Sunday 25 Jul 2021 | 16:57 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Jul 2021 | 16:57 | SYDNEY

Liberal institutionalism and its critics


Sam Roggeveen


12 May 2009 12:17

You're lucky if you can occasionally read something that helps you pull your head up out of the weeds of international policy and consider 'grand strategic' questions. You may find, as I  recently  did, that John Ikenberry's 2007 article, 'Grand strategy as liberal order building', meets that need.
Ikenberry makes the case for the US to get back into the business of building an international order. His conclusions are clearly relevant to Australia. His starting point is that the era of a single  monolithic state-based security threat to the US has been replaced by diffuse problems and crises like terrorism, rogue states, pandemics and climate change.

No single one of these is catastrophic, but in combination they could bring about an era of lawlessness and chaos. The primary task for US statecraft, Ikenberry argues,  is  not to 'take on' any one of these threats to the exclusion of the others but to create an  international  order  that  allows for  cooperative solutions to emerge to all of these challenges and to others we haven't thought of yet — a year ago, reform of financial architecture was not at the top of the international agenda.
Ikenberry says the US is actually pretty good at the institution building that is required for this task. In fact, he says, institution building was (along with containment) one of the key elements of US post-war grand strategy. In the immediate post-World War II period the US engaged in a frenzy of institution building — the UN, Bretton Woods, GATT, NATO, the US-Japan alliance — which reinforced a broadly liberal world order for the next fifty years. But a number of those institutions are fraying and losing relevance. The primary threat to US security, Ikenberry says, is not any one specific phenomenon like terrorism or the financial meltdown, but the degradation of that order.
The task of rebuilding it was put on hold during the Bush era of US exceptionalism, and Ikenberry says it is time for the US to get back into the business of creating a liberal world order that emerging states will want to be a part of and which can facilitate the resolution of specific security challenges.

Some of this will sound familiar and conventional to those who have been around the debates for a long time, but the essay struck me as a very clear case for what is often referred to as 'liberal institutionalism'. That label evidently frightens many realists, but Ikenberry argues it ought to be a facet to their grand strategic ambitions too. For instance, on China:

The rise of China – and Greater Asia – is perhaps the seminal drama of our time. In the decades to come, America’s unipolar power will give way to a more bipolar, multipolar or decentralized distribution of power. China will most likely be a dominant state and the United States will need to yield to it in various ways. The national security question for America to ask today is: what sorts of investments in global institutional architecture do I want to make now so that the coming power shifts will adversely impact me the least? That is, what sorts of institutional arrangements do I want to have in place to protect my interests when I am less powerful?

...the United States should try to embed the foundations of the Western-oriented international system so deeply that China has overwhelming incentives to integrate into it rather than to oppose and overturn it. Those American strategists who fear a rising China the most should be ultra-ambitious liberal institution builders. (Emphasis added.)

Still, realists like Stephen Walt are unconvinced, arguing that Ikenberry's liberalism is ambitious and utopian, and only encourages the kind of neo-conservative adventurism that got the US into so much trouble in the Bush era. They worry that this institution-building is just another form of neo-conservative hubris, a way for the US to promote democracy by force if necessary and generally tell other countries how to run their affairs. For people like Ikenberry, the real concern is not just that Western realists have this fear, but that other countries will have it too. His institutionalist agenda will never find favour internationally if it carries a suspicion of US neo-imperialism.

But there is a way to square this circle, by defining very strictly the nature of the institutions and body of law that liberal institutionalists like Ikenberry want to build. Specifically, in order to minimise concerns that Western institution-building is colonialist or paternalistic in character, these proposed institutions must be never be purposive in character. Rather, they should be procedural.

That sounds like a dusty dry distinction about the intricate nature of bureaucracy, but let me try to nail down the distiction and explain why it is important. A purposive institution is one that is designed to fulfill a very specific purpose or mission, and among those Ikenberry nominates in his essay, NATO is an obvious example of a purposive institution, in that it was established with the specific aim of defending western Europe from the Warsaw Pact.

A procedural institution, on the other hand, is designed not to pursue a collective purpose but so that the participants can more efficiently and peaceably pursue their own purposes. The Bretton Woods accords would seem to fall into that category, as does a body of international law such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The reason this distinction matters is that, because procedural institutions do not impose a corporate purpose, there is no need for participants to agree on a purpose or to get involved in disputes about who is defining the purpose and why. All they need to agree on is the rules of the road, not which direction to drive in. Clearly, purposive institutions have their place, but the NATO example exemplifies that these work best in circumstances of relative cultural accord. In the emerging multipolar world, such cultural affinity will be hard to find.