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 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.

This points to a broader lesson. The fluidity of power ensures that terms like unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity disguise as much as they reveal; they are shorthand descriptions that do not take sufficient account of what states make of their condition, and that gloss over other dimensions of power besides the military. Theoretical supremacy is often implicitly equated with military effectiveness, an equation experience belies . It is as clear as can be that America’s new status after the Cold War as the “undisputed heavyweight champion of the world” instilled a hubris that led to imperial folly, but the resulting wars were also diminishing of its power and did provoke resistance. A perceived unipolarity was the enabler; a not-quite-recognized multipolarity was the result.

Mearsheimer devotes his seventh chapter to disproving the theories of the liberal peace that blossomed in the academy in the 1990s and beyond, which held that democratic institutions, economic interdependence, and faith in international institutions all strongly inclined toward peace, and even (in some versions) infallibly produced it. Mearsheimer is properly skeptical about a lot of these claims, and his quotations from the liberal academics exude an exceptionalism and optimism that has increasingly been belied by events. At the same time, he can hardly be said to have refuted them. He erects an implausible standard, for one thing, in holding that these theories have got to work 100 percent of the time, because if there is a possibility of bad behavior anywhere, then everyone else must go big time to power maximization. The conclusion hardly follows.

Mearsheimer emphasizes the absence of a perfect historical record in criticizing the democratic peace theory, which is fair enough, but the real faults lie elsewhere. First, the theory has been used and abused in order to promote war, as in 2003. Of equal seriousness, the proper injunction to observe norms of civility within the democratic community has translated in practice into the improper demand to abandon norms of civility and mutual interest in treating those outside the “democratic community.” Today’s liberals, in their intense dislike of Russia, exemplify this failing, but it is pretty common across the political spectrum in the United States. We (and our allies) are great; our enemies (and their friends) are scum—such is the higher morality of the America-led world order, dubiously called liberal.

Finally, the democratic peace theory underestimates the degree to which democracy can put wings on intense nationalism, as it is doing in a dozen democratic countries today. Mearsheimer, oddly, does not make this objection, but rather in his treatment of China assumes that it would become non-threatening if it were to become democratic. The problem, as he sees it, is that one couldn’t guarantee it would stay democratic. But surely that is not the most cogent objection, as China, whether it becomes democratic or not, would have security interests in its near abroad that are independent of the domestic regime at home. A more democratic China, especially if it listened to the voices of its often bellicose “netizens,” could be more rather than less difficult to contend with. It is difficult to conceive of the Chinese regime that would not object to America’s Air-Sea Battle plan, for instance, or that would not care about its appetite for water or a dozen other interests that China, as a nation, must inevitably take cognizance of and seek to safeguard.

Mearsheimer is also skeptical of the argument that economic interdependence leads to peace. The evidence on this is admittedly mixed, but “compared to what?” is a legitimate question to raise. Autarchy would not give states much of an incentive for cooperative behavior, whereas interdependence does. But the hoary old question also seems badly posed, because economic interdependence does exist and is not going away, even if there is a full blown tariff war; the real question, not taken up in The Great Delusion , is how to make it bearable, as it truly is inexorable.