from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Back to The Future? Ikenberry and Deudney’s Democratic Internationalism

November 26, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Two prominent political scientists, G. John Ikenberry of Princeton and Daniel Deudney of Johns Hopkins, have a new paper out guaranteed to give realists—and conservatives generally—fits. Democratic Internationalism: An American Grand Strategy for a Post-exceptionalist Era is an unabashed liberal plea to restore the New Deal foundations of U.S. domestic as well as international policy. To preserve an open world order under the rule of law,  the authors contend, the United States must return to the principles it embraced under the administrations of FDR and Harry Truman, namely: a bipartisan commitment to liberal internationalism, solidarity with the world’s most established democracies, and a dedication to the progressive welfare state at home and abroad.

It would be easy to dismiss these arguments as quixotic. Given the polarized U.S. political landscape and the public’s yearning for retrenchment, can one really envision a revival of the domestic consensus that guided U.S. foreign policy through the Cold War? Is it credible that the future of world order will depend more on today’s tired democracies—an insolvent America, a crisis-prone Europe, and an anemic Japan—than on China and the larger cohort of dynamic emerging powers? And given the documented flaws of the welfare state, does a resurgence of social democracy—including in a divided, post-Tea Party America—seem the likeliest glue to bind the United States to its longtime allies?

Before rejecting these theses out of hand, the wise reader would dive into the paper itself. For it offers a thoughtful (if contestable) blueprint for how the United States might preserve the contours of the liberal world order and manage growing global interdependence while navigating its own relative decline.  A grand strategy of “democratic internationalism,” Deudney and Ikenberry argue, “would return liberal internationalism to its roots in social democratic ideals, seek to redress imbalances within the democratic world between fundamentalist capitalism and socioeconomic equity, and move toward a posthegemonic system of global governance in which the United States increasingly shares authority with other democracies.”

The paper’s premises are straightforward.

  • First, the stability of the post-1945 world order was the product not only of U.S. power, but more importantly of U.S. liberal internationalism. During the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the United States consciously promoted a model of progressive democratic capitalism that promised both civil liberty and broadly shared growth, and it organized its Western hegemony through consensual multilateral institutions that gave voice to its free world partners. According to Deudney and Ikenberry, the resulting architecture of international cooperation—including the Bretton Woods Institutions, the United Nations, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—projected outwardly the animating ideals of the New Deal and later efforts to expand the U.S. welfare state.

  • Second, the contemporary “crisis” of U.S. global leadership actually reflects a historical triumph—America’s success after 1945 in promoting and defending a community of market democracies against illiberal powers and ideologies. If “today the United States is no longer exceptional and indispensable,” it is “precisely because of its success in creating a free world order in which so many states are liberal, capitalist, and democratic.” The challenge is to reconfigure U.S. leadership to an era in which democracy dominates—not only within the “old trilateral core” of Europe, North America and Japan but also in much of the non-Western and post-colonial world.

  • Third, today’s plural democratic community is a broad but shallow one, vulnerable to divergences in values and tectonic shifts in global power. Ties have frayed between the United States and its longtime European partners, particularly since the Reagan years, when the U.S. welfare state began to come under assault. Likewise, U.S. relations with many emerging democracies are fraught, especially on lightning rod issues like sovereignty, human rights, and trade liberalization. As power diffuses to the developing world, including to illiberal states like China, new strategic rivalries may arise, existing multilateral institutions may weaken, and democracies may find cooperation on global problems elusive.

How should the United States respond to this predicament? By doubling down on democracy, argue the authors. “America’s grand strategy should be refocused on initiating a new phase of liberal internationalism that renews and deepens democracy globally, prevents democratic backsliding, and strengthens and consolidates bonds among democratic states,” write Deudney and Ikenberry.

Five goals should be at the forefront of U.S. policy:

  • increasing equality of opportunity throughout the democratic world;
  • assuming responsibility for global problems at home;
  • building new international institutions to manage interdependence smartly;
  • reconfiguring rights and responsibilities between rising and established powers; and
  • building the democratic community through efforts at mutual understanding.

Unlike traditional democracy promotion efforts, a grand strategy of democratic internationalism would focus more on the “pull” than the “push” of the democratic example, combined with a willingness to “push back” when necessary on the actions of illiberal states like China and Russia. Within the democratic community, it would require the United States to show greater toleration for domestic diversity among its partners, particularly from the global South, if it wishes to share the burdens of global leadership. Finally, it would require the United States to drop longstanding blinders imposed by American exceptionalism­­—particularly the notion that the U.S. national experience presents the best—even only—model for humanity.

“Democratic Internationalism” offers a sweeping, big-picture description of how the United States has led—and how it might lead in the future. Like any provocation, the piece raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Readers of a conservative bent will doubtless chafe at the authors’ selective mining of the U.S. historical record—and their progressive spin on American exceptionalism. Others may wonder how the authors’ domestic prescriptions—such as “restoring and modernizing the New Deal social contract within the United States”—will play in the Republican-controlled House or the thirty-two governors’ mansions occupied by the GOP after the 2012 elections. Finally, realists may scratch their heads and ask, does it really make sense to place such weight on cooperation among democracies, when we live in a G2 world? All good questions, stimulated by a good read.

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