Book Review: "The Great Delusion"
John Mearsheimer’s latest work features a full cast of “-isms”: nationalism, optimism, pessimism, realism, hypernationalism, internationalism, individualism, chauvinism, communism, counterterrorism, authoritarianism, institutionalism, and of course… the pièce-de-résistance of American pie-in-the-sky policy—liberalism. “Liberalism,” Mearsheimer writes with his realist pen, “is a fool’s guide for powerful states operating on the world stage.” There are three liberal theories: 1) Democratic peace theory 2) Economics Interdependence theory and 3) Liberal Institutionalism. “Liberal institutionalism is probably the weakest of the three major liberal theories,” the author grouses, as “liberal institutionalists pay little attention to questions about war and peace.” (So, no Tolstoy.) John says: “The structure of the international system is anarchic… States operate in a self-help world in which the best way to survive is to be as powerful as possible, even if that requires pursuing ruthless politics... Countries thus have little choice but to act according to balance-of-power logic if they hope to survive.” And survival, he argues, is “at the core of balance-of-power politics” which is why “liberalism is no match for realism” or nationalism—a recent phenomenon—and simply is not a viable contender in the arena of international politics. Having presumably composed The Great Delusion in hopes of understanding America’s foreign policy of late, Mearsheimer decries the “liberal hegemony” of the U.S. which has led to false ambitions of reforming the world one good-intentioned-conflict at a time. And, although not exactly a George Kennan in either prose or prophecy, Mearsheimer convincingly assesses the role of recent American presidents, especially post 9-11, in creating chaos and crisis instead of promoting peace and human security. He quotes former CIA director Michael V. Hayden concerning Obama’s contribution to the president as assassin-in-chief: “There isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.” The infamous Disposition Matrix, Mearsheimer holds, is a policy born of a liberal democracy “constantly preparing for and fighting wars”, perceiving itself to be in “dire times”, and violating the rule of law and individual rights because of an “atmosphere of suspicion” and an “exaggerated fear of foreign threats”. He condemns the most prominent features of political liberalism, radical individualism and inalienable rights, as major flaws for their misinterpretation at the policy level and incompatibility with nationalism and realism. With a devil-take-it manner that all but throws the baby out with the bath water, Mearsheimer chucks liberalism in the drawer and says, I’m a realist and here’s a book that tells everybody why, though he does emphasize that liberal democracy is “the best political order”. His replacement offering? Restraint. A chapter’s worth. Liberal states should respect other countries, even illiberal ones, and abstain from interventionism in foreign domestic politics. They should “come up with a game plan… to undermine liberal hegemony [with] a counter-elite that can make the case for a realist-based foreign policy.”
While I fully concur that restraint is better than overreaching, crusadist liberalism, there are instances in recent U.S. history where abstaining from decisive action has had a negative impact. However, if America hadn’t established herself as a hegemony, serving as some sort of international referee, then not interfering in foreign affairs as Mearsheimer essentially prescribes would be fine and without consequence. For example, Canada or Australia doing little except issuing sanctions when a country undertakes ethnic cleansing would be considered acceptable and would prompt no backlash or accusation. But America, remaining the only country who’s used a nuclear weapon in warfare, has been upbraided for both acting and not acting. Obama campaigned on pulling out of wars and avoiding future conflict in his term. However, as Mearsheimer points out, Obama didn’t withdraw troops from Afghanistan and moreover signed off on regime change. Of course, there were certainly floundering moments. Responding to the Assad regime’s chemical attack of August 2013, the Obama administration abstained from military intervention in Syria. Considering that the entire Levant region is dangerously convoluted, any action taken by a foreign power is unlikely to ameliorate the historically multilayered tangle. Nevertheless, Obama’s administration is held to criminal account for applying Mearsheimerism in this case. However, earlier that same year, in a move which earned fistfuls of criticism as well, Obama sanctioned the arming of Syrian rebels. A faction of Syrian rebels, that is. In 2014, it could be said that American liberal hegemony in Ukraine pressured Russia into a realist reaction. The condemnation against the U.S. came not in the attempt to peel Ukraine from Russia’s flank, but in mounting no military action to punish Russia for annexing Crimea. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
“For liberals,” Mearsheimer quotes R.H. Tawney, “‘war is either a crime or a crusade. There is no half-way house.’” Mearsheimerism may be a good theory in practice but if America seeks to retain unipower status, it seems unlikely that decision-makers will climb down from the liberal hegemony ladder. In the face of “China’s striking rise and the resurrection of Russian power”, how would we convince the U.S. government to tone it down? How do we pick battles? What’s the red line and are realists willing to stick to it? How do we decide what is social engineering and what is humanitarian intervention? How do we regulate the “counter-elite” to ensure that they are truly following national interests when Mearsheimer admits that realists, although less warmongering than liberals, “consider war a legitimate tool of statecraft”? He says that “realists are Clausewitzians” who comprehend the radii of war’s consequences and asserts that “virtually all realists… study war closely”. Conversely, he declares that liberals don’t bother to study war and therefore have little concern with or knowledge of its cauldron of trouble. The source he draws upon for these generalizations is ambiguous, as it turns out, which begs two questions: 1) are realists truly the antidote to viral liberalism, and 2) how can we be sure his proposed ‘counter-elite’ Team America will actually be well-versed in war and that their education is an effective guard against hubris and normal temptations of money, greed, and power? As for Mearsheimer’s other pro-realist recommendation—to convince “young people” that #liberalhegemony is against America’s interests—how do we make a favorable case for nationalism if the very word seems to carry negative connotations of racism, fascism, rivalry, and isolationism? When educated youth are more enticed by liberal phraseology (i.e., collective security, international society, family of nations), it’s difficult to see how the young generation as a force of politics will push for state-centric policies, even if they readily renounce war. When ideals are held in such high regard and human rights are inviolable, liberal democracy tends to overflow as idealism into foreign policy. So, what’s the answer? Get some calamine lotion for that itch to scratch at every foreign conflict? Hope Putin makes Russia great again and China reaches its potential as a world power, rendering this issue moot? What if U.S. remains a unipower? The Great Mearsheimer says read more Clausewitz. (Check.)