SAASS 632: Foundation of International Politics

G. John Ikenberry, “After Victory


Ikenberry wrote After Victory in 2001. Ikenberry is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University.

 “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.” (Joseph M. Ellis on, accessed 25 October, 2012)


Key Points

“The great moments of international order building have tended to come after major wars, as winning states have undertaken to reconstruct the postwar world. Certain years stand out as critical turning points: 1648, 1713, 1815, 1919, and 1945. At these junctures, newly powerful states have been given extraordinary opportunities to shape world politics. In the chaotic aftermath of war, leaders of these states have found themselves in unusually advantageous positions to put forward new rules and principles of international relations and by so doing remake international order.” (After Victory, 1)


“Major postwar junctures are rare strategic moments when leading or hegemonic states face choices about how to use their newly acquired power—choices that ultimately shape the character of postwar international order.” (After Victory, 4)


“A state that wins a war has acquired what can usefully be thought of as a sort of “windfall” of power assets. The winning postwar state is newly powerful—indeed, in some cases it is newly hegemonic, acquiring a preponderance of material power capabilities. The question is: what does this state do with its new abundance of power? It has three broad choices. It can dominate—use its commanding material capabilities to prevail in the endless conflicts over the distribution of gains. It can abandon—wash its hands of postwar disputes and return home. Or it can try to transform its favorable postwar power position into a durable order that commands the allegiance of the other states within the order. To achieve this outcome, it must overcome the fears of the weaker and defeated states that it will pursue the other options: domination or abandonment.”  (After Victory, 4)


“There are three central arguments of this book. First, the character of order after major wars has changed as the capacities and mechanisms of states to restrain power has changed. The ability of these states to engage in what can be called “strategic restraint” has evolved over the centuries, and this has changed the way in which leading states have been able to create and maintain international order. The earliest postwar power restraint strategies of states primarily entailed the separation and dispersion of state power and later the counterbalancing of power. More recently, postwar states have dealt with the uncertainties and disparities in state power with institutional strategies that—to varying degrees—bind states together and circumscribe how and when state power can be exercised.” (After Victory, 4)


Second, the incentives and capacities of leading states to employ institutions as mechanisms of political control are shaped by two variables: the extent of power disparities after the war and the types of states that are party to the settlement. The more extreme the power disparities after the war, the greater the capacity of the leading state to employ institutions to lock in a favorable order; it is in a more advantaged position to exchange restraints on its power for institutional agreements and to trade off shortterm ains for longer-term gains. Also, the greater the power disparities, the greater the incentives for weaker and secondary states to establish institutional agreements that reduce the risks of domination or abandonment. Likewise, democratic states have greater capacities to enter into binding institutions and thereby reassure the other states in the postwar settlement than nondemocracies. That is, the “stickiness” of interlocking institutions is greater between democracies than between nondemocracies, and this makes them a more readily employable mechanism to dampen the implications of power asymmetries.” (After Victory, 5) 


Third, this institutional logic is useful in explaining the remarkable stability of the post-1945 order among the industrial democracies—an order that has persisted despite the end of the ColdWar and the huge asymmetries of power. More than in 1815 and 1919, the circumstances in 1945 provided opportunities for the leading state to move toward an institutionalized settlement. Once in place, the democratic character of the states has facilitated the further growth of intergovernmental institutions and commitments, created deeper linkages between these states, and made it increasingly difficult for alternative orders to replace the existing one.” (After Victory, 5) 




Ikenberry repeatedly asserts that it is much easier to create institutions between democratic states because of shared values and more transparent decision-making processes.  However, he does not address (at any great depth) how to incorporate undefeated authoritarian regimes into institutions in such a way that mitigates for the tension caused by their rise in power. 



“Ikenberry sees the international order as one shaped constitutionally – through institutions – rather than 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).” (Joseph M. Ellis on, accessed 25 October, 2012)


In some ways, Ikenberry’s ideas are an extension of realist power preservations thinking similar to what Kennan proposed.  What is the best way for a victorious hegemonic state to prolong its favorable position in the world order?  Remake the world order (George H. W. Bush’s “new world order”) in such a manner that it attracts defeated and lesser states to seek membership in institutions that promote cooperation for mutual benefit.  Doing so prolongs the leadership period of the victorious state and, when that state’s power wanes, reduces tensions with rising powers because of their shared values and increased trust.  Thus, the ideas of realism and institutional liberalism are not necessarily antithetical to each other.   


George H. W. Bush’s road to war in the first Gulf War exemplifies the way Ikenberry proposes great powers should behave (careful operation within institutions to build strong consensus for specific action in achieving delimited political ends).  George W. Bush’s road to war in OIF was the exact opposite (unilateral operation outside of established institutions with uncertain/undefined political ends) and the consequences are evident.


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