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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.

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.

One very peculiar feature of Mearsheimer’s argument is his attribution of supreme power to a liberal creed that would impose human rights and democracy everywhere by force, for the betterment of the human race. He see this urge as immanent in liberalism from the beginning, then actuated in the new world order after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the state system became unipolar. Looking back at some thirty years of U.S. war-making, he sees this domineering ideology of liberalism, committed to social engineering, as absolutely in command of the scene. I should think, by contrast, that skepticism about these exalted motives is more appropriate in understanding the factors behind U.S. war-making. Where cynicism is most called for, as it were, Mearsheimer bails and favors a sugar-coated account of U.S. motives. It is odd for a realist to ascribe such power to idealism, especially considering his previous argument that civic nationalism is not a useful concept. In his account, what was not a useful concept at home, incapable of gaining the people’s allegiance, suddenly morphs into a universal creed of bewitching power, capable of globe-straddling intervention everywhere. How can that be? Trump’s ascension presents a further conundrum for Mearsheimer’s theory, for Trump has stripped his administration almost entirely of idealistic attachment to human rights and democracy, yet in Trump’s first year the United States still required an $80 billion boost to already extravagant military expenditures. Why the increase, if the human rights and democracy crusade explains so much of the preceding effort?

The truth about U.S. hegemony is more prosaic, and a lot more crass. Inflated conceptions of security—unless we destroy Saddam, our very existence will be imperiled—meant a lot more than uplifting paeans to human liberty and democracy. The former was a stronger motivation for the Iraq War than the latter, though many of its supporters persuaded themselves, absurdly, that America could create a country dedicated to multiethnic democracy by blowing away its state. It is true that Clintonian liberalism bought into this in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and is deservedly censured for that, but the driving force for the Iraq War came from Republican leaders who had never styled themselves as liberals. Oddly missing from The Great Delusion is The Israel Lobby , one among many domestic factors pushing the United States to war in 2003. Iraq apart, appeals to human rights and democracy, when America went to war, were more in the nature of pretexts and seldom illuminated the true motives. Mearsheimer, one imagines, skirts such excursions into the historical record because it would interfere with the commanding thesis that liberalism had its way in the world over the last two decades and is to blame for all these follies. One should think, however, that you’re getting to a pretty debased coinage if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have to stand in as epitomes of the liberal. It is a fair and damning criticism that Clintonian liberals have spent so many decades running from McGovernism and Carterism that they’ve ended up in a place not far from Boltonism, but it is a stretch to attribute all this to liberalism. Hillary put her finger in the air to test the political winds, kept an eye on the campaign coffers, and felt she had to be tougher than the boys. Those were more probable causes of her conversion to neoconservatism than a devotion to liberalism.

Though Mearsheimer writes of liberalism as an incredibly powerful force at some times, he also takes back nearly all of the assertion in his observation that it is only possible to do this sort of thing in a unipolar order; if it’s bipolar or multipolar, he argues, states revert to “realist dictates.” Earlier, he had written that liberal democracies “have little difficulty in conducting diplomacy when they’re acting according to realist dictates, which is most of the time.” But if it really is “most of the time,” why all the preceding attention to its liberal identity, which puts the liberal great power on autopilot to impose its system everywhere? To seek an explanation in the structure of the international system can only take you so far, because what that structure is lies too much in the eye of the beholder and is too dependent on how far the leading power presses its advantage. Even in the 1990s, when America enjoyed the widest prestige, and its power seemed to vastly eclipse every other state, Russia retained a formidable nuclear arsenal, as did China and others. It is not clear how Mearsheimer would describe the existing international system, but a vast military establishment at home clearly wants to maintain and extend U.S. military supremacy, wants to keep the system unipolar. Mearsheimer’s prediction seems of no predictive value: the thing to be explained (reversion to realist dictates) is itself unclear, as is the thing that is to explain it: whether the system is unipolar or not.