John Mearsheimer and the Future of the Damaged Liberal Dream

John Mearsheimer and the Future of the Damaged Liberal Dream

Mearsheimer argues in his new book that liberalism is a truly hopeless doctrine, shot full of contradictions and absurdities.

What Mearsheimer is really describing as liberalism is not liberalism as it was, but a militarized cosmopolitanism that, in its relationship with nationalism, is profoundly different from previous versions of liberal internationalism and the broader society of states tradition. Cooperation among nations for the purpose of securing their mutual independence was the way that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt saw it. The idea wasn’t to meld the nations into one homogenous mass, but to secure them in their freedom and independence. In Mearsheimer’s conception, liberalism always had these nationality-destroying ambitions within it, but only with unipolarity in the New World Order could they finally find release. That account misleads in vastly underestimating the real change of objectives that took place under the auspices of “neo-liberalism” and “neo-conservatism” (the two great ideas of the 1990s, initially competing, which seemed to undergo a mind-meld over time).

In his analysis of liberalism, Mearsheimer begins with the distinction between “progressive liberalism” and “modus vivendi liberalism,” following John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism . This discussion of the best domestic policy for the liberal state, whatever its other merits, is not to the point in assessing the liberal conception of foreign policy and international relations. Mearsheimer’s reconstruction of liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals, ignoring states, and thus entirely effaces the central international distinctions that liberal thinkers drew. It is as if the law of nature and of nations never meant anything to liberalism, when in its historical etymology it was most closely identified with it. We learn nothing from Mearsheimer of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, or Emer de Vattel, nothing of the importance of the law of nations to America’s Founders and to many (but not all) U.S. leaders that followed. These silences should not obscure the point that liberalism had a well-developed international theory, which put the rights of states and nations at the center. Michael Doyle expresses a key part of it, in a formulation Mearsheimer cites much later in the book: states have a right to be free from external intervention. That postulate did not put liberalism at war with nationalism, but mostly in alliance with it. Nations were to be self-determining. Liberals generally thought that was grand. Liberal opinion could, of course, also be divided: a central conundrum of international liberalism was whether the right to non-intervention held most for states or nations. Both views registered the fundamental right of independence, but this could set them at odds in particular circumstances. Mearsheimer takes cognizance of the distinction between the state and the nation, but does not explore the arguments among liberal thinkers over its significance in law and diplomacy.

As a social scientist, Mearsheimer finds it necessary to use the language of prediction. Instead of focusing on the record of the United States as the sole world superpower, he writes about what “liberal great powers” have done and will do. “Liberal great powers,” it seems, will promote democracy and human rights, increased trade and investment, and international institutions. In a similar vein, he writes: “It is hardly surprising that a liberal foreign-policy favors market-based economies and calls for furthering international trade and investment.” Over history, however, there has been great variation in U.S. attitudes toward these things. Increased trade and investment, for example, describes the neoliberal policies of the last twenty-five years, but the Bretton Woods system after World War II gave much greater emphasis to the protection of national discretion and labor rights. Looking further back, the United States had a highly protectionist trade regime from the 1820s to the 1930s, and this in a country that, as Mearsheimer puts it, was always “liberal to the core.” If liberalism was omnipresent, how can it explain the variations? Mearsheimer solves this problem by ignoring the variations.

This language of prediction about what “liberal great powers” will do is dubious for another reason. Who, after all, are the liberal great powers? Mearsheimer doesn’t specify any other liberal great powers besides the United States, making his a theory built on one case. Generalizing about “liberal great powers” on this basis, however, slides easily into the proposition that whatever did happen (sometimes in the name of liberalism) had to happen and was historically inevitable. The theoretical language adds nothing to the historical description and in fact detracts from its veracity. The defensible generalizations, if such there be, would concern not “liberal great powers” but great powers, and would hold that powerful countries like to throw their weight around, that their appetite for power often grows with the eating, and that the United States has not proven to be an exception to that rule.

Realism 101

Mearsheimer is at great pains to describe what he calls “the realist story,” the master narrative that makes sense of human history and that is applicable to wide ranges of human behavior. In this theory, states are seen as power maximizing entities that privilege their own right of survival. It is a world after the Athenian generals at Melos, in which the strong do what they will and the weak do what they must. Mearsheimer’s theory assumes that states are the main actors, with no higher authority above them; that states can never be sure that the capabilities of opposing states reflect malign intentions, and hence must fear the worst if they hope to survive, and that this overriding goal of survival is pursued rationally by maximizing their own power whenever they can. “No society can ever be too powerful relative to its competitors.” For purposes of maximizing security, “social groups have a strong incentive to incorporate or dominate—even eradicate—other groups.” States, in Mearsheimer’s reckoning, “tend to think they alone have the right to survive. They do not apply the right to other states.” In the realist story, there is no room for rights, just as there is no room for “the international community.” Norms are powerless. Appeals to concepts like rights or justice are just window dressing “that powerful states use to sound high-minded when they are pursuing their interests, and that weak states invoke when they have no other recourse.”

There are scattered references in The Great Delusion to writers often deemed “realist,” like Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, but Mearsheimer’s version of realism is far more extreme than anything to be found in those authors. It would be pertinent to note, for example, that the words that Thucydides puts in the mouths of the Athenians at Melos, which Mearsheimer cites, were immediately followed by the deed of the Sicilian expedition, resulting in the disastrous loss of the Athenian army. That unfolding drama suggests “hubris followed by nemesis” rather than amorality and power maximization as the real lesson of The History of the Peloponnesian War . It would be pertinent to note that Hobbes laid down as a law of nature not only the right of self-preservation but also the duty to seek peace, and indeed suggested various “means to peace”—“justice, gratitude, modesty, equity, mercy, and the rest”—that relied upon a mutual respect for right and found the basic standard in the Golden Rule. Mearsheimer’s idea of the Golden Rule would undoubtedly be the old joke that he who’s got the gold gets to make the rules. That was not Hobbes’s conception .