The Duck of Minerva

Ikenberry takes stock of America’s ‘Security Trap’

23 April 2006

G. John Ikenberry has a post up at TPMCafe on what he terms the “security trap”. The piece argues that a number of major changes (American Unipolarity, a ‘revolution’ in the concept of state sovereignty, lack of common threat as in the Cold War, and the rise of a more democratic international community) have produced conditions such that…

…as the Bush administration tries to solve the nation’’s security problems by exercising its power or using force, it tends to produce resistance and backlash that leaves the country more isolated, bereft of authority, and, ultimately, insecure.

Those who are familiar with Ikenberry’s work will recognize this as his “Liberal Hegemony” argument about the rise of Western international order during the Cold War (based on a liberal hegemon [read, US], democratic states, and international institutions which facilitate trust and cooperation amongst states). He argues that the new structural setting of the 21st Century is such that the unilateral use of force by the US actually makes us less secure do to the backlash it creates from friends and foes alike. While I agree with him that the excercise of power is likely to create a backlash I am not sure how his proposals will extracate America from this security trap.

First, as Ikenberry notes, during the Cold War there was a common threat that helped keep the Western alliance together, even when second-degree interests and preferences collided. For better or worse, the threat of global terrorism has not had the same type of magnetic effect as global communism. We simply do not have the same kind of ‘Cold-War consensus’ internationally today as in previous eras.

Second, because this consensus does not exist the issue of ‘violations of sovereignty’ becomes more salient–not because the norm of sovereignty is now under attack, but rather because allies no longer agree upon the necessity of such violations by the United States. Sovereignty has never been absolute nor universally applied (see Stephen Krasner’s Sovereignty for the classic work on this subject). Since the we are likely to see and likely to require future interventions which violate the ‘norm’ of sovereignty in the near term I am not sure how reinstating Ikenberry’s Cold War system will work since everything turns on allies sharing the US perception of what constitutes the greatest threat to world (and Western) security.

Third, given that there is little consensus on a common threat we are unlikely to get the kind of agreed-upon order that Ikenberry advocates at the end of his post. The Cold War order was made possible by two things–American power and agreement on the severity of the threat of the Soviet Union and global communism to the West. We are still lacking one of these two conditions. This discrepancy of threat perception is arguably the biggest hurdle to reestablishing the kind of consensus Ikenberry yearns for. I will be watching for his promised follow-up posts to see how and if he addresses the problem of this lack of consensus on threat perception and what he suggests can be done about it.

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