“Easy to Join and Hard to Overturn”
I kicked off this roundtable on “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left” last week by using Perry Anderson’s remarkable New Left Review essays (“Imperium” and “Consilium”) as a means to critique a recent Walter Russell Mead Foreign Affairs article—“The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers”—for placing a too rigid boundary between liberal internationalism and geopolitics. Today, I use Anderson’s essays as a means for waylaying John Ikenberry’s article—“The Illusions of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order”—which appeared as a response to Mead in the same issue of Foreign Affairs.
As opposed to Mead, Ikenberry contends that American geopolitics is not mutually exclusive from building a liberal world order, but rather, the two are constitutive. To his credit, Ikenberry is a much better historian than Mead: whereas Mead seems to think the liberal order was constructed at the end of the Cold War—implying that the U.S. won the Cold War with geopolitics—Ikenberry correctly points out that the American-led liberal project was built by the U.S. and its allies during and after World War II. American liberalism, by which Ikenberry means the international legal and economic framework dominated by the United States, “won the Cold War.” Ikenberry excoriates Meade for being alarmist in thinking that the so-called “revisionist powers” of Russia, China, and Iran can alter this deeply entrenched order. These nations, Ikenberry claims, “have no appealing brand,” and thus, do not stand as a long-term threat to dislodge American leadership.
Where Ikenberry goes wrong—and where the lens provided by Perry Anderson offers an important corrective—is by echoing the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad’s idea that American empire is an “empire by invitation.” Anderson sums up this conceit before dismissing it: “If there was such a thing as an American empire… it was one by invitation, freely sought in Western Europe from fear of Soviet aggression, unlike Russian empire imposed by force on Eastern Europe.” Anderson admits that the implementation of an American-led order was consensual in many places, especially Western Europe, insofar as domestic communist parties had been defeated or marginalized and native capitalist classes wanted to take their positions in the capitalist order. But: “It was not ‘empire by invitation,’ in the fulsome phrase of a Norwegian admirer. The invitation came from, not to, the empire, and was the kind that could not be refused.” “Command remained American,” even if junior partners like Great Britain and France retained limited autonomy so long as such autonomy did not contradict American imperatives.
Unlike Mead, Ikenberry and Anderson both recognize the historical role of the “open-door policy” and what might variously be called the “liberal order” or the “American empire.” Where they disagree is in their evaluations of this order. Ikenberry clearly believes that the American-led globalization of capital, what he calls “economic development,” has made the world a better place. Anderson, on the other hand, has been rejecting such pieties since well before Thomas Piketty demonstrated capitalism almost inexorably spawns inequality.
In sum, Ikenberry and Anderson agree that the U.S.-built order is deeply entrenched, or, in Ikenberry’s phrase, “easy to join and hard to overturn.” For Ikenberry, “the poet laureate of liberal internationalism,” this is reason for optimism. For the left-wing realist Anderson, this is reason for despair, or at least, reason for pessimism of the intellect if not of the will.