John J. Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities argues how the United States’ pursuit of a “liberal hegemony” has been a failure with sizeable costs.
WHEN THE Cold War ended a quarter century ago, many realists expected the United States to retrench and demobilize. Instead, while drawing down some of its military forces, the country did the opposite. The United States waged war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, intervened in the Yugoslav civil war and promoted the expansion of NATO to include Eastern Europe and—many hoped, until Russia violently intervened—Georgia and Ukraine. Following the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States not only went to war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but also engaged in “wars of choice” to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while adding U.S. participation in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The United States is now engaged in more simultaneous small wars on more fronts than at any point in its history.
In The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities , political scientist John Mearsheimer argues that the disappearance of the constraints imposed by Cold War bipolarity vouchsafed the United States the luxury of trying to reshape the world to conform to America’s domestic political creed of liberalism. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has written extensively on international relations from a realist perspective, including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics . Now he offers his most sweeping analysis of America’s purpose. Any argument about national and world politics is necessarily schematic. But a catechistic concision which might be a fault in others is a virtue in the case of Mearsheimer, whose prose is as perspicuous as his analysis. Accessible and yet rigorous, The Great Delusion deserves to be read by policymakers, scholars and the public alike.
The gravamen of his argument focuses on the exceptional circumstances that emerged after 1989, when America was not simply primus inter pares but emerged as the sole superpower. According to Mearsheimer,
occasionally a liberal democracy encounters such a favorable balance of power that it is able to embrace liberal hegemony. That situation is most likely to arise in a unipolar world, where the single great power does not have to worry about being attacked by another great power since there is none. Then the liberal sole pole will almost always abandon realism and adopt a liberal foreign policy. Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to maintain.
This has led the United States (the only liberal superpower in history, or one of two, if nineteenth century Britain is counted) to adopt a strategy of liberal hegemony, “in which a 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.” Mearsheimer writes:
With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as by far the most powerful country on the planet. Unsurprisingly, the Clinton administration embraced liberal hegemony from the start, and the policy remained firmly intact through the Bush and Obama administrations.
Mearsheimer predicts that “liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals, and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs.” The chief barrier to the realization of the dream of a global society of liberal democracies is nationalism, “a particularist ideology from top to bottom.” Consequently, “nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism.” In recognition of this fact, Mearsheimer argues, the United States should abandon its post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony in favor of a less interventionist strategy of “restraint.”
Mearsheimer has little trouble demolishing three reinforcing academic theories of international relations invoked after 1989 to justify America’s post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony: democratic peace theory, economic independence theory and liberal institutionalism. For Mearsheimer, these are rationalizations for a policy whose actual inspiration is to be sought in America’s centuries-old political culture of liberalism.
by Michael Lind