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Schweller 2001

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International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Summer 2001), pp. 161–186
© 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Problem of
International Order


Randall L. Schweller

A Review Essay

G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions,
Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order
after Major Wars. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 2001.

The Problem of International Order Revisited

The story of interna-
tional 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 af-
ter 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 ofªcials in the ªrst Bush administration who were responsible for

making these momentous decisions consulted theories of international rela-
tions 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 pru-
dence in victory has gone largely untheorized (indeed unmentioned) within

Randall L. Schweller is Associate Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University and author of
Deadly Imbalances: Tripolarity and Hitler’s Strategy of World Conquest (New York: Columbia Uni-
versity Press, 1998).

I thank Colin Elman, Paul Fritz, John Ikenberry, Amy Oakes, David Schweller, and Jack Snyder for
their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

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 ªrst step in the direction of ªlling this disciplinary
void.3 It is an extremely important book that raises critical questions and pro-
vides 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 ªt 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 en-
hanced. 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 cre-
ated that goes beyond simple balance-of-power politics to exhibit constitu-
tional characteristics, that is, an international system in which “rules, rights,
and protections are widely agreed upon, highly institutionalized, and gener-
ally 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.

International Security 26:1 162

1. Notable exceptions include John Gerard Ruggie, Winning the Peace: America and World Order in
the New Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Kalevi J. Holsti, Peace and War: Armed
Conºicts and International Order, 1648–1989 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Charles
W. Kegley and Gregory A. Raymond, How Nations Make Peace (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999);
Nissan Oren, “Prudence in Victory,” in Oren, ed., Termination of Wars (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1982),
pp. 147–163; and Henry A. Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of
Peace, 1812–22 (Boston: Houghton Mifºin, 1957). See also Eric J. Labs, “Beyond Victory: Offensive
Realism and the Expansion of War Aims,” Security Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer 1997), pp. 1–49;
and Paul Fritz, “The Management of Defeated Great Powers,” unpublished manuscript, Ohio State
University, 2001.
2. The collective silence of international relations theorists on this subject is all the more remark-
able when compared with the vast theoretical literature devoted to the opposite problem: how to
deal with a rising challenger. Perhaps this theoretical bias is yet another example of prospect the-
ory’s claim that people are more motivated, and thus more risk-acceptant, to avoid losses than to
make gains. Theories about how to manage a rising challenger attempt to explain what a declining
hegemon can and should do to minimize its losses; theories about how to manage victory explain
what a new hegemon can and should do to maximize and secure potential gains. For prospect the-
ory, see Barbara Farnham, ed., Avoiding Losses/Taking Risks (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1994).
3. G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after
Major Wars (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). Further references to this work ap-
pear parenthetically in the text.

This type of strategic restraint through the creative use of multilateral institu-
tions explains the emergence of stable and cooperative relations between the
United States and the other industrial democracies despite rapid shifts and ex-
treme 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 time-
less issue at the heart of international politics and contemporary American for-
eign 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 ªnd it in their interest to pursue restraint
and commitment, I am not entirely persuaded by the logic and empirical evi-
dence used to support the book’s key theoretical innovation—the concept of
binding institutions. According to Ikenberry, binding institutions, such as the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the World Trade Organization
(WTO), establish interlocking institutional constraints that effectively limit the
exercise of concentrated power; they are multilateral, power-restraint mecha-
nisms that bind the leading state’s power and enable weaker states to bargain
effectively with it. To accomplish these tasks, binding institutions must operate
independently of the leading state’s power and interests. Yet Ikenberry also
claims that these same binding institutional arrangements extend the leading
state’s preponderant power by locking in favorable future returns that con-
tinue well beyond the zenith of its relative power advantage. In Ikenberry’s
view, institutions both limit and project state power; they are mechanisms of
hegemonic self-restraint and tools of hegemonic power.
I argue that institutions cannot be both autonomous