John Mearsheimer on International Relations, Great Power Politics, and the Age of Trump

December 15, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: PoliticsDemocracyLiberalsNationalismForeign Policy

John Mearsheimer on International Relations, Great Power Politics, and the Age of Trump

John J. Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities argues how the United States’ pursuit of a “liberal hegemony” has been a failure with sizeable costs.

There is no evidence that Donald Trump wishes to disintegrate the highly-integrated American bloc he inherited from his predecessors. Instead, his goal appears to be to force American military dependencies to contribute somewhat more to bloc defense, while somewhat rebalancing the distribution of manufacturing within the bloc in favor of American producers—two objectives, it should be noted, that he shares with earlier presidents. In the Trumpist version of realism, it seems that this rebalanced American bloc incorporating the industrial triad of North America, Europe and East Asia—not the United States alone—will respond to China’s challenge on all fronts, economic as well as military.

Blocism can be viewed as a successor to old-fashioned imperialism, and is inspired by the same zero-sum mercantilist logic. Military power depends on having advanced civilian industries. The most important of these for national power are manufacturing industries characterized by increasing returns to scale—that is, the larger the captive home or colonial market, the larger the production runs and the more efficient the industries. Hype about rapid prototyping and “Star Trek replicators” to the contrary, technology is unlikely to eliminate economies of scale in production in the foreseeable future. The importance of scale is reflected in the fact that a disproportionate number of successful transnational corporations have nearly half of their sales in the home markets of the three most populous capitalist countries—the United States, Japan and Germany. The home market effect helps to explain why Boeing and Airbus are the dominant players in global jetliner construction, and why search engines and social media platforms are dominated by American companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

The benefits of scale for modern industrial production undermine the argument—shared by many offensive realists and defensive realists alike—that the United States should focus only on near-term military threats from already-developed industrial countries and forego competing with rivals for influence in undeveloped areas. Echoing most realists, Mearsheimer writes:

This means the United States should not fight wars in Africa, Central Asia, or areas of the Middle East that lie outside the Persian Gulf. During the Cold War, for example, realists maintained that American policymakers should avoid wars in the “Third World” or “Developing World” because it was populated with minor powers that were of little strategic significance.

BUT SEVENTEENTH- and eighteenth-century mercantilists, nineteenth and twentieth century colonialists and American and Soviet strategists during the Cold War often sought to incorporate poor populations and territories into their blocs while denying access to them to their rivals. They did so, not on the basis of immediate contributions of these areas, if any, to the wealth and power of the metropole, but rather with an eye to their future potential as captive markets for national manufactured exports, sources of raw material and—in some cases—sources of civilian or military labor. Formal and informal colonialism has often been immoral but not irrational. It is much easier for a great power to expand its relative power by incorporating foreign nations into its alliance system and its extended home market than it is to boost its power by purely internal national population or productivity growth.

Like defensive realists, anti-imperialists in the past have often argued that the costs of empire outweigh the benefits. But that depends on the time frame. The British, French and other European colonial powers who extended their control over much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the late nineteenth century and between the world wars assumed that their empires would exist for generations. They were willing to pay initial costs as down payments on future contributions to the military and economic might of their empires. They did not foresee that the two world wars would cripple them, nor that they would be eclipsed by the United States and Soviet Union, which for reasons of liberal and socialist ideology, respectively, sought to phase out European colonialism.

Nor does popular nationalism inevitably doom empires and their modern successors, transnational blocs. On the contrary, multi-ethnic regional empires have been the norm in world history. National independence movements tend to succeed only when the imperial power is weakened by war or when its rival intervenes on behalf of the rebels. The United States exists because France intervened against Britain during the American war of independence. The Confederate States of America do not exist because Britain refused to intervene in the American Civil War.

The empires of the defeated powers in World War I were liquidated by the victors, while the empires of the victors remained intact. Decolonization after World War II was accelerated by the Cold War and the weakened condition of the metropoles; there is no reason to believe it would have happened as rapidly absent those factors, if it had happened at all. The United States was driven out of Indochina, not by Vietnamese nationalism alone (there were anti-communist as well as communist nationalists), but by the constant resupply of North Vietnam and its southern allies by the Soviet Union and China, and Washington’s fear of provoking direct Chinese entry, as in the Korean War. In Malaysia and the Philippines, communist insurgencies lacking external sanctuaries and great power sponsors were defeated, as they were throughout Latin America, with the sole exceptions of Cuba and, for a time, Nicaragua. Nationalist rebellions in the Soviet Union succeeded only after Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms weakened the center; Moscow and its satraps had been quite capable of crushing nationalists in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Mearsheimer cites the work of Peter Liberman, who breaks with the consensus of American realists by providing a qualified “yes” to the question posed by the title of his book Does Conquest Pay? But most of Mearsheimer’s limited discussion of economics in The Great Delusion is a critique of the liberal theory that economic interdependence promotes great power peace, as opposed to questions such as whether it makes sense or not for China and the United States to compete to build African infrastructure, in the hopes of incorporating growing African workforces and consumers in the future into their own rival geo-economic blocs. To say, as too many academic neorealists do, that Africa presently contains no countries capable of militarily threatening the U.S. misses the point of the competition.


What is needed in American foreign policy is an alliance of realism with economic nationalism. This should follow from the replacement of liberal hegemony with national primacy as the basis of U.S. grand strategy. The hegemon would not be the United States as an isolated nation-state, but a hegemonic bloc led by the U.S. and maintaining most of its present allies, with a certain amount of rebalancing within the bloc.

The American bloc can grow incrementally by the accession of new countries, but the neoconservative and neoliberal attempt to incorporate the entire planet into a single market and a single “rule-based order” policed by the U.S. military through a combination of wars of regime chance and “shock therapy” liberal economic globalization has been a catastrophe. In the future, the American bloc, based chiefly on North America and, if possible, Europe, may have to coexist with a Chinese bloc and perhaps an Indian bloc, along with a minor Moscow-centered Eurasian bloc, in the absence of Russian-American entente. On the global level, the United States and its allies should pursue a “concert-balance” strategy, attempting to maintain harmonious relations among regional great power blocs, while ensuring that, in the event of inter-bloc conflict, Uncle Sam is chair of the board of the great-power coalition with the greatest concentrations of population and resources and industry, as it was during the three world conflicts of the twentieth century. This is a strategy based on a preponderance of unbalanced power for Washington and its allies and dependencies, as an alternative to three other grand strategies: liberal hegemony, a minimal defensive realist strategy in which the United States is an “offshore balancer” intervening rarely as a deus ex machina in Eurasian conflicts and—by far the worst option—a neo-isolationist strategy that might permit the United States to be the friendless object of balancing coalitions.


The rejection of liberal hegemony in favor of national primacy in the realm of security strategy would be accompanied, in the economic realm, by the rejection of the liberal ideal of a rule-governed global free market in favor of strategic trade, investment and immigration policies. The United States would not, and should not, retreat into autarkic protectionism; on the contrary, it should try to be part of the largest and most productive economic bloc in the world. But the United States should minimize its financial and industrial interactions with military rivals and potential rivals by means of embargoes, sanctions or managed trade. And while taking the economic interests of other bloc members into account, it should not allow economic interdependence even with allies to undermine the industrial capacity on which U.S. military power depends. That includes maintaining the capacity for quick surges in militarily-relevant industrial production on U.S. soil, not leadership in technological innovation alone.