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.

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.

Mearsheimer caps his realist analysis with a critique of a world state. He regards this as impossible, and does not reckon with the thesis (widely held by neoconservatives) that it came into existence de facto in the form of America’s worldwide hegemony, in which America stands forth (or used to) as the chief law enforcer of the “liberal world order.” Instead, he contrasts a centralized world state with a condition of total anarchy. Take your pick, he advises: it’s either a hierarchic state ruling the planet or total anarchy among egotistical power-maximizers. Is there really nothing in between these equally odious outcomes, between an unrealizable tyranny and a depraved dystopia? Mearsheimer quotes Alexander Wendt to the effect that one predator will best one hundred pacifists (ignoring how often those devoted to pacifism, like Erasmus, recognized withal the right of self-defense). There are far more powers of resistance to aggression and external occupation than this depiction of the anarchy of the system conveys (a point that Mearsheimer later recognizes but which does not enter into his analysis of anarchy and the world state). Effectively, as Jonathan Schell observed, the world has become unconquerable. The absence of an international police force does not mean that there are no powers of enforcement in the system. It means they are decentralized. They reside especially in the military capacity of the various nations, but also, as Schell emphasized, in various forms of popular resistance. Because defense is the stronger form of warfare, they actually provide reasonable assurances of security for most states, as a stout defense can hugely complicate the ambitions of a would-be conqueror or, that failing, ensure a costly and brutalizing occupation. Given a past century that saw the successive fall of empires, and a new century that saw once again the capacity of third-rate powers to frustrate the ambitions of the first-rate powers, it is very dubious to describe conquest as “in some circumstances” a winning strategy. In today’s world, states tend to be more worried about migrants overwhelming their borders than incorporating such masses via conquest. On disputed borders, to be sure, the use of military power may force an adjustment to a state’s advantage, but any plan of great conquest (such as might promise a shift in the global balance of power) would waste rather than augment the resources of the aggressive state, rendering it weaker and probably imperiling the stability of its regime.

Mearsheimer credits the “balance of power” as the proper objective for U.S. policy, by which he means the prevention of hegemony by any other power over Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, but with the United States insisting on its hegemony in the western hemisphere. In his hands, such a criterion might produce a restrained foreign policy, but it is sufficiently vague and elastic to be employed with facility in an unrestrained one, as any aggressive action by an enemy can be seen (as it has often been seen) as threatening the balance. More seriously, this analysis does not take account of highly significant changes in the underpinnings of national power, such that the objective of “shifting the world balance of military power” by conquest would have an entirely different meaning from the past. As Robert W. Tucker observed a half century ago (in Force, Order, and Justice, at 278), the nuclear revolution upended the economic and technological calculations that underlay the geopolitical theories of the twentieth century’s first half, theories that stipulated the immense significance of the major world industrialized regions (of which George Kennan in the late 1940s famously counted five). Nuclear weapons made states deeply vulnerable in one sense but, as Tucker noted, “these same weapons render a great nuclear power physically secure to a degree that great powers seldom, if ever, enjoyed in the past. For the first time in history the prospect arises of a physical security that need no longer prove dependent on time-honored calculations of a balance of power. The calculations that characterize balance of power policies must appear increasingly irrelevant where no prospective increase by an adversary of the traditional ingredients of power can substantially improve his chances of surviving—let alone winning in any politically meaningful sense—a nuclear conflict.” Mearsheimer stresses repeatedly the imperatives of survival, but does not register Tucker’s corollary theme that America, in its worldwide nuclear commitments, risks its survival on behalf of interests that, if lost, would not imperil that survival.

A Disguised Liberalism

The saving grace of The Great Delusion is not Mearsheimer’s dark realism but his disguised liberalism. It is not only that Mearsheimer affirms his belief that liberal democracy is the best (or least bad) form of government, but also that he waxes eloquently over the severe costs to liberal democracy that America’s worldwide role has entailed. These include a culture of lying in Washington, illiberal intolerance towards different peoples, madcap policies of universal surveillance, indifference toward the killing of the enemy in vast numbers, and the corruption of domestic political institutions by a security state engorged with tremendous resources. Sometimes Mearsheimer adduces these consequences to show hypocrisy, and his condemnation appears silently, but at other times he is emphatic in his conviction that such lapses have threatened core values. In detailing those domestic costs, however, he inadvertently shows that liberalism—what Daniel Deudney has called “republican security theory” and Michael Lind “republican liberalism”—is a better framework for understanding what has happened than his bare-knuckled version of realism. When Mearsheimer is describing “the dictates of realism,” he takes no account of the republican security thesis, which always warned that powerful military institutions in a centralized state would risk highly adverse consequences for domestic liberty. He acknowledges the fact, as it were, but it makes no appearance in his presentation of realist theory. If the overriding goal of each state is to maximize its military power, however, this inevitably puts the requirements of domestic liberty in the shade. In contrast with Mearsheimer’s brand of realism, republican security theory places the control of power at home and abroad as the central problem reflection must solve, and sees these two questions as closely intertwined.