Schweller  2001
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Schweller 2001

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Woods agreement, which had regulated interna-
tional monetary arrangements since 1944, was suddenly made irrelevant be-
cause it was no longer seen as serving American interests, narrowly deªned.35

Whither the ability of binding institutions to provide the leading state with fu-
ture favorable returns beyond what is warranted by its actual power? Not only
did the Bretton Woods system fail both to prolong American economic domi-
nance and to protect its partners from the arbitrary exercise of U.S. power, as
Ikenberry claims, one can reasonably argue that it actually accelerated Amer-
ica’s relative economic decline.
This pattern of unilateral American actions and the use of international insti-

tutions simply to give them an air of multilateral legitimacy has continued

The Problem of International Order Revisited 179

34. Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” p. 25.
35. To be fair, although the United States unilaterally altered the workings of the Bretton Woods
package of institutions, it did not intend to overturn an agreement to cooperate or to exploit its
partners. It is more accurate to say that the United States was instead asserting its power to shift
the terms of cooperation. In the language of game theory, the situation was still a stag hunt, in
which everyone wanted to have a cooperative system that would allow the continuation of an
open world economy. It just turned out that pegged exchange rates and the gold standard were no
longer needed to accomplish this goal. Hence the American decision to close the gold window rep-
resents a shift in the terms of mutual cooperation, not an attempt by the United States to sucker its
partners (in game-theoretical terms, it was a shift within the CC box, not a shift from CC to DC). I
am grateful to Jack Snyder for pointing this out. For a ªrsthand account of these decisions and the

with a vengeance in the post–Cold War period. Moreover, it is especially dam-
aging to Ikenberry’s theory because the conditions in this period are tailor-
made for his theory to work: (1) America secured total victory over its rival
and gained unprecedented hegemonic power and status; (2) the current post-
war structure is the only one, since the birth of the modern state system in
1648, that is universally recognized as unipolar by all its members; (3) there is
no serious challenger to American supremacy on the horizon; (4) America’s
ideals, values, and domestic structures are the embodiment of constitutional
order and democracy; and (5) the world has never been more populated by
democratic states. If ever there was an easy case to test a theory, this is it: The
United States is the perfect candidate at precisely the right moment in history
to transform the system into a constitutional order.
Yet since the onset of its victory in 1989, the United States has repeatedly

acted in ways that contradict the expectations and prescriptions of Ikenberry’s
theory. The ªrst Bush administration made no attempt to strike a mutually ac-
ceptable constitutional bargain with the Soviet Union—one that would reas-
sure the defeated great power that its losses would be limited and the victor’s
returns to power would be checked. Instead the United States ruthlessly and
unwaveringly capitalized on its new abundance of power to demand and
pocket one unilateral Soviet concession after another.36 Nicely capturing this
arrogance of American power, President George Bush remarked to German
Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Camp David summit in February 1990: “The
Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany’s relationship with NATO.
What worries me is talk that Germany must not stay in NATO. To hell with
that! We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the
jaws of defeat.”37 Playing a winning hand, the Bush administration dictated
the terms of the postwar settlement and locked in American power by grab-
bing immediate gains.38

Over the last decade, U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies have
exhibited strong patterns of unilateralism and capriciousness, showing few
signs of strategic restraint. Ikenberry himself writes: “The American govern-

International Security 26:1 180

reaction of America’s allies, see Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979),
pp. 755–763, 955.
36. See Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Uniªed and Europe Transformed: A Study in
Statecraft (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995); and Schweller and Wohlforth,
“Power Test.”
37. Quoted in Schweller and Wohlforth, “Power Test,” p. 95.
38. Ikenberry’s discussion of the case (pp. 222–233) makes it seem as if Mikhail Gorbachev was
happy that a uniªed Germany would be situated within NATO—as if the United States had some-
how compromised on this issue to reassure the Soviets.

ment’s embrace of multilateral trade rules is decidedly ambivalent. It has
championed the establishment of the WTO and its rule-based approach to
trade, but it has also acted in violation of at least the spirit of the WTO with its
unilateralist trade policy. . . . The frequent American military interventions in
recent years—Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Kosovo—also underscore America’s
singular capacity to project military power with modest international institu-
tional constraints” (p. 272).
What about NATO? Institutionalists have seized on its survival and expan-

sion as proof of their arguments about the autonomy and vitality (“stickiness”)
of institutions. Ikenberry, for instance, claims that the “remarkable durability
of the Western postwar order” is largely explained by “the array of institutions
and practices of the order [that] serve to reduce the returns to power. . . . It is
not the preponderance of American power that keeps the system intact but its
unique ability to engage in strategic restraint, thereby reassuring partners and
facilitating cooperation” (pp. 269–270). In this view, NATO persists because it
continues to restrain American power and assure secondary members that
they will have a voice in the organization’s decisions.
There is an alternative explanation for NATO’s persistence, however. As

Kenneth Waltz points out, the ability of the United States to preserve and ex-
tend NATO “nicely illustrates how international institutions are created
and maintained by stronger states to serve their perceived or misperceived
interests.”39 In this respect, NATO is no different from any other U.S.-led
institution. They have all been designed to preserve and promote American
primacy by (1) enabling the United States to project its preponderance of
power more effectively than it otherwise could, and (2) discouraging second-
ary powers from pursuing independent policies or attempting to realize their
potential power and become viable contenders for America’s crown. It is not
surprising, therefore, that both the Bush and Clinton administrations strongly
supported the continued existence of NATO as a way to prevent the formation
of an independent European force that could potentially challenge U.S. global
supremacy.40

The widely accepted institutionalist view of NATO—that it has survived by
adopting a new mission; that its continued existence is evidence of successful
organizational adaptation to a new environment; and that it proves the claim

The Problem of International Order Revisited 181

39. Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1
(Summer 2000), p. 20.
40. Ibid., p. 21. The best account of the controversial decision to expand NATO is James M.
Goldgeier, Not Whether but When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, D.C.: Brookings,
1999).

that “once created, organizations take on a life of their own”—misses the forest
for the trees.41 NATO essentially serves the same purposes today that it always
has: to keep America in, Germany down, and Russia out. The expansion of
NATO and survival of other U.S.-led security arrangements tell us less about
the beneªts and vigor of multilateralism and constitutional