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.

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.

Even Machiavelli, the most “realist” of these writers, does observe that good faith, liberality, and justice are real and valuable things, adding the proviso that they would have to be abandoned when pressed by necessity. Machiavelli’s allowance that evil may be done to bring forth good inverted in vital respects the Ciceronian inheritance, and he was denounced for five hundred years for reasons like those I would like to deploy against Mearsheimer, but Mearsheimer’s depiction of the role of norms in social life makes Machiavelli look like a saint. Machiavelli’s doctrine of reason of state—that when the survival of the state is in question, moral restraints could be put aside—does not dispense with such categories for all time. It is avowedly a doctrine for parlous circumstances, such as Machiavelli believed Italy faced when he was writing. What Machiavelli has to say on that score is comparatively mild and innocuous by comparison with Mearsheimer, because while Machiavelli inverts certain moral categories and shows that good intentions can produce disastrous results, he doesn’t totally subvert that moral world; you’re still in it, if a bit upside down. But Mearsheimer’s science of IR takes us out of it. Machiavelli engaged in a sustained, vexatious, and even mischievous dialogue with justice, whereas Mearsheimer regards all norms as either ineffective or hypocritical, always pretexts, never motives, always window-dressing, never standards.

So long as we’re making Machiavellian calculations, it also should be remembered that Machiavelli was keen on the distinction between appearance and reality. One of his most important pieces of advice is that the prince must disguise his morally dubious intentions, leading subsequent writers and statesmen to the startling realization that the last refinement of Machiavellism was a denunciation of Machiavelli. Mearsheimer, by contrast, seems to advise the open avowal of iniquitous principles (we don’t care a fig for your right to survive). If Mearsheimer had a conception of right, one could say, he would be making an argument from fact to right, or might to right, but he seems to hold all such rights talk as meaningless. Machiavelli distinguished between necessity and mere advantage as relevant in determining when the suspension of the conventional moralities could be justified, whereas Mearsheimer collapses that distinction into the relentless struggle for survival, in principle justifying anything.

The first thing to notice about Mearsheimer’s conception of hard realism (what he called “offensive realism” in his Tragedy of Great Power Politics in 2001) is how terribly unrealistic it is. It is so because it vastly understates the importance of justice and injustice in social life. Human beings can be pretty dim bulbs, we human beings must admit, but one thing people can figure out pretty quickly is when they’ve been wronged or kicked around. Even a three-year-old objects when her brother appropriates her toy. In other circumstances, it would be pretty difficult not to pay heed to the boot on your neck, or that someone has invaded your country and burned your house. The sense of right or honor violated prompts to anger, which is motivating, and conjoins to interest, making it powerful. Mearsheimer, I suppose, would just call this nationalism, but it attests to the vital significance of such sentiments as drivers of engagement in the political arena. It is true, of course, that human beings have a strong tendency to put the emphasis on wrongs received rather than given, a phenomenon yet more applicable to political collectives. The problem with justice is not that it is insignificant but that we can’t quite reach agreement on what it is. From the fact of moral disagreement, however, we cannot derive the injunction to put justice aside. That is a huge mistake. In his philosophical reckonings, Mearsheimer imagines a knock-down drag-out fight between interest and morality, as if acting unjustly were the most prudent thing a state could do. The reverse is true much more often. On this point, one can only repeat the verities, with Burke: “Justice is the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.”

A second thing to notice about this doctrine of realism is how similar it is to Trump’s worldview. Trump is, in conviction, a hard realist. To revel in that sentiment of pure self-regard and to display it to the American public was the purpose behind his suggestion that, after invading Iraq, the United States ought to have seized Iraq’s oil fields and distributed the loot. Trump’s declaration was not about policy; it was about attitude, a brain fart meant to show that he would definitely put America First and could care less if others objected to the injustice of the thing. The Trump administration, of course, doesn’t go so far, with its officials at least bowing before conventional morality in justifying their actions, or at least having the decency to lie about it, but Trump himself epitomizes the amoral self-aggrandizing politician, the calculating Schmittian decider unconstrained by norms. Or would do so if he was more of a rational actor. (He’s got the right value system for that; his higher mental powers are, however, in question.)