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The Perils of Our Liberal Hegemony

John Mearsheimer's latest book explores how progressivism gave us today's foreign policy mess.
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The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John J. Mearsheimer, Yale University Press, 328 pages

John J. Mearsheimer, the prominent exponent of foreign policy realism, is no stranger to controversy. The University of Chicago professor seems to home in on it like a heat-seeking missile. He once told writer Robert D. Kaplan that he likes teaching at Chicago in part because it isn’t a “government-policy shop”—like Harvard, for example—filled with people itching for the next federal job and hence hesitant to advance bold ideas. Chicago, by contrast, is hospitable to “oddballs” willing to expound iconoclastic thinking. As Kaplan puts it, at Chicago he can “propound…unpopular ideas, and revel in the uproar they cause.”

Mearsheimer had much to revel in following publication of his 2001 book on realist foreign policy, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. It generated a predictable intellectual backlash, some of it expressed in a 2010 volume of essays, entitled History and Neorealism, that critiqued the realist outlook. Some of the criticism directed at Mearsheimer, says Kaplan, was “scathing.”

That was mild, though, compared to the “bloodbath” (Kaplan’s word) that ensued after Mearsheimer teamed up with Harvard’s own iconoclastic realist, Stephen M. Walt, to produce a 2006 magazine article on the U.S.-Israel relationship, later expanded into a book entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The thesis was that pro-Israel groups in the United States had pushed the country into policy decisions favored by Israel but contrary to American interests. Johns Hopkins professor Eliot A. Cohen wasn’t content merely to call it “inept, even kooky” and “a wretched piece of scholarship.” He also accused the authors of antisemitism and impugning the patriotism of American Jews, including himself. Christopher Hitchens said it was “redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly.” Other characterizations: “defiled by mendacity”; “piss-poor, monocausal social science”; “stunningly deceptive”; and “pernicious.”

If Mearsheimer, whom I have known as a friendly acquaintance for a number of years, does indeed revel in the uproars he causes (and he certainly appears to), he’s about to get a lot of enjoyment. His latest book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, is a dagger pointed at the heart of America’s governing philosophy, progressive liberalism. His central thesis is that this philosophy has distorted U.S. foreign policy since America’s post-Cold War emergence as the world’s only superpower. The core of the problem, writes Mearsheimer, was America’s post-Cold War resolve to remake the world in its own image. The predictable result has been chaos, bloodshed, an intractable refugee crisis besetting the Middle East and Europe, increased tensions among major powers, curtailment of civil liberties at home, and generally an “abysmal record of failure.”

And yet no level of failure seems to blunt the passion for liberal hegemony among the country’s leaders, who cling to the policy and its underlying philosophy with the tenacity of true believers. “A crusader impulse is deeply wired into liberal democracies, especially their elites,” writes Mearsheimer.

They can embrace that heady goal because of a rare historical development—the emergence of America as a unipolar power. The country today enjoys the luxury of not having a single adversary capable of challenging its existence or global standing. Thus it can afford to indulge its relentless impulse to spread its own governing philosophy throughout the globe. But in the more normal circumstances of a multipolar world or particularly in a bipolar world, there would be no such luxury. The imperatives of survival would then come into play, as they always do except in a unipolar era, and liberal interventionism would be superseded by a foreign policy more attuned to interrelationships of power. Realism and nationalism would supplant today’s crusader mentality.

Mearsheimer’s exploration of realism here will be familiar to those who have read The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a painstaking exposition of that particular “ism.” That earlier book posits that fundamental realities guide nations in their relations with other nations. First, the world is “anarchic,” meaning there is no central authority or night watchman to step in when a nation is threatened. Therefore, nations must rely upon themselves for protection from any hazard, immediate or prospective. Given that they can’t know precisely the plans and ambitions of real or potential adversaries—he calls this “the uncertainty of intentions”—the imperatives of survival dictate that they do whatever they can to maximize their power based on what they can discern—namely, the military capabilities of potential rivals. This is the “tragedy” of great power politics—the never-ending quest among nations for protection through strength.

In other words, it’s all about the hierarchy of power among nations. Stability comes through an equilibrium of power, and great nations should foster diplomatic actions designed to maintain a power balance in key strategic locations.

What’s new in The Great Delusion is Mearsheimer’s focus on nationalism and liberalism, as well as their relationship with realism. Exploring the three “isms” in tandem, he writes, led him to conclude that “this trichotomy provided an ideal template for explaining the failure of U.S. foreign policy since 1989.” Mearsheimer is known for his spare, muscular, unemotional prose, as well as his ability to marshal sturdy arguments that are intricately intertwined. In this book, true to form, he constructs a fortress of syllogistic argumentation.

There’s a paradox in his trichotomy: while progressive liberalism dominates American politics, including the country’s foreign policy, realism and nationalism ultimately are more powerful ideas. Mearsheimer notes, for example, that while liberalism and nationalism can coexist in any polity, “when they clash, nationalism almost always wins.” He adds that “liberalism is also no match for realism.”

When Mearsheimer uses the word liberalism, he means the classic, Lockean adherence to individual rights, the rule of law, market economics, and the importance of private property. But he draws a distinction between what he calls modus vivendi liberalism and a progressive variety. Both promote the classical concept of individual rights, but modus vivendi liberals conceive of rights narrowly, in terms of individual freedoms (sometimes called negative rights). This means primarily the freedom to act without fear of government intrusion—for example, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to hold property. Progressives, on the other hand, go beyond that to advocate positive rights—equal opportunity, for example—that require active governmental intervention.

Also, modus vivendi liberals are skeptical of the efficacy and potential success of governmental social engineering. Progressive liberals, by contrast, have great faith in governmental activism that not only promotes individual rights but also pursues expansive social engineering programs.

In terms of American history, progressive liberals are the political heirs of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and, more recently, of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Modus vivendi liberals trace their political lineage to Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and, more recently, Ronald Reagan.

There is no doubt, says Mearsheimer, that progressive liberalism has triumphed over modus vivendi liberalism. He writes: “The complexities and demands of life in the modern world leave states with no choice but to be deeply engaged in social engineering, including promoting positive rights.” Hence political liberalism today is largely progressive (with the modus vivendi people reduced to doing what they can to blunt the force of the progressives). Mearsheimer is fine with that: “Within countries, I believe liberalism is a genuine force for good.” But when it dominates a nation’s international relations, he emphasizes, it inevitably breeds disaster.

This dichotomy poses an intriguing question: how can a philosophy be just right in guiding a powerful nation’s domestic politics but utterly wrong and destructive when applied to that same nation’s foreign policy? Can any philosophy be fundamentally flawed in the one realm while being totally apt in the other? Perhaps an answer can be discerned through Mearsheimer’s own pointed and brilliant exploration of human nature as a fundamental factor in politics. Progressive liberals tend to discount human nature, viewing it as malleable and changeable through their cherished social engineering. Mearsheimer disagrees. “The more closely any ism accords with human nature,” he writes, “the more relevance it will have in the real world.” He makes clear he doesn’t believe progressive liberalism accords with human nature much at all.

Mearsheimer posits what he calls “two simple assumptions” about human nature. The first is that man’s ability to reason is limited, particularly when it comes to mastering the fundamental questions of existence. Enlightenment thinkers heralded man’s ability to reason to ultimate answers as humans worked their way toward their own perfectibility. This is the so-called Idea of Progress, so powerful in Western thought following the 18th century era of the French philosophes. Mearsheimer rejects it. “Reason does not rule the world,” he writes, adding that “people who believe their critical faculties can help them find moral truth are deluding themselves.”

The second assumption, related to the first, is that “we are social animals at our core.” Given that there can be no reasoning to core principles, there will always be disagreements on these fundamental and often emotional matters. That inevitably raises prospects for violence. For protection, mankind must divide itself into a great number of social groups, and the most fundamental of all human groups is the nation. “With the possible exception of the family,” writes Mearsheimer, “allegiance to the nation usually overrides all other forms of an individual’s identity.”

And this leads to Mearsheimer’s view of the essence of social groups—and, most particularly, of nations. He identifies six fundamental features of nationhood:

1) a powerful sense of oneness and solidarity

2) a distinct culture, including such things as language, rituals, codes, music, as well as religion, basic political and social values, and a distinct understanding of history

3) a sense of superiority leading to national pride

4) a deep sense of its own history, which often leads to myths that supersede historical fact

5) sacred territory and a perceived imperative to protect lands believed to be a hallowed homeland

6) and a deep sense of sovereignty and a resolve to protect national decision-making from outside forces

These features are found in all nation-states, and nation-states are where nearly all peoples of the world live. Hence these human impulses cannot be ignored or circumvented. And yet liberalism (here and hereafter, in using the term we’re talking about the country’s prevailing progressive liberalism) has declared war on many of these fundamental features of nationalism, emanating in large measure from human nature. That’s because liberalism has come to embrace two basic tenets of dubious provenance: first, humanity is an individualist species, made up of “atomistic actors” and not social animals; and, second, rights are inalienable and universal, belonging to everyone equally. Mearsheimer explains, “This concern for rights is the basis of its universalism—everyone on the planet has the same inherent set of rights—and this is what motivates liberal states to pursue ambitious foreign policies.”

This universalist ideology has always been there, lurking in the liberal consciousness. Until recently it was seen most starkly in the humanitarian interventionism of Woodrow Wilson—hence the universally understood term “Wilsonism.” One of his biographers, August Heckscher, notes that he harbored a deep sense of national “honor” that he equated with America’s commitment to the rights of all peoples everywhere. Heckscher writes that “it was a vague concept…not necessarily identified with the basic interest of the [American] people.” Indeed, while Wilson took delight in the idea of deploying American power in behalf of humanity, the idea of using it in behalf of U.S. interests left him cold. In taking America into World War I, he bragged, “What we demand in this war is nothing peculiar to ourselves.”


This Wilsonian impulse was kept in check through most of the 20th century by the imperatives of realism and the ideological force of nationalism. That ended with the conclusion of the Cold War, when America emerged as the unchallenged global hegemon. The inevitable result was the rise of liberal hegemony. What’s interesting is how explosively it arrived on the scene, almost immediately gaining dominance over American foreign policy and positioning itself to stamp out any troublesome counterarguments. The universalist ideology presents a powerful allure, often leading to feelings among foreign policy liberals, per Wilson, that they are engaging in a monumental struggle of good and evil.

The result is that America has waged seven wars since the Cold War ended and has been at war continuously since the month after 9/11. As Mearsheimer writes, “Once unleashed on the world stage, a liberal unipole soon becomes addicted to war.” It also becomes addicted to the concept of regime change because that often is perceived as the only way to save peoples from widespread rights violations.

Bill Clinton embraced liberal hegemony from the beginning of his presidency in 1993, and it led him to military actions in Bosnia and Serbia, motivated largely by the humanitarian impulse. George W. Bush took it to new levels after 9/11 with his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and his rhetoric that “the freedom we prize…is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.” Barack Obama suggested as he was leaving office that he understood that the “Washington playbook” was “deeply flawed,” as Mearsheimer puts it, but he couldn’t seem to break away from it. “He was ultimately no match for the foreign policy establishment,” writes Mearsheimer.

The book is particularly devastating in its description of America’s aggressive policies toward Russia. After outlining the conventional liberal view of Russian aggression against a threatened West, he writes, “This account is false.” The United States and its European allies, he adds, “are mainly responsible for the crisis.” He identifies the “taproot of the trouble” as NATO expansion, “the central element in a larger strategy to move all of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

Can America pull its foreign policy away from liberalism and reclaim a realism-based approach? An end to today’s unipolar world would quickly upend liberal hegemony. But the only likely prospect for that would be the threat of a rising China, which of course would have the downside of necessitating a dangerous confrontation with that country. If China were to falter economically and thus be forced to abandon its pursuit of Asian hegemony, argues Mearsheimer, there would be little prospect that America would embrace realism. The foreign policy establishment is too wedded to hegemony and too entrenched at the pinnacle of foreign policymaking.

Mearsheimer does believe Donald Trump’s 2016 election demonstrated that liberal hegemony is “vulnerable.” After all, the New York billionaire challenged almost every aspect of liberal interventionism, particularly the goal of spreading democracy around the world. But he predicts that the “foreign policy elites will tame him just as they tamed his predecessor.” Trump’s bellicose approach to Iran certainly suggests his campaign rhetoric won’t guide his foreign policy with any particular consistency. Perhaps, concludes Mearsheimer, persistent failure will undermine the primacy of hegemon liberals.

In the meantime, a few thoughts might be in order on the dominance of American domestic politics by those same progressive elites who have given us persistent foreign policy failures. Many of the same liberal impulses that contributed to the hegemonic foreign policy that Mearsheimer decries have also undermined many of the foundations of America. And they can be traced to the same faulty thinking about the human experience.

Consider Mearsheimer’s six features of nationalism. One is culture. “Culture,” he writes, “…is the glue that helps hold a society together.” And yet the country’s progressive liberals have been attacking the American culture for years. Many do so under the banner of “civic nationalism,” which would supplant the country’s cultural identity with nothing more than its liberal creed. Writes Mearsheimer, “Civic nationalism is not a useful concept…. It is virtually impossible for a nation to function effectively without a multifaceted culture.” And yet the assault by progressive liberals on the nation’s culture has driven a wedge through the body politic.

Or consider Mearsheimer’s emphasis on “a sacred territory.” Today’s progressive liberals, particularly among the elites, don’t care a whit about the country’s borders, as Mearsheimer notes. “In the liberal story,” he writes, “state borders are soft and permeable, because rights transcend those boundaries.” Then there’s sovereignty. Mearsheimer writes that “liberalism undermines sovereignty.” He’s talking primarily about America’s penchant for invading other countries in behalf of humanitarian goals, but progressive liberals don’t care much about American sovereignty either, as reflected in their lax immigration attitude. The push for permeable borders doesn’t suggest respect for American sovereignty. One could add to the list Mearsheimer’s inclusion of a shared sense of history, also under relentless assault from progressive liberals bent on tearing down what once was considered a hallowed American story.


These and other related issues are tearing America apart, and they have been introduced into the political cauldron by the same progressive liberals who have been pushing America’s drive to spread liberal hegemony across the globe. Indeed, it is almost incontestable that these domestic and foreign policy issues, along with the progressive liberal push for free trade and supranational institutions that undermine American sovereignty, contributed significantly to Trump’s presidential election.

Although Mearsheimer doesn’t discuss the American elites in detail, he sprinkles into his argument several references to elite and establishment thinking as often being distinct from broader public impulses and sensibilities. “[I]t is important to note,” he writes, “that liberal hegemony is largely an elite-driven policy.” In another passage he notes that America’s foreign policy elites tend to be “cosmopolitan,” which isn’t to say, he adds, that most of them are like Samuel Huntington’s caricature of those Davos people “who have little need for national loyalty” and see “national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing.” But, adds Mearsheimer, “some are not far off.”

Yes, it’s the progressive liberal elites who are driving America’s push for humanitarian hegemony, and Mearsheimer’s book calls them out brilliantly. But those same elites are also driving wedges through the American polity on powerful domestic issues, thus poisoning our politics and fostering an ongoing crisis on the definition and meaning of America. Mearsheimer’s pungent critique of the elite’s foreign policy recklessness could provide a sound foundation for a broader critique of its destructive folly in a host of other civic areas as well.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.



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