Schweller  2001
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Schweller 2001

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from the hegemon’s

power and interests and capable of checking its exercise of power. Moreover,
the simultaneous presence of a durable set of multilateral institutions and hege-
monic restraint does not necessarily indicate that the former is a cause of the
latter. At best, what Ikenberry calls “binding institutions” merely signal to the
hegemon’s potential partners that it does not intend to use its power to settle
all matters between them. Intentions can change, however; and that is the true
acid test for the concept of binding institutions: Will they limit the hegemon’s
exercise of power when it does not want to be restrained? I suspect that, like
most liberal-multilateralist remedies for security problems, binding institutions
either work best when they are needed least or simply do not work at all.4

The Problem of International Order Revisited 163

4. See, for example, Richard K. Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention,” Foreign Affairs, Vol.
73, No. 6 (November/December 1994), pp. 20–33; and Richard K. Betts, “Systems for Peace or

The essay unfolds as follows. After presenting the basic arguments of the
book, I offer a critique of Ikenberry’s conception of international order, which,
by deªnition, rules out the most common version of balance of power as a pro-
vider of international order. As a practical matter regarding the shape of con-
temporary U.S. grand strategy, Ikenberry’s arguments about international
order load the dice in favor of adopting liberal policies of cooperative security
and assertive multilateralism (for the rather perªdious purpose, given the
strategy’s communitarian means, of perpetuating America’s global suprem-
acy) and against the alternative realist strategy of selective engagement, in
which the United States assumes its traditional role as both a regional
hegemon and an offshore balancer.5 I then challenge Ikenberry’s claim that
decisionmakers of the victorious leading state should act on the assumption of
the inevitability of hegemonic decline. Finally, I dispute the logic and evidence
for Ikenberry’s main concept—binding institutions. The empirical record
strongly suggests that international institutions have not checked the use of
American power, which, in the most dramatic decisions since 1945, has been
repeatedly exercised unilaterally—often without prior consultation with or
even advance warning of its allies.

The Problem of International Order

The question of how international order emerges and changes over time has
received inadequate treatment in the study of international relations. The most
important reason for this pattern of neglect is that efforts to uncover laws of
change require the study of dynamics, which presents a formidable challenge
to the still relatively young ªeld of political science. As Robert Gilpin points
out, “The natural development of any science is from static analysis to dy-
namic analysis. Static theory is simpler, and its propositions are easier to
prove.”6 What scholars have learned is that international change most often oc-
curs after dramatic and episodic wars among all or most of the great powers.
At the very outset of these titanic struggles, which have come to be known as
hegemonic wars, the combatants understood that at stake was not just their

International Security 26:1 164

Causes of War? Collective Security, Arms Control, and the New Europe,” International Security, Vol.
17, No. 1 (Summer 1992), pp. 5–43.
5. For essays championing these competing U.S. grand strategies, see Michael E. Brown, Owen R.
Coté, Jr., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, eds., America’s Strategic Choices, rev. ed. (Cam-
bridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).
6. Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981),
p. 4.

relative power positions and roles in the world (namely, possible shifts in their
territorial boundaries, colonial possessions, and military power) but a total re-
ordering of the globe.7 The victors of hegemonic wars reap a windfall of power
assets, which provide them with a unique opportunity to establish a new inter-
national order. Possession of the requisite capabilities to assume hegemonic
leadership, however, has not always translated into a willingness to do so. In-
stead great postwar junctures confront the leading state with a decision: What,
if anything, should it do with its new abundance of power?
Ikenberry narrows the hegemon’s menu of choice to three generic options:

(1) it can dominate the weaker and defeated states, using its preponderance of
power to grab the lion’s share of the postwar division of spoils; (2) it can aban-
don the other states and simply go home, washing its hands of the inevitable
postwar distributional disputes; or (3) it can transform the international sys-
tem into a durable institutionalized order that commands the allegiance of the
other states within the system (p. 4). Each option is associated with an ideal
type of international order. The choice to dominate creates a hegemonic or im-
perial order, in which the organizing principle is hierarchy, checks on concen-
trated power are nonexistent, and the source of system stability is the coercive
use of the hegemon’s superior power. The decision to abandon (by which
Ikenberry means to retreat from world politics) triggers the emergence of a bal-
ance-of-power order, in which the logic of anarchy and self-help governs the
behavior of the states, counterbalancing coalitions form to prevent dangerous
concentrations of power, and stability is achieved by maintaining system equi-
librium.8 Lastly, the choice to transform is associated with the establishment of
a constitutional order in which the rule of law prevails, binding institutions re-
strain the exercise of power, and stability is accomplished by limiting the re-
turns to power. The value-added element of Ikenberry’s theory is the concept
of international constitutional order, and so an explication of its details and
logic follows.

The Problem of International Order Revisited 165

7. Challenging the conventional wisdom, Gerhard L. Weinberg argues that World Wars I and II
were entirely separate events based on fundamentally different aims and intentions. Only World
War II qualiªes as a hegemonic war because the protagonists recognized from the outset that a to-
tal reordering of the international system was at stake. In contrast, all of the great powers were ex-
pected to survive World War I, the aims of which were limited to changes in the relative roles of
the great powers within an unchanged international order. See Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global
History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 1–5.
8. Unlike in hegemonic and constitutional orders, the source of stability in a balance-of-power
system (equilibrium) may arise as an unintended consequence either of actors seeking to maxi-
mize their power or of the imperative for actors wishing to survive in a competitive self-help sys-
tem to balance against threatening accumulations of power. See Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of
International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), pp. 88–93 and chap. 6. See also Robert

The Logic of Constitutional Orders

Ikenberry identiªes four core elements of constitutional orders: (1) shared
agreement about the rules of the game within the political order; (2) the estab-
lishment of rules and institutions that bind and set authoritative limits on
the exercise of power; (3) a high degree of institutional autonomy from special
interests; and (4) the entrenchment of these rules, principles, and institu-
tions within a wider and relatively immutable political system (pp. 30–31).
What most distinguishes constitutional orders from the alternatives is their
noncoercive and consensual nature. Distributional conºicts are settled by mu-
tually agreed principles and institutional arrangements, which specify the pa-
rameters of state competition and limit the range of resolution outcomes.
By limiting what power