Daniel Kishi, associate editor: Whereas John J. Mearsheimer’s magnum opus, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2000), is a theoretical tract and defense of foreign policy realism, his latest book addresses the shortcomings of political liberalism and its tensions with nationalism.
In The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, Mearsheimer reminds his readers that the international system is predominantly populated, not by liberal democracies, but by nation-states. Because the self-determination of a nation-state and its people is an incredibly powerful force, Mearsheimer believes that it is folly for a nation-state to try and remake and socially engineer a different nation-state in its own image. Throughout the book, he seeks to explain the inevitable and negative consequences of a powerful nation-state pursuing an agenda of liberal hegemony, as the United States has done since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Unlike another book published by Yale University Press earlier this year, The Great Delusion is not a broadside against classical or progressive liberalism. Mearsheimer considers himself fortunate to have been born into a nation-state in which liberalism reigns supreme, and believes that liberalism can be a force for good within a country. He does, however, believe that a foreign policy animated by an unrestrained liberalism is a foreign policy destined for failure, chaos, and unintended consequences.
As every good political scientist ought to do, Mearsheimer opts for clarity over ornate prose: he defines his terms, constructs tight arguments, anticipates and responds to counterarguments. Though the reader might disagree with Mearsheimer’s argument, he will not misunderstand it.
You can also read Robert W. Merry’s review of The Great Delusion from the September/October issue of The American Conservative. For those interested in absorbing Mearsheimer’s thesis via lecture, I’d recommend this three-part lecture series delivered at Yale University last fall.
- Part One: “The Roots of Liberal Hegemony”
- Part Two: “The False Promise of Liberal Hegemony”
- Part Three: “The Case for Restraint”
Although they’ve said the timing was not coordinated, Mearsheimer’s co-conspirator, Stephen Walt, also has a new book out this month: The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. I’ve yet to read it, but I was able to attend his book launch lecture at the Cato Institute last Wednesday. The lecture was engaging, as was the response from Columbia University’s Stephen Wertheim. The moderator for the event, Cato’s Christopher Preble, will have a review of the book in the January/February issue of TAC.
Casey Chalk, contributor: “Angry partisanship was the order of the day,” one senator complained in his diary. “The country is so totally given up to the spirit of party, that not to follow blindfold the one or the other is an inexpiable offense.” Readers likely think this will be how historians, many years from now, will characterize the political rancor of our current day. An October 2017 study from the Pew Research Center found partisanship growing across a wide variety of factors at what appears to be unprecedented levels. Perhaps this is the case.
Yet the above quotation is not from a contemporary report, nor even from recent memory. It is taken from Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 book Undaunted Courage about the Lewis and Clark expedition, particularly the year 1803 when Federalists and Democrat-Republicans were battling over the Louisiana Purchase, among many other national issues. The senator cited above is none other than sixth president John Quincy Adams. It is easy to forget that there have been many great fissures in our nation since its founding. Five years before the greatest of these fissures, the Civil War, Republican senator Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks. We have yet to reach that level of political acrimony, thank God.
Ambrose is of course a master craftsman of the historical narrative—his book Band of Brothers, for example, was made into a spellbinding HBO series by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. He does not disappoint in Undaunted Courage, a fascinating tale of how a handful of men, including the now much-maligned Thomas Jefferson, had the vision and fortitude to consider what America might become. Jefferson in particular had to be quite crafty to pull the thing off, burying a request for congressional funding in a larger discourse on the Republic’s relationship with Native American tribes. Jefferson chose well in determining who would leave the expedition—Meriwether Lewis was a remarkable frontiersman and leader, who had been exploring the forests and mountains of the nation’s territorial fringes since his youth. Though the expedition has yet to embark, Ambrose’s rendition of the story, though in-depth, is already colorful and ever-engaging.
I also recently read A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, by prolific Biblical scholars John Bergsma and Brant Pitre. At more than 1000 pages this is definitely a tome. Yet it is probably one of the best resources on the Old Testament currently available. Each book of the Old Testament is analyzed in reference to (1) historical exegesis and theology; (2) faith and reason; (3) Scripture and Tradition; and (4) Reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. This ensures that regardless of the reader, be he theologian or seminarian, undergraduate or interested layman, there is much to inform and deep one’s understanding and appreciation of the beauty, complexity, and inspiration of the Hebrew Bible.