Ikenberry’s misplaced optimism

John Ikenberry, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that geopolitics is just an illusion. The problem is that Ikenberry’s argument is based more on optimism than any real basis

He opens “Walter Russell Mead paints a disturbing portrait of the United States’ geopolitical predicament. As he sees it, an increasingly formidable coalition of illiberal powers — China, Iran, and Russia — is determined to undo the post–Cold War settlement and the U.S.-led global order that stands behind it. Across Eurasia, he argues, these aggrieved states are bent on building spheres of influence to threaten the foundations of U.S. leadership and the global order. So the United States must rethink its optimism, including its post–Cold War belief that rising non-Western states can be persuaded to join the West and play by its rules. For Mead, the time has come to confront the threats from these increasingly dangerous geopolitical foes”.

Ikenberry, goes on to describe Mead’s argument as alarmist, “Mead’s alarmism is based on a colossal misreading of modern power realities. It is a misreading of the logic and character of the existing world order, which is more stable and expansive than Mead depicts, leading him to overestimate the ability of the ‘axis of weevils’ to undermine it. And it is a misreading of China and Russia, which are not full-scale revisionist powers but part-time spoilers at best, as suspicious of each other as they are of the outside world. True, they look for opportunities to resist the United States’ global leadership, and recently, as in the past, they have pushed back against it, particularly when confronted in their own neighbourhoods. But even these conflicts are fueled more by weakness — their leaders’ and regimes’ — than by strength. They have no appealing brand. And when it comes to their overriding interests, Russia and, especially, China are deeply integrated into the world economy and its governing institutions. Mead also mischaracterises the thrust of U.S. foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, he argues, the United States has ignored geopolitical issues involving territory and spheres of influence and instead adopted a Pollyannaish emphasis on building the global order. But this is a false dichotomy. The United States does not focus on issues of global order, such as arms control and trade, because it assumes that geopolitical conflict is gone forever; it undertakes such efforts precisely because it wants to manage great-power competition. Order building is not premised on the end of geopolitics; it is about how to answer the big questions of geopolitics”.

Ikenberry is certainly correct to say that China and Russia are merely “part-time spoilers” but the danger is that Ikenberry assumes that they can be full integreted into the current international order as they are. Indeed, given the chance both Russia and China will attempt to undermine and replace the US led order with something more suited to their own interests. His assertion that the US “assumes that geopolitical conflict is gone forever” is doubtful. It may be more correct to say that it is a result of the worldview of the current administration, for example, its refusal to deal with the crimes in Syria and its constant refrain of international law and “mediation”. Needless to say the assumption of the end of geopolitics is a core tenet of the EU which has been proven wrong on so many occasions.

Ikenberry writes that the building of the global order “has helped draw countries into the United States’ orbit. It has helped strengthen global norms and rules that undercut the legitimacy of nineteenth-century-style spheres of influence, bids for regional domination, and territorial grabs. And it has given the United States the capacities, partnerships, and principles to confront today’s great-power spoilers and revisionists, such as they are”.

Yet Ikenberry seems to want it both ways. He wants to claim that the world is governed by America thus ending great power conflict. At the same time the spoilers of Russia and China are obviously not going away. International order is still here but at the same time it could, under no circumstances said to be complete.

He adds “In matters of geopolitics (not to mention demographics, politics, and ideas), the United States has a decisive advantage over China, Iran, and Russia. Although the United States will no doubt come down from the peak of hegemony that it occupied during the unipolar era, its power is still unrivaled. Its wealth and technological advantages remain far out of the reach of China and Russia, to say nothing of Iran. Its recovering economy, now bolstered by massive new natural gas resources, allows it to maintain a global military presence and credible security commitments. Indeed, Washington enjoys a unique ability to win friends and influence states. According to a study led by the political scientist Brett Ashley Leeds, the United States boasts military partnerships with more than 60 countries, whereas Russia counts eight formal allies and China has just one (North Korea)”.

Ikenberry continues, “Geography reinforces the United States’ other advantages. As the only great power not surrounded by other great powers, the country has appeared less threatening to other states and was able to rise dramatically over the course of the last century without triggering a war. After the Cold War, when the United States was the world’s sole superpower, other global powers, oceans away, did not even attempt to balance against it. In fact, the United States’ geographic position has led other countries to worry more about abandonment than domination. Allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have sought to draw the United States into playing a greater role in their regions”.

However, while all this is obviosly true, Ikenberry is incorrect to say that geopolitics is finished, or in his term, is an illusion. Russia, China and Iran may be mere spoilers but they can do much damage to their neighbourhoods. This should puncture the notion that geopolitics has ended, a mistake the EU continues to make.

He concedes that “Mead does not argue that China, Iran, or Russia offers the world a new model of modernity. If these illiberal powers really do threaten Washington and the rest of the liberal capitalist world, then they will need to find and ride the next great wave of modernization. They are unlikely to do that”.

Again Ikenberry conflates the two concepts. His either/or defination of geopolitics leaves little room for the nuances of the world. The illiberal states do not threaten America but at the same time they can, and have made the world harder for America and its allies to advance their goals and values. These states will, in all probabilty, remain stuck where they are, cursing the American order and at the same time doing everything they can to frustrate it.

Ikenberry does make the valid point that “Mead’s vision of a contest over Eurasia between the United States and China, Iran, and Russia misses the more profound power transition under way: the increasing ascendancy of liberal capitalist democracy. To be sure, many liberal democracies are struggling at the moment with slow economic growth, social inequality, and political instability. But the spread of liberal democracy throughout the world, beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating after the Cold War, has dramatically strengthened the United States’ position and tightened the geopolitical circle around China and Russia. It’s easy to forget how rare liberal democracy once was. Until the twentieth century, it was confined to the West and parts of Latin America. After World War II, however, it began to reach beyond those realms, as newly independent states established self-rule. During the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, military coups and new dictators put the brakes on democratic transitions. But in the late 1970s, what the political scientist Samuel Huntington termed “the third wave” of democratization washed over southern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. Then the Cold War ended, and a cohort of former communist states in eastern Europe were brought into the democratic fold. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of all countries had become democracies. Although some backsliding has occurred, the more significant trend has been the emergence of a group of democratic middle powers, including Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey. These rising democracies are acting as stakeholders in the international system: pushing for multilateral cooperation, seeking greater rights and responsibilities, and exercising influence through peaceful means”.

He notes the increased democarcies in Asia, citing Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand Indonesia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Burma. Although the last two could not be said to be true democracies.

He writes optomistically, “These political transformations have put China and Russia on the defensive. Consider the recent developments in Ukraine. The economic and political currents in most of the country are inexorably flowing westward, a trend that terrifies Putin. His only recourse has been to strong-arm Ukraine into resisting the EU and remaining in Russia’s orbit. Although he may be able to keep Crimea under Russian control, his grip on the rest of the country is slipping. As the EU diplomat Robert Cooper has noted, Putin can try to delay the moment when Ukraine “affiliates with the EU, but he can’t stop it.” Indeed, Putin might not even be able to accomplish that, since his provocative moves may serve only to speed Ukraine’s move toward Europe”.

This thread of optimism again surfaces when he implies China will become democratic just as the rest of Asia has done. Firstly, Asian democracy is not as secure as European democracy and at the same time China may well not become a democracy but the CCP will be replaced by a military dictatorship, which is a far more likely outcome.

He goes on to argue “While the rise of democratic states makes life more difficult for China and Russia, it makes the world safer for the United States. Those two powers may count as U.S. rivals, but the rivalry takes place on a very uneven playing field: the United States has the most friends, and the most capable ones, too. Washington and its allies account for 75 percent of global military spending. Democratization has put China and Russia in a geopolitical box”.

This overlooks the idea that America still thinks geopolitically. Much of what he says is correct, but Washington still plays Chile off Peru and Botswana off Kenya. Geopolitical thinking still exists in the halls of American power, despite his earnest desire for its demise.

Ikenberry continues, “Not only does Mead underestimate the strength of the United States and the order it built; he also overstates the degree to which China and Russia are seeking to resist both. (Apart from its nuclear ambitions, Iran looks like a state engaged more in futile protest than actual resistance, so it shouldn’t be considered anything close to a revisionist power.) Without a doubt, China and Russia desire greater regional influence. China has made aggressive claims over maritime rights and nearby contested islands, and it has embarked on an arms buildup. Putin has visions of reclaiming Russia’s dominance in its “near abroad.” Both great powers bristle at U.S. leadership and resist it when they can. But China and Russia are not true revisionists. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has said, Putin’s foreign policy is “more a reflection of his resentment of Russia’s geopolitical marginalization than a battle cry from a rising empire.” China, of course, is an actual rising power, and this does invite dangerous competition with U.S. allies in Asia. But China is not currently trying to break those alliances or overthrow the wider system of regional security governance embodied in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit. And even if China harbours ambitions of eventually doing so, U.S. security partnerships in the region are, if anything, getting stronger, not weaker. At most, China and Russia are spoilers. They do not have the interests — let alone the ideas, capacities, or allies — to lead them to upend existing global rules and institutions”.

He again argues that “that China and Russia have become deeply integrated into the existing international order. They are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, with veto rights, and they both participate actively in the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G-20. They are geopolitical insiders, sitting at all the high tables of global governance”.

Yet despite repeated attempts by the IMF and World Bank to ask China to let its current float against the dollar they have refused. China knows to do so would mean Chinese goods would soar in price which would destroy whatever is left of their cheap manufacturing base on which the power of the CCP largely rests. China and Russia may well be on the UNSC but they have continually obstructed calls for the extension of the US led order. They do nothing on Syria, provoke tension and conflict in Ukraine and in the seas surroundig them, and have given shelter to thugs like the president of Sudan over Darfur. There are dozens of other examples where they could not be said to be well integrated into the liberal US led order. The obvios conclusion is that they wish to overturn it and are unable to, or do not wish to overturn it but still think geopolitically.

He ends the piece wanting it both ways again, “Ultimately, even if China and Russia do attempt to contest the basic terms of the current global order, the adventure will be daunting and self-defeating. These powers aren’t just up against the United States; they would also have to contend with the most globally organised and deeply entrenched order the world has ever seen, one that is dominated by states that are liberal, capitalist, and democratic. This order is backed by a U.S.-led network of alliances, institutions, geopolitical bargains, client states, and democratic partnerships”.

He concludes, “In the age of liberal order, revisionist struggles are a fool’s errand. Indeed, China and Russia know this. They do not have grand visions of an alternative order. For them, international relations are mainly about the search for commerce and resources, the protection of their sovereignty, and, where possible, regional domination. They have shown no interest in building their own orders or even taking full responsibility for the current one and have offered no alternative visions of global economic or political progress. That’s a critical shortcoming, since international orders rise and fall not simply with the power of the leading state; their success also hinges on whether they are seen as legitimate and whether their actual operation solves problems that both weak and powerful states care about. In the struggle for world order, China and Russia (and certainly Iran) are simply not in the game. Under these circumstances, the United States should not give up its efforts to strengthen the liberal order. The world that Washington inhabits today is one it should welcome. And the grand strategy it should pursue is the one it has followed for decades: deep global engagement”.



One Response to “Ikenberry’s misplaced optimism”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] Obama policy in this regard. Worse, the author mentions that Sanders could take a theme from Ikenberry who lauded the liberal building of the United States after 1945. Yet, in many of Ikenberry’s […]

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