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Pandemic demands revamped, inclusive international order

A US international relations scholar discusses the future of the liberal international order, US-China rivalry and North Korea’s denuclearization

John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University (Courtesy of John Ikenberry)
John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University (Courtesy of John Ikenberry)
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fragility of the US-led liberal international order, says professor John Ikenberry of Princeton University, but the world should rebuild the system and improve it.

Ikenberry, a prominent US scholar whose focus is the liberal international order, acknowledged that the liberal order had been “breaking up” for years and said the pandemic had revealed the system’s limits and the need for international cooperation.

“But it’s not done yet,” Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a Global Eminence Scholar at Kyung Hee University, told The Korea Herald in a recent interview via Zoom.

“It’s an order that we want to see succeed for another cycle of history. It has been the most successful world order in history, defined in terms of provision of security, the generation of wealth and social justice.”

He called on people to defend this order, rebuild it and make it better for the post-pandemic era.

“All the great advances in the liberal international order over the last century has been done when liberal democracies have worked together and been dominant in the international system,” said Ikenberry.

“We should hope that these countries, led by the US and its allies, can step forward and put forward an agenda for a strengthened set of institutions, regimes and protocols for what might be a permanent pandemic.”

For the system to be restored effectively, it will need to be more inclusive, the scholar said.

“We are at a crisis. How can we rebuild it and how can we make it better? I think that involves making it more inclusive, not just the same old countries running the show, but broadening the coalition,” he said, adding that democratic countries such as South Korea and Australia need to play greater roles on the international stage.

But this expansion is not only limited to the like-minded democracies, but also to those nations that don’t necessarily share similar ideologies, namely China and Russia, he said, stressing simultaneous competition and cooperation. 

In this captured image John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, speaks with The Korea Herald in an interview via Zoom.
In this captured image John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, speaks with The Korea Herald in an interview via Zoom.
Navigating US-China competition

The US-China rivalry will likely continue for another generation, Ikenberry said, as the two superpowers are eager to defend and advance their particular visions of the world order: the liberal democratic model vs. capitalism without democracy.

“The competition is kind of a long struggle. It’s not a competition where either can win right away and one that will reveal success and failure in the short term,” he said. “It’s a competition, really, for a generation, and part of succeeding in the competition is doing well inside your own camp.”

But both the US and China need to find ways to manage the battle, because tackling transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation entails working together.

“I think that we can compete in a way that allows us to solve problems. In that sense, there is kind of way in which coexistence and rivalry can both be part of the geopolitical system.”

As the competition between great powers is expected to last for some time, a geopolitical conundrum arises for countries like South Korea, which relies on the US for security and China for trade. Seoul, which has long juggled its loyalties between the two powers, could be pressured to pick a side as strategic competition between the two superpowers sharpens.

“The US should conduct its rivalry with China and hope that Korea can be more or less on its side as part of its democratic community,” Ikenberry said, adding that it was in Washington’s interests not to pressure Seoul to make a decision.

He believes the security structure between the allies can be maintained even as Seoul engages with Beijing, while acknowledging that the delicate balance Seoul needs to maintain is not an easy task.

“I think there are different functions of different bilateral relationships, at least for the foreseeable future,” said the scholar. “I think that balancing act that South Korea has to engage in is something that is doable, and I hope the US helps South Korea rather than hurts Korea’s ability to do that balancing.”

Amid intense debate here on whether Seoul should take part in the possible expansion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which involves the US, Japan, Australia and India and is widely seen as a way to contain China, Ikenberry advised Korea not to “rush in.”

“One of the ways to keep things stable in East Asia is not to bring every issue to a head, not to make it a stark dividing line between China and its friends and the US and its friends,” he said. “The Quad and the Indo-Pacific configuration might succeed best if it is not seen as a containment tool, even though it has the effect of providing some counterweight to China.”

The professor suggested that Seoul try to strike a “not too hot, not too cold” position. “If I were South Korean government, I would want to be kind of informally interacting with the Quad, thinking about it, but not rushing into some kind of dramatic decision that would make the system more provocative and difficult to sustain over the long term.”

North Korea’s nuclear problem

In dealing with North Korea, Ikenberry is skeptical about the chances of achieving denuclearization.

“I think we can probably convince North Korea to come back to the negotiation table, but I don’t think we are at anywhere close to finding a package of concessions and carrots and sticks that would get the North to give up its nuclear weapons,” he said.

Ikenberry thinks the relaxation of sanctions will not change North Korean behavior on the fundamental issue, that of relinquishing nuclear weapons.

“I do think sanctions are important. ... They are part of the tools of peacemaking, quite frankly. Sanctions are not an act of war -- they are actions short of war attempting to incentivize countries to do the right thing,” he said. “But sanctions can also be used as diplomatically to engage in negotiation for reciprocal actions. They are not an end of itself, they are tools for diplomacy.”

The scholar added that when the nuclear talks do resume, the process will be “pragmatic and in small steps, and not kind of a big, grand bargain.” In this, he echoed the Biden administration’s North Korea policy, which calls for a “calibrated and practical” approach. 

On Aug. 15, 2021, The Korea Herald celebrates its 68th anniversary as South Korea’s No. 1 English-language daily. To mark the day in a time of pandemic and turmoil, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of stories on the challenges that we face and the prognosis for life with, or after COVID-19. -- Ed.

By Ahn Sung-mi (
Korea Herald daum