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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWhy American Power Endures: The U.S.-Led Order Isn’t in Decline

Why American Power Endures: The U.S.-Led Order Isn’t in Decline

Author: G. John Ikenberry  

Affiliation: Princeton University, Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Global Eminence Scholar at Kyung Hee University 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: November-December 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 6182


Keywords: The Crisis of the Liberal International Order, Debate on American Decline, Liberal Internationalism, Geography, the World Republic



While the US-led liberal international order is witnessing a critical crisis, “decliners” have re-emerged, predicting the decline of the order. They argue that the US will lose its global primacy, which it has enjoyed for nearly a century. The East now competes with the West in terms of economic power and geopolitical weight, and the global South is rapidly growing and assuming a major role in the international arena. Simultaneously, liberal societies are grappling with rising nationalism and populism, which undermine the liberal internationalism that has supported Washington’s global primacy. Additionally, emerging great powers like China and Russia are challenging American hegemony and liberal democracies, calling for a new era where the United States does not lead the world.


Despite all this, John Ikenberry challenges the “claims” of the decliners. He believes that the United States is not about to falter and provides many arguments to prove the continuation of deep sources of American power and influence throughout the world in the twenty-first century. He stresses that the US-led liberal international order is not heading towards decline as predicted. According to Ikenberry, this order is still capable of correcting its mistakes and offering the best alternatives to people and countries worldwide, compared to what competitors offer, to address common global challenges. He argues that the world cannot yet afford the end of the American era.


The article is divided into six parts. The first part explains how liberal internationalism is the most appropriate solution to the problems of modern international relations, primarily addressing “Anarchy, Hierarchy, and Interdependence.” Liberal internationalism is based on a set of rules, norms, institutions, and alliances that promote values such as freedom, openness, liberal democracy, interdependence, and collective security among states. Examples include the United Nations and NATO. This perspective led to the establishment of the international order by Washington after World War II, known as the “liberal” international order. It represents a “third way” between two historically prevalent types of orders: “anarchy orders,” which are based on the balance of power between competing states, and “hierarchy orders,” which rely on the hegemony of imperial powers. The roots of liberal internationalism can be traced back to the late eighteenth century, to philosophers of the Enlightenment and modernity like Immanuel Kant, who believed that improving human conditions required political systems based on reason, science, and measured self-interest. Consequently, they sought to establish an international order that would serve as a forum for collective security, constrain wars, and temper aggressive power politics by strengthening interdependence between nations. Ikenberry notes that the idea of such an order was not unique to the United States throughout history. However, what sets Washington apart is its determination to prioritize these ideas and successfully provide solutions to the three aforementioned problems: “anarchy, hierarchy, and interdependence.”


The term “anarchy” has long been associated with the realist paradigm in international politics. It refers to the system and environment in which states interact in the absence of any supreme authority superior to nation-states, capable of ensuring security or providing aid to states during moments of aggression. Realists, therefore, view self-reliance as a fundamental principle for survival, which leads to the formation of alliances, the establishment of a balance of power, and the limitation of anarchy in the international system. By doing so, the competition among states and resulting wars can be reduced. On the other hand, liberal internationalism sees the realist perspective as a recipe for ongoing wars and sustainable instability. Instead, it argues that institutions have the ability to foster cooperation, interdependence, and states’ pursuit of common gains, thus mitigating the problem of anarchy in the system.


This vision was exemplified by Washington’s adoption of liberal internationalism since World War II, when it established a complex and extensive system of sustainable institutions. These include the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and multilateral systems in various fields such as trade, development, healthcare, the environment, and human rights. These institutions have played a pivotal role in preventing major power wars and have made cooperation a central feature of the global system.


Regarding hierarchy, it refers to a system in which a dominant leading state or states occupy a central position. The concept of empire represents its ultimate embodiment. The leading country is concerned with maintaining its position, gaining the cooperation of others, and exercising legitimate authority in shaping world politics. On the other side, weaker states are concerned about being dominated. In such an environment, liberal internationalists argue that rules and institutions can serve as both protectors for the weaker states and tools for the stronger ones. Rules and institutions provide the leading states with the freedom to exercise self-restraint and commit to treating weaker states with respect, thereby alleviating concerns of intimidation. These institutions also enable weaker states to mitigate coercive practices that the dominant state might inflict upon them and give them a voice in how the order operates.


According to Ikenberry, since 1945, the US-led liberal international order has been characterized as a “hierarchical order with liberal characteristics.” The challenges of interdependence are exacerbated by the risks and vulnerabilities that countries face as they become more interconnected. Washington has addressed this issue by incentivizing states to pursue coordinated policies through institutions and forums. While this approach may impose some restrictions on national autonomy, the benefits resulting from coordination increasingly outweigh these costs as interdependence intensifies.


Hence, the author believes that the United States is currently at the center of a liberal system/order that provides institutional solutions to most of the problems of world politics. So, if the world is to organize itself to deal with the problems of the twenty-first century, it will need to build on this US-led order, rather than reject it.


In the second part, Ikenberry delves into the role of geography in shaping the United States and its liberal international order, highlighting its unique position as an anti-expansionist and anti-imperialist power. Unlike previous empires in history, the United States stands out due to its geography. As the only superpower born in the New World (the Americas) and situated far from its main competitors, it enjoys the protection of vast oceans. This sets it apart from contemporary great powers like China and Russia, which find themselves in a densely populated geopolitical neighborhood, where powers vie for hegemony.


According to the author, these geographical conditions have played a crucial role in shaping US institutions, its approach to the international order, and its capacity to project power abroad. The distance from other powers has allowed the United States to establish a modern republican-style system, free from the constraints of monarchical authority that plagued European powers in history. These powers were confined to environments that compelled them to pursue autocratic military policies to ensure their survival and national security. The geographical isolation of the United States provided it with an opportunity for success. Its vast territories and abundant resources also facilitated its rapid rise.


This approach influenced the United States’ response to the geopolitical conditions it faced as a rising power in the early twentieth century, during a world dominated by empires and divided into imperial blocs and regions. Particularly after World War II, American strategists questioned whether the United States could function as a superpower in a world divided by empires. They pondered whether the United States, if confined to the Western Hemisphere, could be a global power while vast Eurasia was dominated by imperial blocs. Policymakers and analysts agreed that this was not feasible. To become a global power, the United States needed access to markets and resources worldwide. Consequently, the United States engaged in alliances and agreements with imperialist countries at various points, initially following a short-term imperial path. However, the prevailing driver of American strategy throughout these decades was the establishment of a post-imperial structure for great power relations, aimed at constructing an open, stable, and amicable international order. To a significant extent, it succeeded in establishing such an order. Presently, the United States boasts over 60 security partnerships across all regions of the world. Many countries in these regions now fear being abandoned by the United States rather than being dominated by it, while China has only a few scattered security relationships, such as with Djibouti and North Korea.


The third part emphasizes another distinctive characteristic of the United States that has facilitated the construction and maintenance of the liberal international order: the advantage of “collective leadership.” According to the author, the United States did not become a superpower through occupation but rather seized the opportunities presented by the geopolitical voids created at the conclusion of major modern wars. During these critical moments, such as the aftermath of the world wars and the Cold War, the global system and the old world of empires were in disarray.


In each of these cases, the United States found itself on the winning side of significant conflicts, witnessing the decline of the old order and the need to build something new. Rather than merely restoring the balance of power, the United States viewed itself as engaged in a struggle against illiberal great powers, advocating for the principles of world order and championing the liberal-democratic way of life. In these pivotal historical moments, the United States chose to exercise its power by collaborating with other democracies. It led the Allies in 1919, took charge of the United Nations after 1945, and assumed the leadership of the “free world” since 1989. Through its leadership and material strength, the United States played a pivotal role in shifting the tides of each war. The ongoing rivalry between the United States and its authoritarian rivals, China and Russia, over the world order is seen by the author as an opportunity to further advance liberal democratic principles globally.


The fourth part highlights another advantage that sets the United States apart from its contemporary competitors and strengthens its potential to maintain global primacy: its multicultural and multi-ethnic immigrant community. This diverse community establishes deep connections between the United States and regions worldwide through familial, ethnic, and cultural ties, creating what historian Frank Ninkovich refers to as a “global republic” or a “global civil society.” These complex and far-reaching connections contribute to the functioning of global governance and diplomacy, rendering the United States relevant to all parts of the world and embedded within an extensive and influential global network. The United States possesses a deep understanding of the outside world, while the outside world has a vested interest in the happenings within the United States. This advantage serves as a source of American influence and fosters cooperation and solidarity among the liberal democratic world. Civil society takes various forms, encompassing non-governmental organizations, universities, think tanks, professional associations, media organizations, philanthropies, and social and religious groups. The activities of these groups are, in part, a consequence of the liberal international order established after 1945.


In the fifth part, the author emphasizes the enduring power of the inspiring liberal ideals and progressive values that the United States represents. Despite the internal challenges the country faces today, it is the ideals themselves, rather than the country alone, that have had a profound impact on the world over the past century. According to the author, no other aspiring global power, including China, offers a more attractive vision than the United States, both domestically and globally. Consequently, people worldwide place greater hope in the United States than in any other country, including China. The author argues that what will keep the United States at the center of world politics is its ability to continually strive for improvement.


The author believes that the liberal idea has a long life ahead of it. The resistance of Taiwan against Chinese pressure and the Ukrainian struggle against Putin, as well as their aspirations for a prosperous future within the framework of the European Union, serve as evidence that these societies wish to be part of a global liberal system. These examples do not indicate American decline or the collapse of the liberal order.


The final part underscores the United States’ leading position in shaping the world in the twenty-first century, thanks to the significant advantages it possesses compared to its competitors (as discussed earlier). The United States has demonstrated its potential to work alongside other liberal democracies in establishing global rules and institutions, as seen in its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the resistance against Putin has put the United States and European democracies on the defensive, it has also provided an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to an open and multilateral world order. The United States will be well-positioned to coordinate any future collective response to Chinese aggression in East Asia. The United States presents a vision of a world order based on principles rather than territorial competition, in contrast to Russia and China, which seek to create regional blocs and spheres of influence. The author cites the concept of “empire by invitation,” coined by Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad, to capture the essence of the US-led liberal international order. Its success depends on legitimacy and appeal, rather than the ability of its patrons to enforce obedience. If the United States continues to remain at the center of world politics in the coming decades, it will be because this type of order garners more supporters and allies worldwide than the alternatives offered by China and Russia, as argued by Ikenberry. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



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