John Mearsheimer, the renowned realist scholar and author of the seminal book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, a thesis every student of international relations should be aware of, gave a lecture on “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities”, on November 7th, 2018 at the Center for International Security and Governance (CISG) in Bonn. Professor Mearsheimer’s lecture was followed by a discussion and Q&A with the audience, moderated by Deputy Editor at Foreign Policy, Cameron Abadi.
Even though there is widespread belief that the United States sought to spread liberal democracy around the world to promote human rights and peace, John Mearsheimer claims that the United States has become a highly militarized state fighting wars that undermine peace, harm human rights, and threaten liberal values at home. He explains that liberal hegemony, the foreign policy pursued by the United States since the Cold War ended, is doomed to fail. Instead, he proposes Washington adopt a more restrained foreign policy based on an understanding of how nationalism and realism constrain great powers abroad.
“Over the past two years, we have witnessed the unraveling of the international liberal order”, Prof. James D. Bindenagel, head of the CISG and Henry-Kissinger-Professor, stated in his introductory remarks. The combination of challenges from rising unilateralism and global threats are changing the world order. Geopolitical power shifts among the great powers – America, Russia and China – are upsetting the balance of the world order. Digitalization, globalization, and technology changes along with climate change are creating a set of more complicated, complex and dynamic security challenges. The list of conflicts is long and growing.
There are of course many new challenges for policymakers in this world of shifting power and they need to rely on political theory to face them, Mearsheimer began. In his new book “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” that this lecture was based upon, he delivered his approach to policy-relevant theory.
Mearsheimer continued his presentation with a question: Can liberalism triumph in the competition with nationalism and realism?
According to Professor Mearsheimer, the answer is no. In today’s shifting world order, realism and nationalism dominate over liberalism in every term. We are, Mearsheimer said, primarily social animals that build states. As proof of that thesis, he referred to the fact, that the world today is organized as a system of nation states. Liberal democracies never comprised 50% of the states in the system, and the number has been decreasing in the last years. Finally, he argued that all liberal democracies are in its core liberal nation states. The nation, Mearsheimer stated, plays an important role in sovereignty, and is the most powerful way to resist foreign interference.
Liberal Hegemony is characterized by three components, Mearsheimer emphasized: to spread democracy across the planet, to integrate more countries into the open international economy, and finally, to integrate more countries into international institutions. In the spirit of liberalism, the merits of this system would be the elimination of significant human rights violations, thus the elimination of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. To pursue the spread of liberal hegemony across the world, it takes a profoundly liberal country as the greatest power in a unipolar moment. And, Mearsheimer continues, the American nationalism added an unhealthy dose of hubris to this equation. There is a track record of instances where the failure of the U.S. as a liberal hegemon becomes most apparent: first, Mearsheimer invoked the Bush Doctrine in the greater Middle East. While the intended goal was to establish peace in the region, now there is war in Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. Complemented by the fight against the so called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The second display of failure is the Ukraine Crisis and the development of U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. foreign politics marched NATO troops up to Russian borders, “smiling and expecting Russia to accept it”, Mearsheimer said. As a third example of failed U.S. attempts to establish liberal hegemony, he cited the U.S. engagement with China. Washington’s strategy was to get China to convert to capitalism in the expectation that it would later adopt a democratic system and become a part of the liberal world order. Instead, these efforts helped create another great power player in the world. According to Mearsheimer’s view, such a geopolitical order that is marked by bi- or multipolarity cannot be in the best interest of the United States.
Mearsheimer concluded that countries reject social engineering, and the aim in fighting off invaders is always to maintain their sovereignty as a nation. In failed states, citizens often don’t care about individualism and liberalism, but about real-life politics. Mearsheimer continued jokingly “that’s great power politics – you always want your opponent to march into Vietnam or Afghanistan”.
However, according to him, the final punch that hit liberal hegemony off the table was the election of Donald Trump. Ever since elected, Trump has made it clear that he does not want to engage in social engineering around the world, he does not stand for an open (let alone international) economy, and he declines most of the international institutions.
Or watch the whole lecture on video here: