G. John Ikenberry. Public lecture: ‘The End of the Liberal World Order’





The final visitor in the Spring 2019 portion of the Centenary Speakers Series was G. John Ikenberry, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His talk was titled ‘The End if the Liberal World Order?’.

Professor Ikenberry addressed one of the most salient concerns of contemporary international politics - the crisis of confidence in the ‘liberal international project’, first articulated by Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of the First World War. He described the project as the internationalisation of domestic political and economic liberalism with the following key features: attempts to reduce tensions arising from international anarchy using multilateral institutions, the promotion of democracy, creation of human rights and, relatedly, the prosecution of war criminals. The crisis of confidence in this order has excited some and disturbed others, with post-Cold War predictions of ‘the end of history’ frustrated by the resurgence of reactionary politics within democratic polities, and of the rise of the ‘new authoritarianism’ around the world.

Following this diagnosis of the problem, Professor Ikenberry then mounted his defence of the liberal international order. He observed that the project has been repeatedly reinvented over the years, indeed adapting to an increasingly globalised and inter-connected international system. Contained within this expansion, however, were the seeds of the current political backlash. Professor Ikenberry spoke of how this system outran its own functionality by growing beyond what the original values could adapt to. Not all the old ideas suit the new members. As such, the project has become less total and all-encompassing than before, with new members being able to pick and choose which aspects to engage with (for instance, engaging with multlateral institutions and adopting liberal economic standards of practice while remaining politically repressive domestically). Professor Ikenberry’s defence revolved around the idea that the liberal international order is not dying but evolving, indeed adapting to accommodate ideationally diverse non-Western nations. This, he argued, is a sign of the liberal system’s resilience, not necessarily of its decline. The heterogeneity of the modern community of states makes the maintenance of grand narratives impossible. The inability of many democratic industrialised states in the West to perpetuate economic advancement, especially as many politically non-liberal states enjoy historically high growth rates, gives the impression the liberal world order is in decline. The solution, for Professor Ikenberry, is less one of averting perceived disintegration, but one of reinterpreting the project itself. “Making the world safe for democracy”, for instance, need not prescribe crusades of intervention and conflict in the name of spreading democracy, but an alternative understanding that the international order should instead be capable of sustaining democracy. By this reading, not all states need be democracies. The strength of liberal internationalism, misunderstood by some as weakness, is its ability to act as a meta-narrative framework which can tolerate other belief systems alongside and within it. As non-Western states increase their share of global power and begin to diffuse influence away from old poles, this adaptive and flexible understanding of the liberal international system becomes increasingly important for the continuation of an international system under which democracy can flourish.

The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A session with a variety of fascinating topics being touched on.