There are many salient points in John Mearsheimer’s National Interest cover story, “America Unhinged,” and months from now different ones may stand out. But generally the 12,000-word essay is a systematic exercise in well-grounded exasperation. Mearsheimer is exasperated that neoconservative hawks and liberal imperialists still dominate the foreign-policy discourse in Washington, despite the Iraq failure and an “0 for 5” record in recent wars. Bizarre exaggerations of America’s international peril or outlandish claims about the “vital strategic nature” of one country or another are commonplace among leading voices in both parties.
The essay was written when Syria and Egypt were on the front pages, and Mearsheimer tosses cold water on the notion that what happens internally in those countries of any critical importance to us. Since the piece was written, senators of both parties have been grandstanding about internal matters in Ukraine, while South Sudan—a completely new country whose independence was encouraged by American foreign policy in the past several years—is on the front pages. Do we have an American solution to the problem of the Nuer and Dinka, the ethnic groups vying for power there? The sober answer, the one which at least nine of ten Americans would give reflexively, is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t.
That may be the case for most of the foreign issues Washington talks about. In the midst of World War II, Churchill was presented with the intractability of the Yugoslavia problem and the growing influence of the Titoist communists by one of his top intelligence officials. Churchill asked Fitzroy Maclean whether he planned to make his home in Yugoslavia after the war. Told he did not, Churchill replied, “Neither do I” and proceeded to move on to the next topic. If that could be reasonably said about Yugoslavia, it could be repeated a thousandfold about South Sudan.
Mearsheimer notes that the United States has a record of dealing successfully with the worst tyrants—including Stalin and Mao—and has never been remotely as threatened by anti-American populists (including freely elected ones) as we imagined ourselves to be. For international-relations realists, geography counts for a lot, and the U.S. is blessed—by the oceans, by our power relative to Canada and Mexico. No other major or middling power in the world is remotely so favored.
One point I would extract is Mearsheimer’s contention that our overambitious and meddling foreign policy does far more harm to our core political values than any hostile foreign power could plausibly do. Mearsheimer here cites the culture of lying to the public in the name of national security, the obsession with secrecy, the growing elite contempt for the rule of law, and of course the massive spying on American citizens revealed by Edward Snowden and others. Americans have grown accustomed to Guantanamo, to extra-judicial executions, to renditions and torture—all policies supported by leading Democrats as well as Republicans. Mearsheimer concludes
What makes these policies even more alarming is that the national-security elites who execute and support them fervently believe in “American exceptionalism.” They are convinced that the United States is morally superior to every other country on earth. It is, so the story goes, the “light of the world,” a shining city on a hill. Americans stand tall and see further than other peoples, as Madeleine Albright put it. These elites obviously do not look in the mirror. But, if they did, they would understand why people all around the world think hypocrites of the first order run American foreign policy.
In the hopes of many, the Obama administration was going to be the antidote to these policies, which grew and flourished under George W. Bush. And while there has been some improvement, in other realms it has been just as bad—or (as with drone executions and domestic surveillance) worse.
Mearsheimer takes solace in the fact that the American people are quite clearly opposed to more wars—and the Beltway elites can’t ignore them. I would worry that he’s wrong about that, that when various national elites are united—and bipartisan—they can always get the public to follow along.
In this respect it is at least mildly encouraging to see Sen. Rand Paul try to make an issue of James Clapper’s lying to Congress about domestic surveillance, and Paul’s tentative support of clemency or non-prosecution of Edward Snowden. Few leading Democrats are willing to make a case against Obama’s foreign policy being overzealous, both for standard partisan reasons and because the party’s northeast fundraising base tends to be “internationalist” and hawkish. But if Rand Paul can gain political traction making principled constitutional objections to the burgeoning (and now Democrat led) national security state, he will not only expand his appeal far beyond the Tea Party but could change the national foreign-policy conversation.