long as the victor remains born in the U.S.A. Cynicism in the profession of internationalism is the one that hides the type of nativism that constructs time and time again upon a subaltern and always wanting foreignness.
Foreignness is under the foot of this liberal internationalism and it has now two characteristics, Chinese and Russian. The reader is invited to go fishing for an enviable feature of this or any other form of foreignness that could be learned and internalized for the betterment of the polity. Unlike the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas presenting stark indictments to Charles I, “Why American Power Endures: the U.S.-led Order isn’t in Decline is Apologética Historia Sumaria [condensed apologetic history] that finds no reason to give reason to the “Indians” out there. In this allegorical tableau vivant of not many super-power nations, the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind automatically allocates the “unique” history of success in the history of the world to the IR scholar’s birth nation.
His suave manners of public presentations do not hide the bombast of this jingoism which emerges I hope I have demonstrated as soon as the readers parse the grammar of the article in question: the perspective is that of agreeing and going along the alleged good intentions of elite groups in the foreign affairs of the U.S.; those of the allies, less so, those of the rivals, do not even think about it and do not go there. If you are waiting for the reasons of the others, you are waiting for Godot. The conclusion delivers the rhetorical fallacy of a suggested indirect style that puts the “world,” always cleanly cut from the United States, in the grammatical subject position, also a position of dependence and want. This “RoW” is said to be always already and forever in need of the leadership of the U.S. the problem-fixer, the partnership-builder: “It [the world] cannot afford the end of the American era.” The calculated understatement or euphemism fools no one: “We are still inspirational. They still want us.”
Think of the film All about Eve. There is identity construction between the speaking subject (Ikenberry), and the national allegory (Uncle Sam) wanted. Tease it out fully: this liberal internationalism is really from head to heart to bottom a not so unique display of public faith or cynical reason in American power forever.
Fernando Gómez Herrero is a lecturer at the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at Birkbeck College, the University of London.