Book Review: The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John Mearsheimer

Kevin Doremus | United States

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John Mearsheimer challenges progressive liberalism to its core.  Through his most recent book, Mearsheimer argues that progressivism is the root problem in the United States foreign policymaking.  The ideology encourages a messianic state to spread its values across the world or to remake the world in its image.  This ideology is the foundation of what is known as liberal hegemony, which Mearsheimer and other realist international relations scholars claim has resulted in instability throughout the world and is destined to fail.  He argues that realism and nationalism will overcome liberalism because liberalism does not take into consideration how the world actually operates thus it lends itself to foreign policy failures which the US has experienced since the end of the Cold War.

About the Author and The Great Delusion

John Mearsheimer is a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago.  His literature primarily focuses on international security and politics from a realist perspective.  He has written books like The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and co-authored controversial books such as The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  He and his co-author Stephen Walt argue that pro-Israeli lobbying firms have influenced the US to serve Israel’s interests instead of its own.  This book sparked numerous accusations of antisemitism from foreign policy establishment.  Robert Merry in his review of The Great Delusion documents the verbal insults between Mearsheimer and Robert Kaplan over policy differences and the role of their universities.  Mearsheimer considers that Kaplan teaches at a “government policy shop” and Kaplan says that the University of Chicago is for “oddballs.”  This outspoken manner allows Mearsheimer to present an indictment of progressivism.

The book structure builds a case for a restrained US foreign policy.  The first chapter defines what liberal hegemony means, then it follows a bottom-up method, starting with the discussion on what human nature is and builds upwards towards the international system.  The book has dedicated four chapters critical of liberal hegemony with the conclusion presenting a case for a foreign policy of restraint.

When Mearsheimer discusses liberalism he acknowledges that there are two variants which are modus vivendi and progressivism.  Mearsheimer argues that it is the progressive variant that goes beyond the negative rights promoted by modus vivendi liberals.  Progressives advocate positive rights that would require government intervention and activism to solve injustice in society.  When it comes to foreign policy, a progressive liberal state would attempt to spread its values across the world.  In international relations, the liberal theory is heavily influenced by progressive ideals.  Progressive foreign policy is known as liberal hegemony or primacy.

Liberal Hegemony

He defines Liberal Hegemony as a grand strategy in which a liberal nation-state attempts to spread liberal values throughout the world.  A liberal “state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions.”  Liberal societies embody universal values like unalienable rights.  If universal rights exist and an illiberal society does not honor those rights, liberals make the case for intervention in the name of justice.

As Mearsheimer points out, this universal logic leads towards advocacy of regime change. Liberal states are “likely to end up fighting endless wars, which will increase rather than reduce the level of conflict in international politics and thus aggravate the problems of proliferation and terrorism.”  Liberal hegemony is a contradiction of liberalism. It is intolerant of differences in societies and cultures.  Social structures that do not embrace liberal values and democracy should be socially engineered out of their backward ways.

On the surface, a liberal hegemonic policy appears good since it promotes protection for open markets, universal human rights, and tolerance.  Advocates for liberal hegemony are known as primacists, who argue that liberal hegemony is the best method for protecting liberal societies from illiberal ones.  Primacists fear that as China rises it will seek to upend the liberal norms of trade.  In their minds, China needs to be counterbalanced.  However, the US attempts to isolate China and also Russia, have both been a colossal failure.  The attempts to spread US influence abroad has resulted in “chaos, bloodshed, an intractable refugee crisis besetting the Middle East and Europe, increased tensions among major powers, [and] curtailment of civil liberties at home…”

Human Nature

The negative results represent liberalism’s underestimation of human nature and nationalism.  Realists have a Hobbesian view of human nature which is considered egoistic and self-interested.  Progressives instead believe that human nature can be perfected through a top-down approach by an activist state.  Mearsheimer notes that elites in Western societies do not speak of communities in a localized context but in a global context.  In a globalized world, societies have become more interconnected.  No longer are societies isolated by geography, technology allows people to travel and communicate at incredible speed.  As Mearsheimer correctly points out, no single global culture has been formed, “There is an abundance of distinct cultures in the world, and they underpin a wide variety of societies. Heterogeneity, not homogeneity, is the prevailing state of the global culture. Thus global society and human society are not useful terms.”  Liberal internationalists are challenged by the diversity of the world.

Mearsheimer presents his assumptions on human nature.  The first is that there are limits to reason.  He notes how enlightened ideas reinforce the thought that humanity is perfectible.  This is a delusion in his mind because there is disagreement on what is universal.  He uses religion as an example to illustrate how universal ideas do not agree with one another.  If the world cannot agree on a true religion, how can one believe that liberalism can encompass the world?

Nationalism

Human beings are not just individuals but also social beings.  When people are brought into this world, they are socialized into particular groups.  Mearsheimer argues that nationalism presents a problem for liberalism.  Liberalism underestimates the power that particular groups have on creating group loyalty.  Through his theory of nationalism, he argues that a nation has six features which are a sense of oneness, a distinct culture, a sense of superiority, a deep history, sacred territory, and sovereignty.  These six features distinguish a particular group of people from another.  He makes references to distinguished nationalist scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Ernest Geller to build his definition.  He contends that liberalism ignores these features instead it is focusing on an abstract idea of universal rights.

In a world of nation-states, liberalism has to operate with nationalism in mind.  In fact, Mearsheimer claims that liberal hegemony is in fact nationalistic.  Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright statement that the US is an “indispensable nation” is an example of US nationalism.  “American exceptionalism” is a similar phrase, both present the United States’ identity as a distinct and superior nation because of its liberal tradition.  American liberalism has become a contradiction of itself.  Liberal hegemony is the exact opposite of what liberalism means.  It is in fact illiberal.

The Liberal Failings

The nationalistic component of the US identity combined with progressive liberalism created the idea that the US was a “city on hill” and “an indispensable nation.”  Mearsheimer argues that the belief in liberal ideals and the American nation has created an unhealthy hubris. This was compounded by the fact that after the Cold War the international system was unipolar.  There was only a single power that reigned supreme over the system.  Unipolar powers have no real opposition to their actions.  The Soviet Union no longer existed to counter-balance against the US.  In Mearsheimer’s speeches, he argues that the US operated the Cold War through a realist worldview.[12]  The US was balancing against the Soviet Union.   Once the threat of the Soviet Union was gone, the US abandoned realism and adopted a liberal foreign policy.

This liberal foreign policy has left havoc and instability across the Middle East and North Africa.  Liberal foreign policy advocates argued that if the US was to bring democracy to Iraq, democracy would spread throughout the region.  In Eastern Europe, the expansion of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meant to solidify emerging democracies.  The integration of China into the global market was in hopes that with economic liberty, the Chinese Communist Party would transition their government towards liberal democracy.  This liberal dream has not worked as promised due to the fact that liberals ignored human nature and the power of nationalism.

Society can be socially constructed from the top, but it also can be done from the bottom.  In response to the US spread of democracy, local resistance has formed along ethnic lines.  In the Middle East, Islamic nationalism rose to create an environment ripe for the Islamic State.  The Middle East and North Africa are now more unstable and vulnerable to terrorism than before democracy.  In Asia, the Chinese created a historical narrative of “never forget national humiliation” in which China needs to be strong and look out for its national interest.  In Eurasia, Russia, sees its enemy creeping to its borders.  Russia understands that it needs to balance against the US expansion of influence.

Conclusion

Realists argue that the US should be more restrained. Thus, it should not seek to spread liberal values across the world. For a safe and secure world, a realist foreign policy is ideal because it respects that nature of humans which progressives need to learn.  It entails understanding the local context of different societies.  There are limits to human’s understanding of the world.  In attempts to form foreign policy, ideological biases will be at the base of the policy assumptions. It is difficult to assume how one perspective will perceive another nation’s actions.  Unintended consequences will arise.  In the case of the West’s policy towards The Great Middle East, no one expected the rise of the Islamic State and a mass influx of refugees creating instability in Europe. The national interest of the United States should take priority over global dreams.

As the world becomes multipolar the US will have to consider the interests of Russia and China before acting.  This means rejecting liberalism because now great powers can challenge the liberal order.  Nation-states seek power for their security as there is no global police force to protect their interests.  Deterrence is a way to check the power of other states.  Imperialist have to consider the cost of expanding outside their territory if their opponent has similar capabilities.  In addition, expansion into the so-called third world provides little benefit.  Mearsheimer uses the example of Vietnam in which the war was not salient in the global balance of power. This is true for the Middle East as well where there has been no strategic benefit for the United States’ presence in the region.

A progressive-liberal foreign policy hoped to create an ideal world with no threats to democracy.  Instead due to its assumptions of human nature and nationalism, it has left the Middle East and Ukraine in a state of war.  A progressive-liberal state then becomes illiberal.  In the quest for spreading liberal values, the US has slowly become a police state.  Critics to Mearsheimer will argue that the world is becoming safer and that conflict is on its way down.

However, these critics look at the world from a broad perspective.  As a result, they are not willing to look solely at the results of a US progressive-liberal foreign policy.  To do so they would have to admit that an activist state can cause great harm to many in the world.  John Mearsheimer focuses more on the philosophical causes of Liberal Hegemony.  Another realist Stephen Walt wrote a book with a fitting title, The Hell of Good Intentions, which analyzes Liberal Hegemony on policy grounds.  John Mearsheimer’s latest book will help educate readers on why a progressive-liberal foreign policy is dangerous.


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