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.

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.)

The deficiency of this purely egotistical stance is plain to see. A posture that openly avows that it cares nothing for the rights of others will, as night follows day, induce in others a conviction that they are dealing with a brigand or marauder. Its manifest tendency, if consistently observed, is to produce a condition of enemies to all, friends to none, an outcome hardly consistent with the protection of American security or prosperity (or indeed that of any other state). Mearsheimer has a much keener sense of limitation than Trump, and thus his realism, while theoretically unbounded, is limited in fact. Enterprises that others might condemn as illegal and immoral Mearsheimer would be content with denouncing as simply bone-headed, akin to shooting oneself in the foot. But his realism does take him to some pretty dark places, as in his recommendation that the United States should employ “bait and bleed” strategies toward China. What, one might ask, of the innocents thus to be sacrificed? At one point, Mearsheimer condemns Hitlerian Germany as one of the most evil regimes in history, but does not seem to appreciate that the German theories of Machtpolitik (that bear, in their philosophical claims, the closest resemblance to Mearsheimer’s brand of realism) did assuredly lay the ground for Hitlerlism, as the great German realist Friedrich Meinecke came to see .

Mearsheimer claims that realism is in possession of timeless truths and “takes security competition among the great powers and war to be a normal part of life.” But it is vital to note that the great powers are in possession of means of destruction far more dangerous than anything previously existing in human history. Surely that matters in assessing the rationality of their security competition, giving them incentives to not let their competition get out of hand. Surely that means that war among the great powers, far from being the most normal thing in the world, would emphatically imperil the security and perhaps survival of them all. Ronald Reagan’s declaration that such a war could not be won and must never be fought is a much more persuasive commentary than any such assumption of normality. Mearsheimer recognizes the folly of nuclear war at one point, but it does not enter into his depiction of realism’s timeless truths. I don’t think that this novel condition of the hypertrophy of war, imperiling the species, actually undermines realism, rightly understood, because both Thucydides and Hobbes saw the protean condition of utter lawlessness and moral turpitude as the problem to be solved, not the remedy to be proffered. Liberal thinkers agreed with them in abundance on that point, sharing with Hobbes the assumption that anarchy was intolerable because so obviously hostile to self-preservation, but departing from him on the remedy. The absolute authority vested in the state by Hobbes was seen by liberal thinkers as in contradiction with itself, as who could ensure that the king, being yet a man, should be so tamed? Instead, they focused on devices such as separation of powers, representative government, checks and balances, the rule of law within and among commonwealths. They adopted an international theory stressing the achievement of friendship among nations based on reciprocal respect for right and mutual interest, not superiority and dominance. They saw the merit of an equilibrium of power, which meant avoiding a situation in which any one power could “give the law” to the others. Those were realistic calculations among thinkers attuned to the abuse of power, but yet also the fount of liberalism. Somehow, however, Mearsheimer ignores these foundational concerns, very much tied to security, and can write as if liberalism never bothered with the security problem.