Have you ever read a book that made you question everything you thought you once knew about a particular subject? If not, you either haven’t read enough books (shame!), or you ought to open your mind to new ways of viewing the world (shame again!). For me, John Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities may just be that book. Just to make one thing clear right away, the “liberal” in “Liberal Dreams and International Realities” does not refer to liberal Democrats versus conservative Republicans. It refers to liberal societies (those that value individual rights/economic openness and tend to be democratic) versus non-liberal societies (those with little respect for individual rights and whose government controls the economy). His central point is that, while liberalism is a fantastic method of governing in domestic politics, it fails completely when nations attempt to export liberalism to non-liberal nations. Naturally, this runs in direct opposition to the decades of nation-building and democracy promotion that the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War. This week, let’s take a closer look at the main theories of international relations and how this book can help change the conversation.
John Mearsheimer is widely considered among the most prominent “realists” in international relations theories. First things first, what’s a realist? Realism is a type of philosophy in international politics that rests on a few key assumptions that define what is often called “realpolitik” (real politics). These are:
1) The natural state of global politics is one of anarchy, since there is no single global power to enforce rules. No nation can be 100% certain that previously agreed upon rules will be enforced and must always prepare for the worst.
2) States are rational actors (not crazy people) and will pursue actions that they believe will further their interests.
3) States value their own survival and security above all other concerns (such as maximizing profit or promoting an ideology).
4) Security seeking behavior leads states to maximize their relative power on the global stage.
5) All weapons which have a defensive nature can also be used for offensive means. In essence, this means that if a country arms purely to protect itself, all the countries around it need to make the assumption that those defenses can be used for offensive purposes. Those countries must arm their own defenses accordingly.
Realism is often critiqued as being a pessimistic outlook on international politics. In particular, Mearsheimer points to the dramatic power of nationalism and the ways in which strong nationalism have proven to be the undoing of other ideologies such as global communism. But Mearsheimer argues that such clear-eyed views are necessary in order to prevent what he considers to be the misguided views of liberal internationalism. So what is liberal internationalism?
In short, liberal internationalism is an international relations theory that places a high value on the importance of individual rights and international institutions. These two values, combined with the idea that the more nations who respect them means a more peaceful/prosperous world, leads liberal internationalists to believe that states should work to advance those rights throughout the world. This is often done with the support of international institutions (like the United Nations or the World Bank) that seek to promote these ideas worldwide. This theory is supported by ideas and trends that are often used as evidence proving the effectiveness of the current Liberal International Order (LIO) in preventing war:
1) Democratic Peace Theory: The belief that democratic nations tend to avoid going to war with one another because they are held accountable by their people, who naturally favor peace and prosperity to war.
2) Economic Peace Theory: The belief that nations which have strong interconnected economic ties will often avoid war because that costs of war would outweigh the economic benefits of peace.
What Mearsheimer Gets Right
Mearsheimer makes a compelling case by pointing out the flaws of liberal internationalism. Though democracy and liberalism work well for domestic policies (USA, USA!), it is doomed to fail in international relations. In domestic politics, liberalism allows for the healthy exchange of ideas and opinions. The democratic process helps prevent any one political faction from gaining complete control, because opposing viewpoints are tolerated rather than suppressed. According to Mearsheimer, this whole system works because there is a single overarching power that enforces the rules in domestic politics. There is a military and police force that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, respects the individual rights of the people they oversee, and provides every person the security they need to trust the rules of the system.
However, there is no such military force or system within the global community. Though the United States remains the dominant power, it does not have full authority over the rules of international relations and certainly cannot always be counted on to intervene when another nation breaks those rules. In fact, it is often the strongest powers (like the United States) who break the rules most often! (This helps bolster the realist claims that the international system is one of anarchy.) Mearsheimer’s case is certainly strengthened by the actions of powers like the United States over the last thirty years.
Another foundational aspect of liberal internationalism is that it cannot resist attempting to enforce its self-imposed rules about human rights and economic openness on others. Mearsheimer calls this a crusader-like impulse. But such interventions are doomed to fail in part because of the incredibly powerful force of nationalism. When people perceive an attack on their homeland, they are often very quick to “rally around the flag” and support a regime (even one that was previously unpopular). At the heart of nationalism is the idea of sovereignty. Think of this as a nation’s ability to pursue its own destiny free from interference. He cites examples such as the American wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as case studies proving the failures of attempting to export liberalism abroad.
He also excellently deconstructs some of the main selling points of liberalism. For instance, Democratic Peace Theory is undermined by instances where the United States intervened in Latin & South American politics to overthrow democratically elected governments. Both were democratically elected governments that essentially went to war, despite their shared democratic values. Economic peace theory is undermined by the outbreak of the First World War because most of the nations involved had economic ties among them. Finally, the multiple interventions in global affairs by powerful nations like Russia, China, and the United States undermine the efficacy of international institutions in curtailing aggressive behavior. After all, rules and norms of international behavior might work for smaller nations, but the bigger ones always play by their own rules.
What MearsheimeR Gets Not-So-Right
The weakness in his arguments is that he doesn’t quite make the most compelling case that “pursuing liberalism abroad leads to authoritarianism at home”. Mearsheimer makes the claim that pursuing liberalism abroad leads not just to a state of nearly endless war (since there will always be a nation trying to undermine the liberal system), but that the endless state of warfare leads that nation to become a police state at home. Though he may have a point about the endless war (see 2001-Present Day), there is little evidence to show that nations which promote liberalism become police states. The most obvious example of this being that the United States is the chief pursuer of liberalism abroad, but is still deeply democratic at home. There are much better arguments that he could have emphasized more closely like the socially and politically polarizing nature of endless warfare or the opportunity costs lost to the American people from perpetual defense spending. These points seem even more relevant in recent years, with prominent presidential candidates already making arguments that America’s broad defense budget could be better spent on domestic programs.
The other problem is not a fault of his arguments, but of the nature of international relations theories themselves: often we are trying to prove a negative. Though he cites several examples where American involvement actually weakened the LIO and made warfare more likely (and includes examples where intervention worked), it’s nearly impossible to prove whether or not the LIO prevented conflicts from occurring long before they ever really got started.
The Case For Restraint
Perhaps the most compelling point of Mearsheimer’s work comes at the last chapter, where he ends with a call for restraint in American foreign policy. His prescription is that the United States ought to focus its attention only on core strategic interests in areas like North America and Europe. The main focus of the United States would be to increase its relative power in these regions where it has the most to lose if such areas are neglected. On the plus side, America would likely be involved in fewer costly wars since it wouldn’t seek to promote democracy or human rights by directly intervening in peripheral regions. I think most people would agree that such interventions have failed more often than not. On the other hand, it would also mean abandoning the pursuit of global human rights since that would mean pursuing lofty idealism. This is much more difficult to accept because the desire to protect human rights and fight injustice is hardwired into liberal societies. Both political parties are guilty of this in America. For example, do you remember the last time a Democrat condemned the imprisonment of LGBT individuals in an oppressive nation, or a Republican condemned the imprisonment of Christians in an oppressive nation? According to Mearsheimer, such priorities can lead a nation into unnecessary and costly wars that distract from much more critical objectives (i.e. the rise of China). In his view, the pursuit of these ideals outside of one’s own nation is simply a recipe for disaster and almost never works.
Overall, his book is an excellent work. One that has even me, a fervent defender of liberal internationalism, questioning the foundations of my international relations philosophies. I won’t call myself a realist just yet, but I can certainly see the merit of these arguments. I strongly encourage everyone who cares about the issues discussed in this article to read this book and conduct your own independent research on these theories of global politics. Only by educating ourselves and understanding the world can we hope to improve it.