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International Security 26.1 (2001) 161-186

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The Problem of International Order Revisited

Mary Bell

The story of international change is typically told in terms of sharp breaks with the past that have occurred only after major wars, when the victors have had to decide whether and how to shape the postwar order. Until the 1900s these great moments of international order building arose only once a century: 1648, 1713, and 1815. The last century witnessed three such moments: 1919, 1945, and Christmas Day 1991, when the Soviet Union died from self-dismemberment. Ten years after the end of bipolarity, the problem of how the victors should manage the peace remains the principal issue at the heart of contemporary international politics. As in past postwar junctures, the immediate problem for the winners, aside from the inevitable disputes about how to divide the spoils, is to decide the fate of the vanquished. Should the terms of the peace settlement be severe or moderate? Should they be dictated to the loser(s) or, instead, fashioned in such a way that the defeated powers view them as legitimate? How the victors answer these questions will largely determine the future stability and conduct of world politics.

Had officials in the first Bush administration who were responsible for making these momentous decisions consulted theories of international relations for advice, they would have been gravely disappointed. Aside from a few brief remarks in the balance-of-power literature about treating defeated powers with moderation and not eliminating essential actors, the issue of prudence in victory has gone largely untheorized (indeed unmentioned) within [End Page 161] the discipline. 1 As a result, political scientists have by default left it up to dip- lomats and diplomatic historians to assess how victorious great powers have in practice treated defeated great powers, and how they should have done so. 2

Viewed against this backdrop, G. John Ikenberry's After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars represents a bold and hugely successful first step in the direction of filling this disciplinary void. 3 It is an extremely important book that raises critical questions and provides a richly provocative theory about how international order emerges and has evolved over time. If one were to reduce the book's central claim to fit on a bumper sticker, it would read: For the leading state, restraint and commitment are not the enemy of primacy. Along these lines, Ikenberry, who shows himself to be an enormously gifted grand theorist, argues that the hegemon's ability to establish stable and cooperative orders has changed over time as the capacity of the leading state to make commitments and restrain power has been enhanced. With the spread of democracy and the emergence of the United States as a world power in the twentieth century, an international order has been created that goes beyond simple balance-of-power politics to exhibit constitutional characteristics, that is, an international system in which "rules, rights, and protections are widely agreed upon, highly institutionalized, and generally observed" (p. 36). The transparent nature of the American polity and a web of multilateral institutions reassures secondary and weak states that the United States is reliably committed to forgo the arbitrary exercise of its power. [End Page 162] This type of strategic restraint through the creative use of multilateral institutions explains the emergence of stable and cooperative relations between the United States and the other industrial democracies despite rapid shifts and extreme disparities in power among them. After Victory ambitiously synthesizes important liberal and realist theories into one elegant and compelling package of exceptional theoretical and empirical sweep. It addresses a crucial and timeless issue at the heart of international politics and contemporary American foreign policy; and it should have an enduring impact on the study and practice of international relations.

Although Ikenberry provides the most sophisticated theoretical account to date on why powerful states might find it in their interest to pursue restraint and commitment, I am not entirely persuaded by the logic and empirical evidence used to support the book's...


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