The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

October 5, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: PoliticsLiberalsforeign policynational securitywar

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

An excerpt from John Mearsheimer's latest book.

The influence of nationalism often undercuts a liberal foreign policy. For example, nationalism places great emphasis on self­-determination, which means that most countries will resist a liberal great power’s efforts to inter­fere in their domestic politics—which, of course, is what liberal hegemony is all about. These two isms also clash over individual rights. Liberals be­lieve everyone has the same rights, regardless of which country they call home. Nationalism is a particularist ideology from top to bottom, which means it does not treat rights as inalienable. In practice, the vast majority of people around the globe do not care greatly about the rights of individu­als in other countries. They are much more concerned about their fellow citizens’ rights, and even that commitment has limits. Liberalism oversells the importance of individual rights.

Liberalism is also no match for realism. At its core, liberalism assumes that the individuals who make up any society sometimes have profound differences about what constitutes the good life, and these differences might lead them to try to kill each other. Thus a state is needed to keep the peace. But there is no world state to keep countries at bay when they have profound disagreements. The structure of the international system is anar­chic, not hierarchic, which means that liberalism applied to international politics cannot work. Countries thus have little choice but to act according to balance-­of-­power logic if they hope to survive. There are special cases, however, where a country is so secure that it can take a break from realpolitik and pursue truly liberal policies. The results are almost always bad, largely because nationalism thwarts the liberal crusader.

My argument, stated briefly, is that nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism. Our world has been shaped in good part by those two powerful isms, not by liberalism. Consider that five hundred years ago the political universe was remarkably heterogeneous; it included city­-states, duchies, empires, principalities, and assorted other political forms. That world has given way to a globe populated almost exclusively by nation­ states. Although many factors caused this great transformation, two of the main driving forces behind the modern state system were nationalism and balance-­of-­power politics.

The American Embrace of Liberal Hegemony

This book is also motivated by a desire to understand recent American foreign policy. The United States is a deeply liberal country that emerged from the Cold War as by far the most powerful state in the international system. 1 The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left it in an ideal position to pursue liberal hegemony. 2 The American foreign policy establishment em­ braced that ambitious policy with little hesitation, and with abundant opti­mism about the future of the United States and the world. At least at first, the broader public shared this enthusiasm.

 

The zeitgeist was captured in Francis Fukuyama’s famous article, “The End of History?,” published just as the Cold War was coming to a close. 3 Liberalism, he argued, defeated fascism in the first half of the twentieth century and communism in the second half, and now there was no viable alternative left standing. The world would eventually be entirely populated by liberal democracies. According to Fukuyama, these nations would have virtually no meaningful disputes, and wars between great powers would cease. The biggest problem confronting people in this new world, he suggested, might be boredom.

It was also widely believed at the time that the spread of liberalism would ultimately bring an end to balance-­of-­power politics. The harsh security competition that has long characterized great-­power relations would dis­appear, and realism, long the dominant intellectual paradigm in inter­national relations, would land on the scrap heap of history. “In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march,” Bill Clinton proclaimed while campaigning for the White House in 1992, “the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill­-suited to a new era in which ideas and information are broadcast around the globe before ambas­sadors can read their cables.”

Probably no recent president embraced the mission of spreading liberal­ism more enthusiastically than George W. Bush, who said in a speech in March 2003, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq: “The current Iraqi re­gime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.” Later that year, on September 6, he proclaimed: “The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we be­lieve that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfill­ment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom—the freedom we prize—is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.”