By: Daniel Zhang, Reporter
Photo Credit: CSIS
Dr. John J. Mearsheimer is no stranger to the students of international relations. Founder of the offensive realist school of international relations, the University of Chicago professor has written extensively on international policies and has shaped public debate and foreign policy in many aspects. On October 17, The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) hosted a book launch event with Dr. John J. Mearsheimer for his new book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, featuring George Washington University professor and a prominent international relations scholar, Dr. Charles Glaser. The event was moderated by Seth Jones, the director of Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.
In his latest book, Mearsheimer discusses the failure of “liberal hegemony,” the governing philosophy which many scholars argue has dominated U.S. foreign policy in the unipolar political landscape following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Defining liberalism as an ideology that focuses on individual rights, Mearsheimer started off the conversation by emphasizing that his argument is not against liberalism per se, but liberal foreign policy. “I do believe liberal democracy is the best political form in the world,” he said, “[but] when you take liberalism and you turn it into a foreign policy, that’s when you get into trouble.”
New to Mearsheimer’s argument in the book and the event is his focus on the interaction between nationalism and liberalism, as well as their relationship with realism. He said nationalism, calling it “the most powerful ideology on the planet,” emphasizes groups over individuals. Realism on the other hand, or specifically structural realism according to both Mearsheimer and Glaser, focuses on states that operate under an anarchical international system and pursue a balance of power as result.
According to Mearsheimer, liberalism and nationalism can exist in the same state. An example would be the United States which is nationalistic at its core but also a generally liberal democratic state. However, Mearsheimer and Glaser explain that nationalism can cultivate a sense of superiority over other states which reinforces the desire to spread liberal ideas. While ideologies of nationalism and liberalism can coexist at home, Mearsheimer argues that when liberal ideas are taken abroad, they tend to clash with the foreign country’s own perception of nationalism and realism. The diffusion of cooperation and democracy that liberals advocate for on an international level may face a backlash from other states’ nationalist culture and realists’ intention for a balance of power.
Mearsheimer laid out three key goals of the liberal hegemony that the U.S. has pursued since 1989 as examples: spread liberal democracy all over the world, promote an open international economic order, and expand international institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). “Liberal democracy was a very ambitious foreign policy that was filled with good intentions,” Mearsheimer said, “but ultimately failed.”
In the specific case of NATO expansion, Mearsheimer said that while NATO was created as a realist institution during the Cold War against the USSR, the West incorporated strategies of liberal hegemony in the post-Cold War era to create liberal communities in Eastern Europe instead of to contain Russia. He argued that it was not a realist intention to expand NATO eastward, but a liberal one to foster the notion of Western democracies in Eastern Europe. The result, according to Glaser, was exactly what realists predicted: Russia saw NATO’s eastward expansion as a possible threat and invaded Georgia and Crimea accordingly.
Mearsheimer highlighted NATO’s expansion, the Bush Doctrine, and the West’s engagement with China as three failures of the U.S. government’s liberal foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. He points out that both the Bush administration’s attempt to spread democracy across the Middle East and the West’s hope to democratize China by providing access to an open economy resulted in failure.
Looking to the future, Mearsheimer believes we will be living in a bipolar world with either the rise of China or the resurrection of Russia. He said a country could no longer pursue liberal hegemony in a bipolar or multipolar world. With regard to the foreign policy of the Trump administration, Mearsheimer believed both Trump’s 2016 campaign and his practice as the president are largely anti-liberal. While Obama also campaigned against the notion of liberal hegemony, his administration lost the battle with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, a class of liberal-minded officials in the U.S. government who mostly worry about the collapse of a U.S.-led international liberal order, according to Mearsheimer.
“The question is do you think that Trump could [defeat the establishment],” he said. “My argument is it’s a moot question because the structure of the system is changing.” However, Mearsheimer followed up that, “if the structure of the system were not changing – let’s assume that China and Russia were not causing us to enter a multipolar world – I think a good case could be made that Trump would still defeat the [foreign policy establishment].”
Mearsheimer and Glaser also discussed their approaches to U.S. foreign policy on China and Russia. The U.S. government, especially the Trump administration, has initiated a more competitive policy shift towards China for the past few years. Glaser argues that a clash of liberalism and realism on China could lead to two different types of policy that Washington would eventually pursue: strengthening economic ties and cooperation with China, or adopting a balance of power approach by forming a counter-coalition against China’s rising influence.
Mearsheimer further commented that he welcomes increasing Chinese meddling in other countries’ domestic affairs, namely Australia, because such involvement would actually be hugely beneficial to the U.S. and other great powers competing with China. Mearsheimer cited the past examples of the Soviet-Afghan War and the Vietnam War where great powers, meddling in other countries’ affairs, gave their opponent other opportunities to grasp for more power during the Cold War by over-extending in a foreign theater. Reiterating his argument against interventionism, Mearsheimer said, “… you want to stay out of the affairs of other countries as much as possible, because once you get in – especially if you use a military force, you are asking for trouble.” In other words, when a great power interferes with another state in a damaging fashion, it seriously risks giving a leg up to its competition in the process.
Answering the question on what it would take to reverse the anti-Russian narrative in the U.S., Mearsheimer said only the rise of China could solve the problem. Arguing from a structural realist perspective, Mearsheimer postulated that an increasingly powerful China will push Russia and the U.S. closer together to contain China and maintain a balance of power.
That said, there are flaws and exceptions in his theory, as Mearsheimer openly admitted. He pointed out early in the event that realism as a predictive theory is at best 75 percent right and 25 percent wrong. Moreover, Mearsheimer noted two cases where liberal intervention was successful: Japan and Germany in the post-World War II era. These exceptions, according to Mearsheimer, beat the odds and succeeded because of two unique attributes: first, that both countries featured some degree of democracy before the war and, second, that the West stepped in as protectors rather than conquerors
Mearsheimer’s crusade for replacing liberal foreign policy with a realist-based approach in the U.S. may be a tough sell since many policy makers in Washington are deeply committed to the notion of liberal hegemony. However, his critique does appeal to many Americans evidenced by the election of Barack Obama and Donald Trump who campaigned against the liberal foreign policy. As Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a recommendation on the back cover of Mearsheimer’s new book, “Idealists as well as realists need to read this systematic tour de force. Even if you don’t agree, it will discipline your own thinking.”