International Relations

The United States: a “Liberal Leviathan”?

Anna MORIN (2014), University College London, Masters in Economy, State and Society. 

Hedley Bull famously – and rather debatably – stated that, after all, ‘states are very unlike human individuals’[1]. In his mind and following his understanding of Thomas Hobbes, a binding social contract could not be upraised to the international level, transcending anarchy. Understandably then, it is interesting to enquire what John Ikenberry meant when he qualified America as a ‘Liberal Leviathan’, withholder of unprecedented power, and ruler of a contemporary ‘hierarchical political order with liberal characteristics’[2]. While countless theorists of international relations value the concept of inevitable anarchy between states, John Ikenberry’s book suggests a clear shift to unipolar attitudes. Not denying the existence of such anarchy, Ikenberry simply denotes its taming through the rise and settling of a global form of hierarchy[3]; foundation to the main justification of his metaphor. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, a type of liberal hegemonic American ideology has led world politics[4]. A new world order was established, on principles of cooperation and consent, which enabled the U.S to perpetuate and carve a sort of soft power-based supremacy.

With the deliberate use of an oxymoron to portrait the United States, one could appreciate a mirroring of the paradoxical current world order: where liberalism and hegemony coexist. Exploring this basic understanding of Ikenberry’s advances, it was stimulating to firstly analyse how international politics today allow the bonding of such contradictory terms. Then, with deeper analyses of the essence of Thomas Hobbes’ metaphor, we follow a suggestion on how Ikenberry disregards the implicit but inevitable linkage of national and international U.S narratives. This omission precludes him from acknowledging the strategic position America adopts within the World Order, which contradicts the nature of a Leviathan. This perpetuation of irreconcilable concepts leads us to lastly explore different conclusions to the metaphor of a ‘Liberal Leviathan’. Using Marxist and Gramscian theories, we will endeavour to deduct that the true current Leviathan exists within the theories of international relations themselves, rather than through those who gain power through them.

This essay will attempt an analytical enquiry of John Ikenberry’s argument, and will venture to show how, while he is not mistaken in stating the American ascent and unprecedented power on the world stage; the metaphor he draws from it is misused. It would be not the United States embodying a genuine international authority, but the global strands of liberalism and capitalism, through which America itself cultivates its strength.

I/ The American liberal rise to power: the metaphor explained

Within the new established world order, most narratives portray the United States as undeniable bearer of the international crown. America has increasingly pledged itself to the role of international and selfless monarch, empowering a global role model to be followed[5]. Could this be the intent behind John Ikenberry’s metaphorical elaboration of the U.S’ role within the world? As leader of the new international order, the United States stereotypically stands as the arbiter, impeding the outbreak of an interstate ‘war of [all] against [all]’[6]. Following the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the rival Soviet Union, the global order naturally fell in the hands of America and its nurtured ideology of liberalism, which itself reached ‘a worldwide crescendo’[7]. Additionally, as Ikenberry advances, the establishment of this ‘American-led’ world order did not witness important attempts to counter or balance its ‘unipolarity with clear and determined efforts’[8]. Through the denial of their balancing right, states have implicitly agreed to recognize the American sovereignty, suggesting for Ikenberry an acquired status of Leviathan.

From an ostensible point of view the seminal metaphor of ‘Leviathan’ effortlessly adhered to the essence of post-Cold War political realities. The United States assumed that role of ‘Leviathan’ in pursuit of their grand universal vision for the world; and in order to avoid the negative impacts of being singled out by the new ‘top dog’, each individual state decided to collectively join the American realm, ceding amounts of their freedom in the process. Going against Waltz’s idiom, which held freedom was gained only through some levels of insecurity, states had no interest in risking a return to war, especially against the growing American authority, and had better chances of economic prosperity with conceding some power to an international ‘ruler’[9], promise of stability. This is John Ikenberry’s explanation for the rise of this 21st century ‘Liberal Leviathan’. ‘American global authority was built on Hobbesian grounds’[10], and similarly to individuals handing over their power in favour of security to an absolute authority, states handed theirs to Washington. The association with Liberalism provided the United States with added legitimacy and power. As the post-Cold War recognised triumphant ideology, liberalism was established as justified foundation for new international relations. It adopted characteristics of a ‘hegemonic ideology’, following Robert Cox’s idea that liberalism reinforced the power of the new world order beneficiaries, and diffused their benefits[11], expanding its own power, and American sovereignty. Because the United States was perceived as an ‘empire with a democratic conscience and a global mission of spreading and protecting freedom’, an international common-sense drifted around the idea that its actions should not be taken as signs of imperial ambition, but rather as a ‘commitment’ to spread those ‘exceptional values globally’[12]. In portraying the incomparable American power in the new world order, John Ikenberry associated the strength of an ideology to great military assets, and formulated his metaphor of ‘Liberal Leviathan’.

However, despite the evident authority America holds over the current world order, perhaps Ikenberry disregarded the importance of national interests in the governing of any rational state. Because its values lie in liberalism, America manifests itself internationally as provider of ‘protections and benefits’[13], associating its power to selflessness and collectiveness. Yet, it does so ‘in exchange for cooperation and political support’[14]. Here, an inevitable incline towards realism is implied. The U.S undeniably values free trade. The maintenance of this claim on international scales established it as ‘common sense’, as global recognition of collective interest. But it is quite patent that the ‘reality of free trade is very much in the interests of the higher powers’[15]. Behind its vale of liberal activist, America withholds important realist values that cannot be neglected. Undeniably, despite a so-called ‘benevolent’ nature, America does ‘live in a Hobbesian world’[16]. A world where national interests highly impact foreign policies. As a state, it must ‘act in decisive and vigorous manner’[17] and seek the inflation of its own interests. As a part of this Hobbesian order, America does not qualify for the embodiment of an objective global ruler. This is where our understanding of Antonio Gramsci’s theories, which we will further on discuss in more depth, starts to influence our perception of Ikenberry’s metaphor. Caught between a liberal image and realist survival instincts, America shines under a better light through the Gramscian analogy of a ‘centaur’[18] to describe its hegemonic power. Held between two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, where realism and liberalism both hold importance.

II/ Ikenberry’s metaphor faultily overestimates American authority

Michel Foucault stressed how liberalism resonates with the principle that ‘one always governs too much’[19]. This could be a hint to what place America holds within the international order today. With a leading political place, it is an undeniable ruling force. However, this leadership does not implicate America’s role as that of a Leviathan, only as a state that sometimes forgets it is still a part of the order. Looking more closely as to what Thomas Hobbes attributed to a sovereign authority, we understand that a Leviathan places itself above the laws, as he is the originator of those laws[20]. But this cannot apply to America. Ikenberry contradicts himself asserting that the U.S ‘binds itself to other states within a system of rules and institutions’[21], when on the contrary, a Leviathan represents by definition authority above any laws. This confusion could erect from the author’s initiative to propel liberalism on the international level. Since liberal theorists regard the state as neutral arbiter amongst competing individuals[22], Ikenberry associates the United States with such characteristic. Following our establishing of American realist interests, his theory does seem a little idealistic. This is where the paradoxical nature of Ikenberry’s metaphor lies. America wants to be a Leviathan. It’s most important foreign policy is not the stability of the international community, but the defending of American independence and power; the ability to govern per what it wants. However, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is portrayed as a disinterested monarch above the world it rules, not a participant in it. With both the ‘greatest capacity to influence outcomes’ and the ‘biggest stakes in established order’[23], America cannot withhold a neutral place, outside from world politics.

Furthermore, we conceive Ikenberry to be right in understanding how individuals willingly hand over their power to the Hobbesian Leviathan; and how this could be paralleled with the seeming internationally approved status acquired by America. It is the implications behind such approbation that do not measure up from one metaphorical Leviathan to the other. When in Thomas Hobbes’ social contract theory, what leads individuals to cooperate and commit to a sovereign is fear[24]; the international community does so out of common interests it enjoys from bandwagonning with the United States[25]. Felix Ciuta explained that it is the perception of the US as a ‘benign’ and ‘exceptional’ power which enables it to preserve dominance, and delays an otherwise ‘implacable logic of balance of power’[26]. Looking at the current international state of affairs, we recognise a concept of interest-based hierarchy. In a recently published article, The Economist stated how ‘Hypocrisy is central for Washington’s power’[27]. Because each state benefits nationally from the global public goods provided by the United States, all have strong incentives to uncritically follow American decisions, and little interest in rebelling against incongruous behaviour that would only ‘risk pushing the U.S towards more self-interested positions’[28].  Like Ikenberry himself conceived, ‘countries that cooperate with the United States and accept its leadership receive special bilateral security and economic compensation’[29]. But their positions as subjects to the United States do not come from fear; rather from greed. The current context of world politics as a ‘three-dimensional chess game’[30] further harms Ikenberry’s metaphor. Where America meets the criteria of a Leviathan, whom ‘possesses the material resources and will to arbitrate the inevitable conflicts’[31], and is settled on unipolar military power; vis-à-vis economic relations, multipolarity of decisions and interests is obvious. The international community accepts America’s position at the top from the interests they currently gain from it. While Washington assumes the role of global warden, each state can focus on its own domestic interests[32].

While some attributes of a Leviathan can be applied to the American role in world politics, a glance at the writings of Antonio Gramsci point us towards a more interesting perspective. Gramsci proposes an analysis of international relations based on theories of ruling through hegemony, rather than absolute, disinterested and ruthless power. It is rather clear that America emerged as main protagonist in the narratives of recent hegemonic endowing. Based on its social vision and historical experiences, the United States was able to ascertain itself as leader of such ‘consensual hegemony’[33] over the Western World, and later globally. Through economic power, America established its ideological perspectives and presented an image of international ruler, building on Gramscian theories of ‘dual perspectives’ and ideas of ‘coercion and consent’ within its political struggles[34].  Looking at the Iraq war example, we see how America does possess military power to coerce state policies and contain forms of extremism. Yet, when its glides towards more conservative realist views, as under the Bush administration, its legitimacy starts to be questioned globally, and its initiatives clearly ‘unwelcomed’[35]. Requiring consent as much as it can endorse coercion, America is not above international norms and laws, yet it stills manages strong influences. Thus, as Gramsci continues, basic shifts in the world power, ‘military, and geopolitical balances can be traced to fundamental changes in social relations’[36] between states. Conceivably, America has only been using liberal and capitalist visions to enhance its own international relations. Leaving us to question whom or what are the real leading forces in the current world order.

III/ America, the current best representative of the true global Leviathans

Karl Marx claimed that International Relations and patterns of change are fundamentally shaped through economic processes and theories[37]. Rather than through the power of states themselves, other driving forces are involved in the creation and maintenance of world orders. Thus, going back to fundamental Marxist theories and insights of Antonio Gramsci, we envision a different perspective to a ‘Liberal Leviathan’. By acknowledging the capitalist and liberal nature of the current international order[38], Ikenberry himself paves our way to new conclusions. Gramsci argued that what he called a ‘system’, or new world order, is sustained through the idea of a ‘hegemony of bourgeois ideas and theories’. He goes further in claiming this hegemony can be associated with ideology, and then raised to become the ‘common sense of the age’[39]. B. S. Chimni, advocate of Gramsci, carried the theory and its dynamics to the international level of analysis, replacing the ‘traditional bourgeoisie with the new “transnational capitalist class”, in the current vaster process of establishing a global state’[40] and legitimising its worldview. This worldview would unquestionably be Liberalism, as it embodies the ‘ideological aspect of capitalist organization of society, the world view of the capitalist class’[41]. This ‘global bourgeoisie’ thrives through international laws and institutions, and a cultural, economic and ideological hegemony[42]. Through the conditions of such bourgeois, capitalist reign, the global community is unified into a fundamentally liberal-capitalist ‘historic bloc’[43]. Internationalizing the theory, states and their ruling elites, are bound to Capitalism and Liberalism, to which they give their active consent, to securitize national economic interests. Building upon foundations of liberal regulations of inter-state conflict and a globally conceived civil society or modes of productions, this hegemonic world order links social classes of different states[44] to maintain its ideological sovereignty. Alluring to uphold the interests of the ruling elite of each state, liberalism and capitalism maintain their international hegemony as each state concedes some fraction of its sovereign power to globalized values.

 Remaining on Marxist grounds, theorists recognized that capitalist ways inherently tend to universalize their modes of production, ‘breaking down barriers’ and ‘establishing worldwide divisions of labour’[45], which would be perpetuated as most beneficial norms through the ruling elites, for the masses. Hegemony logically spreads through its supremacy the specific interests of the ruling class, as of universal interests. In association with the post-Cold War period and the continuum of American ‘unparalleled ascendency’[46] around the world, this ‘liberal capitalist’ ideology emerged as the strongest method to be followed. The United States, its main advocate, had benefitted from it thoroughly, so other states had to seek the same profits. Being self-legitimizing in itself, liberalism is carefully used by the U.S as a tool to maintain national hegemony and power over the international system[47]. Naturally it seems, America places itself as sovereign of the world order, through the legitimacy brought by liberalist and capitalist theories, on which it individually relies.

 Furthering the globalising ways of liberal-capitalism Robert Cox affirmed ‘hegemony at the international level is not merely an order among states. It is an order within a world economy with a dominant mode of production’, penetrating and linking ‘all countries’[48]. How the international order is ruled is said far from the reach of one single state. It must infiltrate all nations. Capitalism could thus be perceived as the veritable international Leviathan, running the economic market and defining the political and international norms through a ruling elite. Associated with the powerful image of America, and the strength of the ‘self-reinforcing, self-legitimizing and self-perpetuating’ liberal ideology, capitalism gains international support with minimal use of coercion. Through the compelling traits of liberal values and institutions, both America and capitalism have maintained a ‘façade of legitimacy built on perceived consent’ or cynically, ‘concealed coercion’[49]. Neglecting the enticement of the how hiding behind America’s powerful leadership, John Ikenberry might have rushed to the wrong conclusions and neglected to understand the ‘liberal capitalist’[50] ideology as the real international Leviathan. Firmly ruling over international markets and political values, gathering the power of individual states through their fear of compromising national wealth and benefits. When Karl Kautsky claimed for imperialist values to be ‘a vital necessity for capitalism’[51], although he was not entirely thorough in his phraseology, he did point towards a new possibility of sovereignty within the world order: that of the doctrine of liberal-capitalism.


The purpose of this essay was to evaluate the weight of John Ikenberry’s metaphorical assimilation of America to a Liberal Leviathan. The formulation of this metaphor built upon the post-Cold War strength accumulated by America, and its international campaigning of the liberal ideology. For Ikenberry, it is clear that ‘the United States took on the duties of building and running’ the current world order. Cultivating a hierarchical leadership, America became the sovereign ruler of the international system, but a ruler with liberal idioms. Yet, based on the evidence and arguments we have developed, it seems that while such metaphor is not invalid in description of the world order, it is not perfectly applicable to the United States itself.

Drawing from our researches, the possibility to perceive Liberalism itself and Capitalism as better qualifying global Leviathan has been reached. America remains the major leader in today’s international order, yet not its absolute sovereign. It is the manager of capitalist and liberal values, the face of the ideologies. It thrusts and plays by the rules, but it cannot be above them. Paul Ricoeur said that we ‘readjust as the story moves along, until it coincides with the conclusion’. And as America shifts along the right narratives to perpetuate its authority and legitimacy as great power, it does not rule impartially and absolutely over the other states, but rests its superiority on means of military supremacy, political liberalism and economic capitalism.


[1] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society : A study of Order in World Politics, Fourth Edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 45.

[2] John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan : The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, New Jersey : Princeton University Press, 2011, p. xi

[3] Ibid, p.37

[4] Ibid, p.79

[5] John McCain, ‘America must be a good role model’, in The Financial Times, March 18 2008

[6] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I : Of Man, Chapter XIII – Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as conserning their felicity and misery, p.78, (Ed.) Edwin Curley, Canada, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1994

[7] Ikenberry, Leviathan, p.11

[8] Ibid, p.22

[9] Eric X. Li, ‘Hang on, Leviathan, Hang on’, The International Herald Tribune, Editorial Opinion, Paris, 5 June 2012

[10] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, p.10

[11] James L. Richardson, Contending Liberalisms : Past and Present, European Journal of International Relations, 3 :5, 1997, p.5-6

[12] Felix Ciuta, What Are We Debating? IR Theory between Empire and the ‘Responsible’ Hegemon, In : Palgrave-Macmillan International Politics Journal, Palgrave Macmillan, Vol : 43, 2006, p.179-181

[13] Ikenberry, Leviathan, p.87

[14] Ibid.

[15] John Baylis, Steve Smith and Patricia Owens, ‘Marxist theories in international relations’ in : The Globalization of World Politics : An introduction to international relations, Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press (5th edition), 2011, p.140

[16] Ciuta, What are we debating ?, p.179

[17] Ibid, p.180

[18] Robert Cox, Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations : An Essay in MethodMillennium – Journal of International Studies, 12 :1621983, p.52

[19] Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (Eds.), The Essential Foucault – Selections from the essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, The New Press, 2003, p.203

[20] Hobbes, Leviathan, [9], Chapter xxix, p. 213

[21] Ikenberry, Leviathan, p.104

[22] Andrew Heywood, ‘Chapter Two : Liberalism’ in : Political Ideologies – An Introduction, Fourth Edition, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2007, p.38

[23] Michael Sheehan, The Balance of Power : History and Theory, New York, Routledge Editions, 1996, p.73

[24] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, Chapter xxvii, [19], p.196

[25] Bull, Anarchical Society, p.51

[26] Ciuta, What are we debating ?, p.179

[27] The Economist, ‘The NSA and the EU – who do I wiretap if I want to wiretap Europe?’, 25 October 2013, <> [Accessed October 28th 2013]

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ikenberry, Leviathan, p. 150

[30] Joseph S. Nye Jr., ‘Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy’, in Harvard Magazine Online, March/April 2008, <>, [accessed 22 November 2013]

[31] Edward A Kolodziej, Security and International Relations, Cambridge, New York…, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.53

[32] Randall Schweller, Emerging Powers in an Age of DisorderGlobal Governance, 17, 2011, p.290

[33] Mark Rupert, Producing Hegemony – The Politics of Mass Production and American Global Power, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.43-44

[34] Ibid, p.27-28

[35] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, p.264

[36] Robert Cox and Timothy Sinclair, Approaches to World Order, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 133

[37] Lecture n°7, Theories of International Relations Module, Professor Harry Bauer, 18th November 2013

[38] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, p.17/62

[39] Heywood, Political Ideologies, p.7

[40] B. S. Chimni, International Institutions today : An Imperial Global State in the MakingEuropean Journal of International Law, Volume 15, 2004, p. 4

[41] Rupert, Producing Hegemony, p.105

[42] Ibid.

[43] Rupert, Producing Hegemony, p.30

[44] Cox and Sinclair, Approaches to World Order, p.136

[45] Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism : The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Penguin Books Ltd, 2010, p.xvi

[46] Colin S. Gray, The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order, University Press of Kentucky, 2004, p.5

[47] Andrew Hurrell, Hegemony, liberalism and global order : what space for would-be great powers ?International Affairs, 82 : 1, 2006, p.1-19

[48] Robert Cox, Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations : An Essay in MethodMillennium – Journal of International Studies, 12 :1621983, p.171

[49] Li, Hang on, Leviathan

[50] Heywood, Political Ideologies, p.9

[51] Lenin, Imperialism, p.91


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