The New Observer Book Reviews,Reviews The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities – John Mearsheimer

The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities – John Mearsheimer

This book was published in 2018, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and before the current war. The essential theme of the book is that after the Cold War ended the US became the sole superpower. It used this status to spread liberalism around the world. However, this project has not been successful and is likely, despite the beliefs of its proponents, to lead to more war and conflict, not less.

Mearsheimer considers three “isms”; liberalism, nationalism and realism. He thinks that liberals overestimate the appeal of their key tenet, rights of the individual, and underestimate the appeal and force of nationalism. Mearsheimer believes that states act based on the survival principle. This leads them to want to become more powerful than other states so as to survive. They do not pay much attention to “international law” when what they see as their key security interests are at stake. In international affairs realism and nationalism outweigh liberalism in the calculations of states. Liberalism works internally; however it does not work as an ideology to mediate relations between states. Realism is not a happy philosophy; according to realism wars are baked into the system of nation states and some wars are unavoidable. But, the liberal project to export liberalism all over the globe in the belief that this will lead to peace is a delusion. It will lead to more wars than a realist policy.

What follows is a brief outline of the ideas and argument of the book on a chapter by chapter basis.

Chapter 1 – The impossible dream

The US is attempting to form other countries in its own, liberal, image. It would be better to engage in traditional balance of power politics.

There is some clear thinking in this chapter about what a nation state is. First of all Mearsheimer defines a nation as “formidable social unit with its own culture”. All nations aspire to statehood. But not all nations achieve this. (Examples of nations without a state might be the Scottish people or the Tatars in the Russian Federation). Of course a nation might settle for autonomy within a larger nation-state.

A key argument of the book is presented here. Liberalism places great emphasis on individual rights. However; reason does not provide a single unified answer to the question, as Mearsheimer frames it, what is the ‘good life’. Thus a liberal state must also be a tolerant one because different individuals will come to different conclusions about what is the good life. In addition it will need a body to arbitrate between the individuals and impose order. In the nation state this is the state. However, in international relations there is no body at the top of the hierarchy which can decide which competing interest should prevail in any disagreement. Thus the liberal model, which works internally, does not work to govern relations between states. In Chp. 7 Mearsheimer considers the liberal idea that international institutions can play the role of arbiter in international relations. He argues that international institutions can help nations gain advantages e.g. through trade agreements, but as soon as national security is threatened, or seen to be threatened, then nation states will disengage with international organisations. International organisations are toothless and cannot play the same role that the state does within a country. (A simple example of this might be the way that China is not cooperating with the WHO to investigate the origins of Covid. Presumably, they believe that their national security interests are at stake).

Within the state Mearsheimer argues that liberalism overrates the individual factor and underestimates the social factor. People are social beings; being part of a group, belonging to a group and feeling protected by that group outweigh concern for individual rights. I would support this view; in the US and UK it seems that a great emphasis is placed on individual rights – the current discourse that insists that people have a right to choose their own gender and how other other people relate to them might be given as an example of this. This reviewer has lived in Russia for three years and I would say that in Russia there is less concern with individual rights and more emphasis on the collective. (I work in education and in schools it is noticeable how children in Russia think in terms of a collective much more readily than children do in the UK). I would agree with Mearsheimer – in many countries of the world people simply aren’t that interested in individual rights, or at least, do not rate them above social factors. When liberals assume that people all over the world are yearning for their individual rights they are mistaken. This is one delusion which has tragic consequences.

In this chapter Mearsheimer makes a very useful distinction between two types of liberals: modus vivendi liberals and progressive liberals. Both share basic liberal ideas about individual rights and the freedom to pursue one’s own path, freedom of expression and so on. Modus vivendi liberals believe in a small state which has the function of protecting the rights of the individual from being infringed by another. For progressive liberals the state should also engage in the positive promotion of ‘rights’ and equality of opportunity. Thus a state run by liberal progressives is likely to be larger as it engages in social engineering projects. In the US (and in the West in general) progressive liberals have won out. Modus vivendi liberals still exist but as a minority. If I understand correctly modus vivendi liberals in the US are people such as Rand Paul. They might also be called libertarians.

Chapter 2 – Human nature and politics

In this chapter Mearsheimer goes back to first principles. He attempts a philosophy of human nature and seeks to explain the limits of reason:

My bottom line is straightforward. Our critical faculties cannot provide definitive answers to questions regarding the good life, and so there will always be serious disagreements about these issues, which matter greatly to both individuals and societies.

Liberalism in fact acknowledges this problem and this is why it preaches tolerance (at least within a domain bounded by liberalism) and it relies on the state to arbitrate between competing opinions. However, there can be problems within a nation state due to this problem, that there is no single agreed truth about ‘the good life’, (a phrase Mearsheimer uses to mean ‘how life should be lived’).

The philosophising in this section seems to me to be firmly within the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy. It feels rather ivory tower. As with all Anglo-Saxon philosophy importance is attached to defining terms – which are then deployed in an argument. Less weight (though in this case some) is given to looking at how those words are currently used in discourse and what practices they might be associated with. The philosophising proceeds either by logic or empirical observation. There is nothing which looks like Foucault’s discourse analysis or understanding of mechanisms of power.

I found myself rebelling against the basic idea that reason cannot lead to clear answers. For me, this sounds like part of the modern trend to downplay reason and elevate the emotions. For example:

There is no way our critical faculties can determine which of the world’s many religions provides the best rule book for guiding individual conduct, or whether atheism provides better guidance.

Mearsheimer’s case that reason cannot lead to a clear view of the ‘good life’ seems to be based on his empirical observations of the world; he looks around and sees that people cannot agree: “But the diversity also exists because people, using their critical faculties, reach different conclusions about what constitutes the good life.” The problem is that any kind of survey like this is probably going to be predetermined; we find what we want to find. I would counter Mearsheimer’s empirical conclusion that people cannot agree on “what constitutes the good life” by saying that having lived in three different countries I find that on essential points there is basic convergence on what constitutes moral behaviour and, in a wider sense, the good life; family, time with friends, travel and time to pursue hobbies. This is not absolute; currently in the UK at least, there is a really strong emphasis on the individual to the extent that the value of family is less strong than it was. But – family life remains a value even in the UK, where individualism has reached a zenith.

I think it is wrong to say that reason cannot, for example, provide clear guidance on moral questions. I am quite sure than reason operating in conjunction with experience can determine that atheism does not provide better guidance for how to live than some of the world’s major religions. While Mearsheimer mentions Kant many times in the book as an example of a liberal – who believed that world peace could be achieved on the basis of liberal ideas about commerce and international organisations – he does not discuss Kant’s categorical imperative. As I understand it (and necessary disclaimer I have never read Kant in the original) Kant believed that with the categorical imperative he had established a universally applicable moral principle based on reason. – That when deciding whether to act a person should consider what would happen whether the principle underlying his action were to become a universal law. I’m not qualified to discuss how Kant got to this point but the idea seems to me robust; it prevents any kind of individual exceptionalism in the moral sphere. Kant, at least, believed that he had arrived at a universal principle by reason.

Having said that I am put off by Mearsheimer’s apparent lack of confidence in reason to find answers to questions about life and how to live it, I accept that there is a domain of questions where this is exactly the case. For example; at the present time there are public discussions about whether Russian athletes should be banned from the Olympics because of the conflict in Ukraine. I can see both points of view. This is just one contemporary example; I can see many social questions on which, I agree, reason cannot provide a categorical answer. (Another question might concern eating meat; I can see strong arguments against eating meat but I don’t think this question can be finally settled by reason one way or another). Variant opinions can be honestly and rationally held. Perhaps this is the kind of question that Mearsheimer is thinking of when he says that “Our critical faculties cannot provide definitive answers to questions regarding the good life..”. But, I am still frustrated by the position that reason, acting with experience, cannot provide reliable answers to questions such as whether Buddhism or atheism is more ‘true’. I think that Mearsheimer has confused two categories of questions; those on which reason can produce a range of opinions, none absolute; and those, perhaps more fundamental, where reason can really provide, if not answers, then clear direction. If you over reduce the potential of reason to find answers then you are left with saying that people should pick up their values from their social milieu and national culture; and indeed Mearsheimer does emphasise that for most people these cultural influences are extremely formative.

The point of this discussion seems to be to support Mearsheimer’s realist position. He is for particularism and against universalism. Reason cannot provide a universally valid answer to the question of “what is the correct way to live”. ‘Truths’ are local and particular. In his analysis of liberalism, especially in Chapter 3, Mearsheimer says that liberalism has both a universalist strand and a particularist strand. The universal strand is that liberalism believes that all humans have basic human rights, as individuals. This is the case regardless of what culture or nation they live in; everyone has these rights. The particularist strand is that liberalism recognises that reason cannot produce a single ‘right’ answer to the question, “what is the good life”. He contrasts this with nationalism, which is entirely particularist.

Mearsheimer indicates that he believes that liberalism is “the best political order”. He shares with liberalism, as he depicts liberalism, the belief that reason cannot produce a definitive answer to the question as to “what is the good life” and he, presumably, agrees with its values of tolerance and democracy (democracy is a system for balancing out the different views of individuals who all have a right to hold them). For Mearsheimer the problem is when liberalism is exported. This is the theme of Chapter 5.

Chapter 3 – Political Liberalism

This chapter contains a useful explication of the differences between modus vivendi liberalism and progressive liberalism. Liberalism is also contrasted with republicanism – which promotes duties and obligations and which believes in a state which promotes civic virtue.

In general, both forms of liberalism, support the idea of individual rights, including the right of the individual to choose their own path. Both support the value of tolerance; the willingness to allow others to choose their version of the good life, so long as it does not impinge on the right of others to do so. In both versions of liberalism the state exists to act as a guarantor (through its monopoly on violence) of these rights. Of course, in progressive liberalism, the state also has a role to play in creating equal opportunity and doing social engineering.

As is typical in much Western political philosophy about the state we have the fantastical idea that citizens have signed a social contract with the state: “The state is the product of a social contract drawn up by a large body of individuals who go to considerable lengths to make sure the government they create does not interfere too much in their lives.” (This idea comes from the 17th century thinker Thomas Hobbes). Of course the state is no such thing. The state is a product of forces acting in history. (If you are a Marxist class forces but, at any event, it is the result of people acting on people over history. It is certainly not something that was designed and introduced as the result of a referendum).

Despite the rather naive Anglo-Saxon philosophising, (one suspects that Mearsheimer has not read much in philosophy beyond the Anglo-Saxon tradition) there is plenty of clear thinking in this chapter. In general Mearsheimer, it seems to me, is better when he is talking about politics rather and the philosophy behind the politics. He writes, for example; “Their [liberals] ultimate aim is to create a world where economics overshadows politics” and “It is no exaggeration to say that capitalism and liberalism go hand in hand.” That is, he correctly connects liberalism with money-making. All this concern about the individual is perhaps really a concern about property and commerce.

Liberalism places considerable emphasis on the law as the locus where disputes between individuals can be resolved. Liberalism aims to separate the state from civil society. Mearsheimer discusses possible risks for a liberal order; there is the potential for a slide into authoritarianism, and there is the risk that one faction can manipulate the game to permanently seize power (he doesn’t say it, but as the Democrats are currently trying to do in America).

In comparing modus vivendi liberalism and progressive liberalism Mearsheimer says that progressive liberals have a more positive view of what can be done with reason. (He further delineates two types of progressive liberals; one type still believes that reason can provide answers to questions of first principles).

This chapter also contains a sketch of how modus vivendi liberalism was replaced by the more state interventionist progressive liberalism after 1800. Mearsheimer points to the industrial revolution which created social problems which required state intervention (excesses of the liberal property owners), increased communications and transport which made it easier for the state to “penetrate civil society”, increasing globalisation, increasing complexities of modern economies, the rise of nationalism, which inspired states to take a more active role in their societies, and the need to maintain a standing army as being factors which led to this transition.

This chapter also contains a brief discussion of utilitarianism and ‘liberal idealism’. The latter are not really liberals; they place more emphasis on humankind as a social animal and they are strongly supportive of nationalism.

Chapter 4 – Cracks in the liberal edifice

In this chapter Mearsheimer discusses some of the problematics of liberalism. For example, as we have mentioned above, there is the danger that in a liberal state one faction will attempt to permanently seize power.

At a theoretical level Mearsheimer considers that liberalism places too much emphasis on individual rights and not enough on social and collective factors:

In fact, liberalism does not simply fail to provide the bonds to keep a society intact; it also has the potential to eat away at those bonds and ultimately damage the society’s foundations. The taproot of the problem is liberalism’s radical individualism and its emphasis on utility maximization

Mearsheimer argues that nationalism provides the glue which holds a liberal state together. In addition nationalism also tends towards democracy, because there is a levelling force in nationalism. This leveling “we are all British together”, for example, provides a horizontal unity which to some extent balances out the potential for a hierarchy of individualism provided by liberalism. A liberal state is also necessarily one in which nationalism is present. Liberalism has to co-exist with nationalism.

Mearsheimer continues to discuss nationalism. He argues that nationalism has positive and negative aspects. A ‘nation’ is not synonymous with a state. A nation is a large social group bound together by common language, culture and a history (which may be somewhat manufactured). But a nation aspires to have a state. Once it has a state that state has an interest in strengthening national feeling. The two become mutually reinforcing. States, for example, aim to be the dominant force in education; they do this so they can mould the younger generation into the shared culture, essential for collective working and military service. States, too, it seems have a survival instinct.

Mearsheimer sees the state as having come into being around 1500. Until 1800 it took the form of the dynastic state, ruled by a monarch. From about the beginning of the 19th century the modern nation state started to come into being.

Both liberalism and nationalism have a state but the function of the state is different in each case. The liberal state serves to act as the final arbiter between individuals who cannot agree (remember; reason does not provide first principles). In nationalism the state serves as the body which delivers self-determination and also helps the nation survive in its conflicts with other nations.

Liberalism does not understand the value of territory. Liberalism understands property but not territory which is associated with national identity. In general people are less willing to fight and die for the liberal state as they are for the national state. Liberal states do not engender loyalty. Liberalism needs a national state to live in. Liberalism and nationalism can co-exist.

Mearsheimer closes this chapter with a critique of the liberal idea of universal rights of the individual. He argues that liberalism accepts the limits of reason to determine first principles and this in fact applies to basic human rights. On this I agree with the direction of Mearsheimer’s thought; he will, in the next chapter move on to a critique of what happens when liberalism tries to export those rights abroad and I agree that this universalist strand in liberalism seems to involve liberal exporting states in pointless wars; the attempt to impose ‘our’ version of human rights on another country is a hugely difficult enterprise which is likely to fail. But, again, I am not sure that reason cannot provide at least some answers about first principles. For example; I think every people in the world agree on the principle that violence should only be used in self-defence. If we look at the discourses around wars, often, both sides claim to be acting in self-defence. This is precisely because they both recognise the absolute nature of this principle.

Chapter 5 – Liberalism goes abroad

Having laid the groundwork by discussing what liberalism is as a political ideology, how it operates internally and its relationship with nationalism Mearsheimer now moves onto discussing what happens when liberalism dictates foreign policy. In short, Mearsheimer’s thesis is that while liberal-democracy is the best system for governing a country, it is a disaster when it is allowed to drive foreign policy. In his view, foreign policy should be informed by realism.

Since the end of the cold war US foreign policy has been driven by “liberal hegemony”. This is a highly interventionist foreign policy whose aim has been to spread liberalism all over the globe. It does this by war and social engineering. There are several motives for doing this. One reason is a belief that liberal-democracies do not attack other liberal democracies. If you can successfully turn a country into a liberal democracy, it will not attack you. (Iraq, Afghanistan). A second reason is that the whole project of building international institutions appeals to the foreign policy elite.

In my review of previous chapters above I indicated that I am not in agreement with Mearsheimer about the inability of reason to determine certain fundamental questions, or at least point the way. My second reservation concerns his explanation for why the US has, since the end of the cold war, pursued a policy of aggressively trying to impose democracy all over the world. Mearsheimer explains this in terms of politics and ideology. People have certain beliefs about how easy it will be to convert whole countries to liberal democracy and they believe that doing this will lead, in the long run, to world peace. They also believe that they are securing the rights of individuals all over the globe. A further reason for liberal states to seek to convert other states is that at home liberalism is always potentially under threat from an authoritarian tendency. This faction within the state could be supported by an external foreign autocratic state. This provides an incentive to remove the threat by converting the foreign state to a liberal democracy. (During the Cold War the US was obsessed with preventing the spread of Soviet communism; they feared the ‘domino effect’). But largely absent here is an economic explanation. There is nothing about the need of the US economy to keep expanding, to find new investment opportunities and new markets. (The economist Jeffrey Sachs, whose work we will be reviewing shortly, is much clearer on this point). In this analysis, the economic imperatives drive the export of political liberalism. This is missing from Mearsheimer’s political analysis. (He does mention that liberals believe that spreading liberal democracy will lead to prosperity but this plays a minor part in his analysis). At the same time, it is perfectly possible that the foreign policy elites genuinely believe in their doctrines of exporting liberalism for political reasons.

In either case, the project fails. It fails because it comes up against realism and nationalism and these are stronger forces than liberalism. For example, liberals overestimate the extent to which individuals in other countries care about individual rights. And, again, even if they believed in those rights the fact that they are being imposed by an outside country will lead to a nationalistic reaction.

All this rings extremely true. It is truly amazing that anyone could have thought that people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were yearning for Western-style liberal democracy. Even if they did want it they wouldn’t want it imposed on them from outside. Yet hubris really led the foreign policy elite in Washington to believe that the world was just dying to be remade in their image. This project has come into conflict with nationalism and all the attempts have been a disaster. (In terms of liberal rhetoric we can observe the concern in liberal countries about individual rights in Afghanistan. The plight of women in Afghanistan and the need to secure their rights was indeed induced in the West as one of the major reasons for the invasion and massive, failed, social engineering project in Afghanistan).

It is not just that nationalism trumps liberalism, especially when it is imposed from outside, but also realism trumps the attempt to spread liberalism by building international organisations. Here, realism tells us that nations, driven as they are by a survival instinct, will support international organisations in those cases where there is some advantage to be had but when they perceive their national security interests to be at stake they will, happily, ignore international law. A key part of Mearsheimer’s analysis is that the world stage is anarchic. Within a state citizens who feel under threat from other citizens can call the police who will defend their rights. But there is no global 999 number – and so, states must always be concerned with looking after their own survival. Given that they have no definite way of knowing the intentions of other states, they have to work based on worst-case scenario estimates. All this leads to a global stage of unregulated competition and the ever-present threat of war. This is the reality of a world of nation states. Mearsheimer also casts doubt on the idea of a world government. Nations are so hooked on self-determination they are unlikely to be willing to give it up to an international body. And the world is simply to big for any one country to dominate it and become the world state by conquest. Thus anarchy is here to stay on the world stage.

Chapter 6 – Liberalism as a source of trouble

In this chapter Mearsheimer continues his discussion of how elites in liberal democracies, he is talking especially about the US, genuinely believe that exporting liberal democracy, even by force, will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world. As Mearsheimer points out, they continue to believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary:

In each case, [Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya but did not do so in Egypt or Syria] American policymakers thought they could put in place a stable democracy that would be friendly to the United States and help it deal with serious problems like nuclear proliferation and terrorism. It is quite striking how much confidence Washington’s leaders had in their capacity to transform the politics of those five countries, and the region more generally. But they failed every time, bringing killing and destruction to the greater Middle East and committing the United States to what appear to be endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Mearsheimer also mentions Tony Blair’s idea of the legitimacy of “humanitarian interventions”. There is a certain missionary zeal to these people.

Mearsheimer also explains that elites in liberal democracies are so sure that their system, with its respect for individual rights, is superior to autocracies that they find it difficult to engage diplomatically with autocracies. I agree; it is almost as if they feel they will be contaminated in some way if they talk to autocracies on equal terms – which is what realism would demand. Indeed, in relation to Russia and the Ukraine crisis this was one of the problems:

The result is that the United States and its allies unwittingly provoked a major crisis that shows no sign of ending, in large part because liberal democracies find it so difficult to engage in diplomacy with authoritarian states.

Mearsheimer goes a further. The US policy elites are so assured of their model that they probably genuinely don’t see why Russia, which is operating according to a realist playbook, would be alarmed by NATO encroachment to their borders. After all, they reason perhaps we, the liberal democracies are peaceful and lawful countries; if someone is alarmed by us approaching their borders that can only be a result of their own aggressive tendencies.

7 – Liberal Theories of Peace

Liberalism does of course have a theory to explain why and how spreading liberalism around the world will lead to peace. Mearsheimer sums up the liberal global project: “Liberal hegemony is built around three missions: increasing the number of liberal democracies in the world, facilitating an open economic order, and building international institutions.”

Mearsheimer examines three main liberal theories of peace: democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory and liberal institutionalism.

According to Mearsheimer, democratic peace theory posits that liberal democracies do not go to war with each other, though it allows that liberal democracies can go to war with non-democracies. Against this view Mearsheimer cites examples of when liberal democracies have gone to war with each other; e.g. he says that Germany in WW1 was a liberal democracy. He also says that proponents of this theory do not offer a convincing theoretical explanation for why liberal democracies will not fight each other.

Economic interdependence theory argues that countries which are highly dependent on each other will not go to war, because the economic cost will be too high. This theory has been applied to China and used to justify and explain why it was a good idea to develop economic ties with China as China developed. At the time of writing however, China is bristling over what it sees as US interference in the Taiwan question – and tensions have risen to the extent that people are now seriously contemplating a US-China conflict over Taiwan. This development strongly supports Mearsheimer’s realist thinking. Taiwan is a fundamental national question for China and nationalism is a stronger force than liberalism. We could also point to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russia has prioritised what they see as vital national security interests even at the cost of trade. Another argument which Mearsheimer adduces against economic interdependence theory is to say that in reality countries at war with each other often continue to trade – so war does not necessarily mean an end of trading relationships and therefore economic interdependence is not necessarily going to cause leaders to avoid war. Again, the Ukraine crisis is a case in point. Despite the very loud rhetoric about “unprecedented” sanctions in fact one year after the “invasion” the EU continues to import Russian gas and overall trade is approximately down to 50%-60% of pre-war levels. [1] That is the EU continues a fairly healthy trading relationship with Russia. Russia continues to export much more (about 3x) by value to the EU as to China. [1] Again, the facts appear to support Mearsheimer’s realist argument.

The third liberal theory of peace is also flawed. According to Mearsheimer the theory of liberal institutionalism is the weakest of the three liberal theories of peace; “Its chief proponents make modest claims about what international institutions can actually do to bring peace, and the historical record shows clearly that for any great power on the road to war, they are little more than a speed bump.” Again, the historical record bears out Mearsheimer. For example, recall how the failure to get a UN resolution to back the 2003 Iraq war just held up the US and UK for a short time. Very quickly the public was informed that a UN resolution was just the icing on the cake and not really necessary. Mearsheimer argues that international institutions can have some force in areas such as environment and economy but much less in the field of security where any international arrangements are always subordinated to the security interests of any one state. Even in realms not connected to security the system suffers from the problem that there is no policeman to enforce agreements and compliance is essentially voluntary and can be withdrawn at any time. (Again; facts support Mearsheimer’s position. For example, China’s lack of cooperation with the WHO in investigating the origins of Covid. The WHO is a membership organisation and if one of its members does not cooperate it has no way of forcing them to). International organisations are weak.

Mearsheimer repeatedly refers to the perspective which points out that within countries the state acts as a kind of policeman which mediates relations between individuals and enforces the laws they have all signed up to (in theory), but the global stage is anarchic; there is no overriding enforcer and each state will understand that it has to look after its own interests. Thus international institutions have no real power to prevent wars.

Mearsheimer analyses liberal theories of peace and finds that the institutions and policies they promote will not lead to world peace.

Chapter 8 – The case for restraint

The realist philosophy of Mearsheimer is not a very cheery one. Realism says that there will always be wars because great powers strive to be the most powerful, in order to survive, and they must constantly worry about the intentions of other great powers. In addition, because they have no way of knowing their opponent’s plans in advance they must base their actions on worst case scenario planning. (A case in point would be Putin’s “what if” Ukraine joins NATO and then starts a confrontation over Crimea. Or, again, the US’s “what if” Saddam Hussein gives some biological weapons capacity to Islamic terrorists. In both cases military action was started based on a “what if”.). On the other hand, according to Mearsheimer, realism will lead to fewer wars than the attempt to spread liberal democracy.

Mearsheimer links the US attempt to spread liberal democracy all over the world with the unipolar world it found itself in, after the collapse of the USSR. The US responded to finding itself the sole great power in the world by trying to make as much of the rest of the world as possible in its image. However, the rise of China as a peer competitor will force the US to adopt a more realist foreign policy. If, though, China experiences economic difficulties and does not grow as expected, the US should resist the temptation to continue with its pursuit of liberal hegemony.

Mearsheimer reminds us that he believes in liberal democracy as the best political system within a country. The aim of his book has been, though, to show that liberalism is not a good guide for foreign policy. Mearsheimer argues that there is a contradiction here. Liberalism in fact accepts that reason cannot lead to a single view of what constitutes the ‘good life’; thus, within a liberal state, liberals accept and tolerate a range of opinions. However, on the international stage liberalism acts as if it were absolutely right and confident about its values, to the extent that it is willing to impose its system and values on other countries by force. This leads us to the situation where liberals, who disavow war as an instrument of statecraft in fact fight more wars than realists:

Nevertheless, realists are generally less warlike than liberals, who have a strong inclination to use force to promote international peace, even while they dismiss the argument that war is a legitimate instrument of statecraft.

Mearsheimer discusses US foreign policy during the Cold War. He says that the US should have been less worried about the spread of global communism and more concerned with building relations with communist states. Nationalism is a more potent force than liberalism or communism and the US had less to fear from communism than it thought and so should not have intervened to try to stop its spread. In the context of this discussion Mearsheimer says:

Aggressive intervention is what great powers should try to draw their rivals into doing.

While Mearsheimer largely attributes the Ukraine war to US liberal hubris I can’t help noting that the above advice would support the view, not voiced by Mearsheimer, at least in this book, that the US deliberately provoked Russia into the Ukraine war in order to weaken it.

Mearsheimer postulates a world which is never free of war and goes as far as to call war a legitimate tool of statecraft. He states that the period of unipolar power is now coming to an end – and we are again in a world which is governed by balance-of-power politics. As concerns China I cannot quite understand where his theory leads. He writes:

Moreover, realism dictates that the United States should seek to remain the most powerful state on the planet. It should maintain hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and make sure that no other great power dominates its region of the world, thus becoming a peer competitor.


The United States will have little choice but to adopt a realist foreign policy, simply because it must prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia.

These positions seem to be different. The first seems to imply a defensive posture. The latter seems to imply that the US should act, probably militarily, against China – to prevent China becoming a regional hegemon even in Asia. It appears to be a recommendation for war. Which does Mearsheimer actually mean? He also writes in this chapter:

It [the US] is a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, and it is separated from East Asia and Europe—the regions where other great powers have historically been located—by two giant moats, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

He has also argued elsewhere in the book that because of geographical distances no one country will ever be able to become the sole world power. Does he mean that the US should stay in the Western Hemisphere? But, against this, he says that Asia is a key area for the US because China is located there and when he lists areas of the world where the US should not fight wars Asia is not in this list. And the US should “seek to remain the most powerful state on the planet”. Taken together it seems that Mearsheimer contemplates the US fighting a war with China in order to prevent China becoming a hegemon power in Asia and thus challenging the US as the most powerful state in the planet. Does he really propose that the US start this war as an “instrument of statecraft”? It seems that is the logic. Perhaps it is not surprising that he does not say this out loud.

I agree entirely with this advice:

If Americans want to facilitate the spread of democracy around the world, the best way to achieve that goal is to concentrate on building a vibrant democracy at home that other states will want to emulate.

Mearsheimer suggests that China may not in fact become a peer competitor of the US. In this case the US should avoid the temptation to continue its failed policy of liberal hegemony. However; if China does become a peer competitor the US will find itself in a realist world of balance of power politics. According to realism, as I understand it, the US should strike first if it saw an opportunity but realist factors such as the balance-of-power and fears about the unintended consequences of war might prevent this.


I have three caveats with this book. Firstly, I find the philosophising about how reason cannot establish first principles unconvincing. The argument largely proceeds empirically by pointing to widespread disagreement on what constitues “the good life”. I can find other examples to support the opposite view and I specifically disagree for example that reason cannot decide between atheism and religion. My second caveat is that the explanation for why the US tries to make remake other countries into an image of itself is almost entirely about ideology and the “liberal instinct”. I find the alternative argument that the US drive for global expansion is driven by the expansionist nature of its economy much more convincing.

The realist view presented by Mearsheimer represents international relations as a world of reptilian competition. It is an unpoliced and anarchic world governed by national survival instincts, with only balance-of-power politics and animal caution holding off more wars. He does not offer any remedy for this dismal state of affairs. This is my third criticism; there is no morality here. He observes that the field is one of survival and fight to the death but offers no remedy. I would agree with his criticism of liberal hegemony but I would not give up on attempts to ameliorate the situation. All human beings agree that war is something to be avoided and all human beings would like to live in peace and safety. My own hypothesis is that much more could be done in the realm of communication and avoiding misperceptions.

I agree entirely with his criticism of the US pursuit of liberal hegemony and his analysis of how that policy has been a disaster both for the US and the target countries. The main value of this book may be that he explains at a theoretical level why this must be so. Nationalism and realism are stronger forces than liberals allow and concern for individual rights much less widespread than liberals suppose.

While there are one or two deficiencies this book offers a wealth of clear thinking to explain the folly of the pursuit of liberal hegemony.

Mearsheimer, John J.. The Great Delusion (The Henry L. Stimson Lectures Series) (pp. 232-233). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.