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The Great Delusion, a critique

[John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, Yale University Press, September 2018, 328 p.]

REVIEWAlbert Vidal

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

“For better or for worse, liberal hegemony is history”. With such a statement John J. Mearsheimer concluded his talk about his recently published book “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” at SOAS University of London.

In this book Mearsheimer argues that the foreign policy of liberal hegemony which was adopted by the US at the end of the Cold War failed miserably. He explains that it happened because nationalism and realism always overrun liberalism.

In the first part of the book he defines liberalism, nationalism and liberal hegemony. He then explains why the US pursued liberal hegemony, and what is its track record. Finally, he reveals why liberal hegemony failed, and what can we expect in the future. Let’s take a more detailed look into it.

Liberalism

Mearsheimer casts light on liberalism’s two fundamental assumptions underpinning human nature: first, it assumes that the individual takes precedence over the group; second, liberalism assumes that individuals cannot reach universal agreement over first principles, and such differences often lead to violence.

In order to deal with this potential for violence, liberalism offers a solution that includes three parts: everybody has individual rights that are inalienable; tolerance receives a special emphasis, and a state becomes necessary to limit the threat of those who do not respect other people’s rights. Such features make liberalism a universalistic theory, which is what turned the US into a crusader state.

Nationalism

According to the author, nationalism has its own core assumptions: first, humans are naturally social animals; second, group loyalty is more important than individualism, and third, aside from the family, the most important group is the nation. He then goes on to say that nations (bodies of individuals that have certain features that make them distinct from other groups) want their own states.

After that, Mearsheimer says that nationalism beats liberalism because human beings are primarily social animals. To show this, he recalls that the entire planet is covered with nation states, and liberal democracies do not even comprise a 50% of those nation-states.

Liberal hegemony

This is just an attempt to remake the world in America’s image and has several components: to spread liberal democracy across the planet, to integrate more countries into the open international economy and into international institutions. In theory, this would be extremely beneficial, since it would eliminate significant human rights violations (here the author assumes that liberal democracies do not engage in great human rights violations), it would make for a peaceful world (following the democratic peace theory) and it would eliminate the threat of foreign support to those who want to overthrow liberal democracy at home.

Why did the US pursue liberal hegemony?

After the Cold War, a moment of unipolarity made it possible, says Mearsheimer, for the US to ignore balance of power politics and pursue a liberal foreign policy. To this we need to add that the US is a liberal country, which oftentimes thinks itself as exceptional. This clearly prompted the US to try to remake the world into its image.

In this part of the book, Mearsheimer shows different failures of the US foreign policy. The first one is the Bush Doctrine and the Greater Middle East, which was a plan to turn the Middle East into a sea of democracies. The result was a total disaster. The second example is the awful relations between the US and Russia and the Ukraine crisis, which were the result of NATO’s expansion. Thirdly, Mearsheimer criticizes the way the US has engaged with China, helping it grow quicker while naively thinking that it would eventually become a liberal democracy.

Why did liberal hegemony fail?

The reason is that the power of nationalism and realism always overrun liberalism; in words of Mearsheimer: “the idea that the US can go around the world trying to establish democracies and doing social engineering is a prescription for trouble”. Countries will resist to foreign interference. Also, in large parts of the world, people prefer security before liberal democracy, even if that security has to be provided by a soft authoritarianism. 

Liberal hegemony is finished, because the world is no longer a unipolar place. Now the US needs to worry about other powers.

A critique of his theory

Although Mearsheimer’s thesis seems solid, several critiques have been formulated; most of these are directed toward issues that contradict some of Mearsheimer’s arguments and assumptions and that have been left unaddressed.

1) In his introduction, Mearsheimer argues that individuals cannot reach an agreement over first principles. I believe that is an over-statement, since some values tend to be appreciated in most societies. Some examples would be the value of life, the importance of the family for the continuation of society and the education of the upcoming generations, the importance of truth and honesty, and many others.

2) When he describes the US foreign policy since the 1990s as liberal hegemony, Mearsheimer chooses to ignore some evident exceptions, such as the alliance with Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes which do not respect the most basic human rights.  

3) Many of the failures of the US foreign policy since the 1990s do not actually seem to derive from the liberal policies themselves, but from the failure of properly implementing them. That is, those failures happened because the US deviated from its liberal foreign policy. A clear example is what happened in Iraq: although the intervention was publicly backed by a liberal rhetoric, many doubt that Washington was truly committed to bring stability and development to Iraq. A commonly pointed example is that the only Ministry effectively protected was the Oil Ministry. The rest were abandoned to the looters. A true liberal policy would have sought to restore the education and health systems, state institutions and infrastructure, which never really happened. So blaming the failure to the liberal policy might not be adequate.

4) Although Mearsheimer proves the urge to intervene that comes with liberal hegemony, he doesn’t show how a hegemon following realist principles would restrain itself and intervene in fewer occasions and with moderation. The necessity to protect human rights would simply become a willingness to protect vital interests, which serves as an excuse for any type of intervention (unlike human rights, even if they have sometimes been the origin of a disastrous intervention). 

As a final thought, this book suggests a clear alternative to the mainstream views of most of today’s foreign policy, especially in Western Europe and in the United States.  Even if we disagree with some (or most) of its tenets, it is nevertheless helpful in understanding many of the current dynamics, particularly in relation to the everlasting tension between nationalism and universalism. We might even need to rethink our foreign policies and instead of blindly praising liberalism, we should accept that sometimes, liberalism isn’t able to solve every problem that we face.