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.

In his treatment of international institutions, Mearsheimer makes the excellent observation that calls for international cooperation are often elicited in order to further enmity elsewhere. From today’s liberal internationalists we learn all about the beauty of international cooperation, only then to discover that the real point is to marshal forces against the enemy. This pattern of the U.S.-led world order—its organization into friends and enemies—has been its most important feature. It has also become its most problematic dysfunction, because it conduces in practice toward deeper international conflict. But the perversion of the cooperative ideal on behalf of militaristic policies does not show that international cooperation is in principle a bad thing. It is not a bad thing; it is absolutely necessary, across a wide range of domains. Its true meaning today, concerning matters of war and peace, requires the United States to devise “rules of the road” with adversaries instead of organizing our efforts against them and reading them out of the human race. That requires earnest attention to the reciprocal respect for right and vital interest as the basis for a new détente. Call it liberalism, if you please, or realism, if you must, but reciprocity is the relevant principle in effecting a reduction of tensions among the nuclear powers.

The biggest problem with liberal institutionalism, as usually rendered, is that it throws a slew of “international institutions” into the mix, and we learn of the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF, and World Bank as an undifferentiated blob, as if they work for the same purposes (they do not) or have been uniformly supported by the United States (they have not been). Mearsheimer does not remedy this error but falls into it himself, speaking of international institutions in the abstract when it is their concrete variation that matters.

Illiberal America

As Mearsheimer describes it, liberalism is a truly hopeless doctrine, shot full of contradictions and absurdities. It sets forth claims of illimitable individual rights, ignoring community. It is prepared to ride roughshod over the right of other states to independence. It has “social engineering” in its bones, grinding humanity into an atomized mass. It is hostile to diplomacy, because intolerant and tending toward maximalism. It talks a big game about the peaceful resolution of disputes, but in fact is addicted to war. Its most important attribute is its hypocrisy, blithely violating core principles its second nature.

If this be liberalism, then we are indeed entitled to reject it and cast it to the four winds. As an ideology of international thought, however, the overall thrust of the U.S. effort, when not simply a brackish version of realism, is much more akin to the “revolutionary” tradition associated with Jacobinism or Bolshevism on the left, and the Counter-Reformation and the Counter-Revolution on the right, than to the traditional doctrines in the liberal approach to international relations. Liberalism, especially in its American manifestation, did put the rights of states to independence at the center of things. It did privilege the peaceful settlement of disputes. To this Mearsheimer implicitly replies that the United States is a liberal state “to the core,” always has been, and therefore its historical record is the template by which we assess the virtues and vices of liberalism. Insofar as it can be shown that the United States engaged in conquest, used deception, favored war over peaceful settlement, or tortured to its heart’s content, we thereby show that liberalism is irretrievably tainted with these maladies. That is unsatisfactory. It deprives liberalism of any substantive content whatsoever and make its fortunes identical with whatever the American state decides to do at any particular point in time.

That the United States has proven exceptionally bellicose does not invalidate the liberal injunction to privilege the peaceful settlement of disputes. That the “liberal state” has locked up peaceful dissenters during war doesn’t show that freedom of speech isn’t an important value. That the United States has read whole peoples out of the human race, in the name of combating terrorism, doesn’t mean that the equality of nations is a sham. Mearsheimer sees liberalism as the source of the nation’s ills; it is better seen as an oft-neglected corrective to its sinful ways. The problem, as earlier observed, is that in foreign-policy liberalism has been abandoned, not that it has gotten fulfilled. In matters of war and peace, the once-liberal state became illiberal, and did so long before Trump. That is a tragedy, for America and for liberalism, really for the world. It is to be repaired, if it can be repaired, not by deepening the illiberalism but by clawing our way out of that corrupt and morally untenable condition, one that in no wise advances America’s true interests.

That repair or renovation entails recovering the sense of limits that once was central to the liberal outlook. It is not especially complicated; the basic proposition is simplicity itself. The “doctrine that all men are equal,” as William Graham Sumner well said, “was set up as a bar to just this notion that we are so much better than others that it is liberty for them to be governed by us.” We could chisel that in granite, release half the security establishment, and still yet be more secure, prosperous, and free.

A key attribute of the older liberalism was its rejection of universal empire: it saw as perilous the assumption by any state of commanding military dominance over others, such that it could “give the law” to international society. This was not an isolated deduction on an arcane point of law, but a first principle for those who accepted the law of nature and of nations, as America’s Founders did. America’s contemporary world posture, especially its desire to have military superiority and escalation dominance on a multitude of frontiers, is in violation of this rule, yet today hardly an eye is batted at home over the extravagance of the pretension. It is accepted as natural and indispensable, the never-questioned postulate of the entire system, as if from on high came the decree: The U.S. armed forces shall be militarily supreme, everywhere on Planet Earth. The older liberalism saw such aspirations as dangerous and overbearing; we neglect its warning at our peril.

Mearsheimer is likely to object that the recognition of universal human rights impels one to intervention, but when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted fifty years ago it was understood that it did not erect a right of external intervention to remedy state violations. As proposing rights without remedies, these and other declarations were ineffectual but still not useless; they did erect standards that should not be crossed, did express commanding ideals (e.g., the right to be free from torture) that have not lost their charm. Mearsheimer is right to insist on the particularity of the nations and to emphasize their moral disagreement with one another, but he might more profitably have insisted on their right to be free from external dictation, even in the name of human rights, as the traditional liberal view saw that for human rights to take root the nations had to claim such rights for themselves. In his apparent recognition of the norm of nonintervention, at least in some of his moments, Mearsheimer has an unrecognized ally in the rule of the UN Charter, which laid down the fundamental principle that states were to refrain in their international conduct from the use or threat of force. This was once a liberal principle, and a really good one. Too bad the United States has taken to the wholesale violation thereof.

Given the crimes and follies committed in its name, it is understandable that liberalism should be under siege. In Mearsheimer’s accounting, as in that of many others, the United States is understood as the quintessential liberal state. If the American vision of world order has flaws, it has then followed that these flaws must be ascribed to liberalism. In fact, however, liberalism’s abundant resources are better deployed in a critique of the U.S. record. The most cogent refutation of the U.S. role arises from within the liberal tradition, not outside of it. Hard to recall today, barely discernible in the historical mists, the liberal tradition nevertheless provides essential elements of wisdom that, if observed, might restrain the now greatly empowered American state and show a path to the reform of its international posture. The substitution of mutual interest and reciprocity for the ways of force, liberalism’s great enemy; the equality of peoples and their possession in common of a right to carve out their own destiny; the privileging of the peaceful settlement of disputes; the toleration of difference in religion and creed; a zealous watchfulness against the abuse of power, acknowledging the need for checks and balances upon the exercise of governmental authority; the idea of an order based on the possession of right and the fulfillment of duty, for individuals and nations—all these themes are recognizably liberal, or used to be, and would be good maxims for any government committed to the cause of domestic reform and international peace. These ideas fit a policy of restraint as the hand fits the glove.