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The Backlash Against the Liberal World Order

Global liberalism has overreached, and Trump and others are merely predictable reactions.

John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, one of the country’s leading scholars of international relations, recently received the prestigious James Madison Award, administered by the American Political Science Association. In accepting the honor Mearsheimer delivered a notable lecture entitled “Liberalism and Nationalism in Contemporary America” (scheduled for publication in a journal called PS).  It’s a remarkably penetrating and astute explication of American politics in our troubled times.

The central reality of today’s political landscape, in Mearsheimer’s view, is that the post-Cold War period of “unbounded liberalism”—stretching roughly from 1990 to 2016—is about to be supplanted by an ascendant wave of nationalism. This is just a little difficult to credit, given the hegemonic force of liberalism in the firmament of American politics since the end of the Cold War and its hearty embrace by nearly all of the country’s major elite institutions, including the Democratic Party, prestigious universities, influential think tanks, the popular culture, the big banks, big tech, big corporations, and most of big media.

But Mearsheimer posits a “core claim” that, when the balance of power in any polity shifts so heavily toward liberalism that it poses a mortal threat to nationalism, as happened in much of the West after the Cold War, a backlash inevitably ensues. Then, says Mearsheimer, “nationalism wins almost every time, because it is the most powerful political ideology in the modern world.”  We saw this in the watershed year of 2016, when Donald Trump became the American president and Britain voted to leave the European Union. “This upsurge of nationalism,” says Mearsheimer, “has continued unabated since 2016.”

To understand Mearsheimer’s thesis, it’s necessary to grasp fully what he means by liberalism and nationalism. Liberalism’s first principle is the sanctity of the individual and the individual’s “inalienable rights,” including the right to pursue one’s own concepts of the good life. This leads to a strong norm of tolerance and a stern injunction for people to “live and let live.” Liberalism also advocates a national government powerful enough to protect individuals from each other and guarantee their rights, but not so powerful that it encroaches on those rights. The ultimate aim, though, is for individuals to have as much freedom as possible in their personal lives, within the context of civic harmony.

In economic terms, this leads to laissez faire thinking—the breakdown of economic barriers, free trade, property rights, market forces. In philosophical terms, it includes “a powerful universalist dimension.” Liberals strongly embrace the view that their outlook applies to all humankind, everywhere and at all times.

In contrast to liberalism’s universalist ethos, nationalists are particularists. They believe that people are ”born into and thrive in social groups that mold their identities and command their loyalties.” And the most significant of all social groups is the nation. As Mearsheimer says:

Nations need political institutions to help their membes live together peacefully and productively. They need rules that define acceptable and unacceptable behavior and also stipulate how disputes will be settled. Nations also need political institutions to help shield them from other nations that might have an incentive to attack….Since the early 1500s, the dominant political form of the planet has been the state. Nations therefore want their own state, because that is the best way to survive and prosper.

Mearsheimer identifies four features of nationalism that have helped shape the centuries-long era of the nation-state:

  • A sense of “oneness,” in which nearly all members feel they are part of a common enterprise;
  • A unique culture, viz.,  a set of practices, beliefs, and traditions widely shared among citizens;
  • A sense of sacred territory, including a widespread and deep attachment to a particular geographic space (a homeland);
  • And “the all-important matter of sovereignty,” which drives nations to maximize control over their own political fate and to guard jealously their mores and practices regarding how political authority is arranged inside the state and in relation to other nation-states. Nationalists particularly want their nations to be free from encumbering outside influences.

It isn’t difficult to see that liberalism and nationalism are in many ways contradictory outlooks and hence often “conflictual.” Sometimes, though, the two -isms can actually mesh in positive ways, resulting in a harmonious civic balance. Such an equilibrium has existed in much of American history. But liberalism, steeled by its triumphant rise at the end of the Cold War, set out to marginalize or even nullify American nationalism, and that eventually unleashed the potent backlash we’re seeing now. In many ways, suggests Mearsheimer, Trump’s 2016 election can be seen as “nationalism’s revenge.”

And we can see from our own recent history, and that of other Western nations, that when liberalism gains near hegemonic power in a polity it poses a severe threat to nationalism. Liberal individualists, viewing themselves primarily as “egoistic utility maximizers,” tend to undermine the nationalist sense of oneness. They seek to weaken national identity. Embracing the universalist concept of a common humanity, they seek to break down national borders and the very concept of sovereignty. They hail the emergence of a global elite, “tied together by shared economic interests and social networks, and with its own identity as ‘citizens of the world.’” They work to foster an open international economy that further weakens state borders and state identity.

In short, unbounded liberalism inevitably launches a frontal attack on the very concept of a cohesive, hard-shell state. Such attacks serve, as intended, to encourage citizens to lose faith in the state. This erosion of national solidarity in turn unleashes societal tension and even chaos, because nationalism serves as a kind of civic glue that helps hold a society together. Remove the glue, and liberalism loses its ability to uphold national cohesiveness. When that happens, the impulse of liberal leaders is to inject more individualism and more universalism into the polity, thus exacerbating the gathering crisis of “liberalism on steroids,” as Mearsheimer calls it.

That’s what happened in America during what Mearsheimer calls “liberalism’s golden age.” The answer to porous borders generating increasing civic tensions was to open the borders further. The answer to a free trade regimen encouraging greater mercantilist aggressiveness among some U.S. trading partners was an even greater commitment to free trade. The growing problem of wealth inequality stirred the elites to embrace laissez-faire economics even more tightly as the rise of gargantuan tech empires further exacerbated inequality. And what was the response to America’s awakening to the fact that the country’s universalist warmaking was undermining America’s cohesiveness and financial stability? Under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it was a tendency toward more warmaking.

That’s because the liberal tenets of individualism, universalism, the virtue of the transnational elite, and the sanctity of identity thinking were driving politics and policy in America. The liberal moment was embraced to a significant extent by both political parties, and there was hardly a nationalist counterweight of any consequence on the scene.

Indeed, in liberalism’s heyday many in the West viewed nationalism as a political corpse. Mearsheimer quotes historian Jill Lepore (a universalist liberal of the first order) as writing, “It appeared to some globalists that nationalism had died.”

And then came Trump and Brexit, following nationalist triumphs in Hungary and Poland, along with concurrent nationalist surges in numerous other European nations. “The unbounded liberalism that dominated the political landscape in the United States after the Cold War is in serious crisis,” says Mearsheimer, “mainly because it threatened American nationalism, which has reasserted itself under President Trump.”

One can question Trump’s competence as president, “and I would be among the first to do so,” says Mearsheimer, “but there is no question that he has pursued a nationalist agenda from the beginning of his political career and that it helped propel him into the White House.” Indeed, Mearsheimer makes clear, in recounting evidence of Trump’s nationalist ethos, that the real estate mogul’s most significant distinguishing characteristic as a national politician was his understanding, alone among presidential contenders in 2016, that America was in the midst of an epic struggle between liberalism and nationalism. But, if Trump has benefitted from nationalism’s resurgence, he didn’t cause it. “His election,” says Mearsheimer, “was the manifestation of a process that was well under way by 2016.”

And it is ongoing. “Although liberalism is here to stay,” says Mearsheimer, “the United States will continue to be a liberal nation-state, not just a liberal state. Nationalism remains the world’s most formidable political ideology and neither it nor the nation state is going away anytime soon.”

That calls into question some prevailing assumptions of our time. Many adherents of liberalism seem to harbor a view that, as soon as Trump is extracted from the political scene (which seems likely to happen soon), then everything can return to normal, meaning back to the days of liberal hegemony. If Mearsheimer is correct, that isn’t likely. The struggle between the two -isms will continue, perhaps even more intensely joined than ever, as nationalism seeks to claw its way back at least to parity with the forces of liberalism. One thing can be predicted: we will continue to live through interesting times.

Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.