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.

Heretical as this seems to modern liberal hegemonists, it is an approach that would have been familiar to Alexander Hamilton and the two Roosevelts. Needless to say, any legitimate American nationalism would be liberal, constitutional and democratic at home, even though the United States abandoned misguided crusades to topple non-threatening undemocratic regimes abroad by force or subversion.

Mearsheimer might not favor such a version of a grand strategy of national primacy. Among other things, the extensive state intervention in the economy required for it to succeed would make it more like Mearsheimer’s “progressive liberalism” than the small-government classical liberalism which he calls “modus vivendi liberalism” and seems to prefer. But a case can be made that the strategy this author has outlined is compatible with Mearsheimer’s offensive realist view of world politics.

Because of its emphasis on acquiring and keeping unbalanced, preponderant power, however, such a synthesis of realism and nationalism would probably be rejected by the kind of defensive realists who reject Trump’s strategy as “illiberal hegemony.” Defensive realists oppose liberal hegemony, but few, if any, question the anti-nationalist free market economics at the core of the liberal tradition. This makes possible alliances among defensive realists and libertarians, who for their part tend to oppose large militaries and foreign intervention on the basis of anti-statism and radical individualism rather than realpolitik. Unfortunately for those who support a realist-libertarian alliance, the number of Americans who favor a combination of dramatically lower defense spending, more offshoring of industry and low-wage immigration is negligible, equivalent to supporters of the Libertarian Party, which gets no more than a few percent of the vote at most in elections.

A prudent attempt to preserve or expand an American-led bloc with preponderant wealth and power is likely to be repudiated by many defensive realists and their libertarian allies. But those who favor replacing liberal hegemony with national primacy as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy can find inspiration as well as insight in The Great Delusion.

Michael Lind is a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of The American Way of Strategy.

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