Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Book Review: G. John Ikenberry's "After Victory"

G. John Ikenberry’s After Victory: Order and Power in International Politics


The extent to which international institutions ‘matter’ in world politics has been a considerable debate in international relations theory. The debate has generally pitted realists and neorealists – those most skeptical about the role institutions play in the world – against their more optimistic counterparts the liberal and neoliberal institutionalists. G. John Ikenberry’s, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars is a rejoinder to this debate but in a unique and, as I will argue, better developed understanding of the role that institutions play in world politics. Although Ikenberry is described as a “neoliberal” by scholars such as Henry Nau and Randall Schweller, Ikenberry’s book does not fit neatly into the prescribed theoretical traditions of realism and liberalism. Moreover, Ikenberry’s book is a success in large part because he grapples with “order” in the international system, a concept that is frequently mentioned but rarely discussed anymore in the discipline. This paper will review the main contributions of Ikenberry’s book, as well as provide some partial answers to Schweller’s realist critiques of After Victory.

Ikenberry’s ‘After Victory’: A Review and Comment

Robert Keohane’s, After Hegemony is the classic text cited that articulates the views of neoliberal institutionalism and cooperation in a world “after hegemony” (Keohane 1984). In a play on Keohane’s words, Ikenberry seeks to understand a world “after victory”. In particular, Ikenberry’s book examines the period in history after the Allied powers victorious triumph over Nazi Germany in 1945. What would the world order be after victory? Ikenberry’s answer is straightforward, but surprising. Ikenberry argues that once a state wins a war, they are met with three choices: to dominate their enemies, abandon the losers, or transform the international system. In the case of the United States, they transformed the international system by employing institutions as a way to establish political control and order (Ikenberry 2001: 5-6). For example, the end of World War II saw the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions, the United Nations and NATO. Furthermore, once institutionalized, states – particularly the industrial democracies -- commit and link to one another to create a post-war order that is durable and stable (Ikenberry 2001: 6). As Ikenberry suggested: “…[I]nstitutions are…critical at the beginning of hegemony – or ‘after victory’ – in establishing order and securing cooperation between unequal states” (Ikenberry 2001: 17).

This ‘world order’ is even more surprising considering the huge asymmetries of power that existed following the war. Contrary to conventional realist assumptions, the United States neither dominated nor abandoned Europe after the war. Instead, there were great incentives to “locking in” an institutional order. For strong states, institutionalization had the long-term gain of preserving international order and stability. For weaker states, joining institutions reduced the likelihood that powerful states would dominate or abandon them. Although a common refrain from realists is that institutionalists do not treat power seriously, Ikenberry places power at the center of his argument. Institutions develop because of the asymmetries of power between weak and strong states in the international system. While neoliberal insitutionalism usually speaks of institutions as resolving ‘collective action’ or ‘information’ problems, Ikenberry sees institutions as crucial for resolving these power “asymmetries”.

A second major contribution of Ikenberry’s After Victory is the attention paid to world order – how it is created and how it is sustained. Most of the scholars prior to Ikenberry that studied order had come from the neorealist tradition. Kenneth Waltz’s balance-of-power theory suggests that order is sustained by states balancing off one another. Because of the constant competition to ‘match’ one’s opponent, international politics remains stable and balanced. For Waltz, balances-of-power work especially well in a bipolar world (Waltz 1979: 163). Robert Gilpin’s ‘hegemonic state’ theory argues that the international system is most stable and orderly when a hegemon exists. In the absence of hegemony, the international system lacks order and war is a probable outcome (Gilpin 1981).[1] Additionally, Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies is a classic concerning political order in world politics. Huntington’s book reminds scholars and practitioners that order is critical to create any sort of desirable outcome – whether that outcome is peace or democracy (Huntington 1968). Although Huntington’s work is more recognized in comparative politics than IR, Huntington probably shares Waltz’s and Gilpin’s normative commitment that stability and order are pertinent features of the international system.

Ikenberry sees the international order as one shaped constitutionally – through institutions – rather that just “creatures of the international distribution of power” (Ikenberry 2001: 28). For Ikenberry, institutions create a “constitutional order”; a political order that exists because of agreed upon rules, that allocate rights and restrain power (Ikenberry 2001: 29). Institutions create order in three ways. One, institutions have shared, or mutual agreements, over the rules of the game. Two, these rules set limits on the ability to exercise power. Lastly, once these rules are in place, they are not easily changed (Ikenberry 2001: 31). The ability of these institutions and a constitutional order to become a stabilizing presence in the international system is due in large part to an expansion of democratic regimes throughout the world. It is no accident, Ikenberry claims, that as democracy becomes the norm in the world, “deeper linkages” will lead to more intergovernmental commitment (Ikenberry 2001: 5).

Ikenberry’s approach to understanding order is a novel one considering that realism has been the major theoretical tradition devoted to understanding the concept. In some ways I think this reflects the conservative bias inherent in realism. For example, although neoliberal institutionalism is devoted to seeing the world “as it is,” one cannot help but think that some institutionalists view institutions primarily as a good that can help remake the world in a more cooperative fashion.[2] Ikenberry, however, does not see institutions as inherently good in this manner. Instead, After Victory is an interesting book in the sense that it is a conservative appreciation of institutions. Whether or not institutions “make the world a better place,” is largely irrelevant in this work. However, they do provide order and stability, which is something that both realists and liberals should appreciate.

Schweller’s Critiques: A Response to ‘After Victory’

Although Randall Schweller praises Ikenberry as an “enormously gifted grand theorist,” Schweller has little praise for After Victory in his book review “The Problem of International Order Revisited.” Schweller contends that Ikenberry’s book is deficient in a number of ways. First, he argues that Ikenberry’s conception of international order is fundamentally flawed. Schweller contends that Ikenberry views order as the conscious result of political actors hoping to preserve, or create, a certain order. But order – in the ways neorealism thinks about it – is the seeming spontaneous consequence of anarchy not something created or nurtured (Schweller 2001: 170). Second, Schweller argues that there is no reason to believe that the hegemon following a postwar juncture will want to resist short-term gains in favor of the long-term gains of institutions. One, political leaders have no incentive to favor multilateralism over unilateralism, and two, there is no reason to think democratic leaders will pursue institutional policies anymore than any other types of leaders (Schweller 2001: 174). Lastly, Schweller argues, the empirical record proves that these institutions did little in the way of preserving any type of multilateral, institutional order. “…History shows,” Schweller puts forward, “that the United States consistently violated the spirit of multilateral cooperation within its own alliance system” (Schweller 2001: 178). For example, the Bretton Woods institutions were discarded at will when they did not stand to represent American interests (Schweller 2001: 179).

While Schweller is onto something, his critiques ultimately misread many of Ikenberry’s arguments. One, Ikenberry never suggests that order arises only constitutionally via agreed upon principles or rules. Indeed, a constitutional order is but one type of order, but Ikenberry gives leeway for order to be maintained in any number of ways. Even in his discussion of balance-of-power and hegemonic state theories, Ikenberry does not completely reject that anarchy and power could potentially have powerful effects in shaping the international order. In a post-1945 world, however, the constitutional order is the most appropriate explanation. Schweller’s second criticism – that it would seem unwise for a hegemon to pursue a multilateral institution – is confusing, considering one of Ikenberry’s critical points is to show that states seek out institutions in part to preserve their power. As Ikenberry asserts: “The most enduringly powerful states are those that work with and through institutions” (Ikenberry 2001: 20). Schweller’s third criticism is a common one from realists: that the empirical record and the reality of the world does not fit well with institutionalists’ optimism of a peaceful society. It is true that despite international institutions the 20th century witnessed a number of violent wars, economic tumult, and ethnic and cultural conflict. But Schweller never actually confronts whether or not these disputes actually undermined the constitutional order which Ikenberry claims existed. In short, the institutionalization of international politics remains, despite these skirmishes along the way.


G. John Ikenberry’s After Victory is an important contribution to the field of international relations and international security for two reasons. One, unlike some institutionalists, Ikenberry treats power seriously in his work, arguing that institutions are created in part because of the asymmetries of power that existed following World War II. This alleviates the general anxiety of realists toward institutionalists, who commonly argue that these scholars ignore power in their work. Two, Ikenberry’s attention to order in world politics is refreshing because so few scholars examine order and the consequences of order in their work. In particular, Ikenberry sees institutions as more than just ‘collection action’ solvers. They also are order sustainers. Randall Schweller’s critiques of After Victory are interesting but not overly persuasive. Like many realists, Schweller rejects anything that resembles neoliberal institutionalism without giving due concern for the nuance of Ikenberry’s argument, particularly his understanding of order and power. Because of this, Ikenberry gets beyond the realist versus liberal debate in IR to develop a well-rounded look at institutions, power, democracy and order in world politics.

[1] Charles Kindleberger’s “hegemonic stability theory” suggests that something similar occurs in the economic realm. Without a single, global economic power the entire world economy would be worse off.

[2] This idea was discussed in the International Security seminar on March 28, 2006. I cannot take credit for this opinion as an original one.