Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the new book The Great Delusion : Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John Mearsheimer.
Liberal hegemony is an ambitious strategy in which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions. In essence, the liberal state seeks to spread its own values far and wide. My goal in this book is to describe what happens when a powerful state pursues this strategy at the expense of balance-of-power politics.
Many in the West, especially among foreign policy elites, consider liberal hegemony a wise policy that states should axiomatically adopt. Spreading liberal democracy around the world is said to make eminently good sense from both a moral and a strategic perspective. For starters, it is thought to be an excellent way to protect human rights, which are sometimes seriously violated by authoritarian states. And because the policy holds that liberal democracies do not want to go to war with each other, it ultimately provides a formula for transcending realism and fostering international peace. Finally, proponents claim it helps protect liberalism at home by eliminating authoritarian states that otherwise might aid the illiberal forces that are constantly present inside the liberal state.
This conventional wisdom is wrong. Great powers are rarely in a position to pursue a full-scale liberal foreign policy. As long as two or more of them exist on the planet, they have little choice but to pay close attention to their position in the global balance of power and act according to the dictates of realism. Great powers of all persuasions care deeply about their survival, and there is always the danger in a bipolar or multipolar system that they will be attacked by another great power. In these circumstances, liberal great powers regularly dress up their hard-nosed behavior with liberal rhetoric. They talk like liberals and act like realists. Should they adopt liberal policies that are at odds with realist logic, they invariably come to regret it. But occasionally a liberal democracy encounters such a favorable balance of power that it is able to embrace liberal hegemony. That situation is most likely to arise in a unipolar world, where the single great power does not have to worry about being attacked by another great power since there is none. Then the liberal sole pole will almost always abandon realism and adopt a liberal foreign policy. Liberal states have a crusader mentality hard-wired into them that is hard to restrain.
Because liberalism prizes the concept of inalienable or natural rights, committed liberals are deeply concerned about the rights of virtually every individual on the planet. This universalist logic creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to get involved in the affairs of countries that seriously violate their citizens’ rights. To take this a step further, the best way to ensure that the rights of foreigners are not trampled is for them to live in a liberal democracy. This logic leads straight to an active policy of regime change, where the goal is to topple autocrats and put liberal democracies in their place. Liberals do not shy from this task, mainly because they often have great faith in their state’s ability to do social engineering both at home and abroad. Creating a world populated by liberal democracies is also thought to be a formula for international peace, which would not just eliminate war but greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the twin scourges of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And lastly, it is an ideal way of protecting liberalism at home.
This enthusiasm notwithstanding, liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals, and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs. The liberal state is likely to end up fi endless wars, which will increase rather than reduce the level of conflict in international politics and thus aggravate the problems of proliferation and terrorism. Moreover, the state’s militaristic behavior is almost certain to end up threatening its own liberal values. Liberalism abroad leads to illiberalism at home. Finally, even if the liberal state were to achieve its aims—spreading democracy near and far, fostering economic intercourse, and creating international institutions—they would not produce peace.
The key to understanding liberalism’s limits is to recognize its relationship with nationalism and realism. This book is ultimately all about these three isms and how they interact to affect international politics.
Nationalism is an enormously powerful political ideology. It revolves around the division of the world into a wide variety of nations, which are formidable social units, each with a distinct culture. Virtually every nation would prefer to have its own state, although not all can. Still, we live in a world populated almost exclusively by nation-states, which means that liberalism must coexist with nationalism. Liberal states are also nationstates. There is no question that liberalism and nationalism can coexist, but when they clash, nationalism almost always wins.