Review: The Great Delusion by John Mearsheimer
Liberalism in international relations (IR) is the theory that democracy, inalienable natural rights, and diplomatic, economic, and security interdependence are the achievable variables in creating a peaceful and prosperous world order. As the title of this book implies, Mearsheimer believes this is simply a delusion. Building his argument on two fundamental assumptions about human nature, he attempts to show flaws in the logic of IR Liberalism, which, ostensibly, have made it the impetus behind tens of millions of civilian deaths in numerous interventionist conflicts since the end of WWII. Mearsheimer claims that IR Realism – while typically perceived as narrow and nationalistic – actually provides less incentive for nation-states to go to war than its liberal counterpart. Therefore, it is a more peaceful theory. Here is an outline of his ideas:
REASON AND RIGHTS
Mearsheimer’s first assumption about human nature is that reason alone is inadequate to get people to agree on first principles, namely, how we should live and what constitutes the “good life.” Environment, sentiments, and intuition are typically much more formidable in shaping our worldview than pure, cold logic. This is somewhat analogous to the debate between Hume and Kant in philosophy. Hume’s skepticism toward the role and resources of human reason continues to be a thorn in the paw of analytic philosophers to this day. Plenty of highly intelligent, educated, and reasonable people come to radically different conclusions when faced with difficult issues.
One of these issues is the interrelationship of the community and the individual. Which one is more important, and why? In most Western cultures, we have a strong tradition of inalienable natural rights, which has created an ethic-of-autonomy within our societies: communities serve as the foundations for which individuals may flourish in a generally unconstrained manner. This concept of inalienable natural rights is so ingrained in our Western minds that we treat it in an unreflective, uncritical way. It seems axiomatic. Is it, though?
To use an anecdote I read elsewhere, John Locke went for a stroll one day in the woods of 17th century England and, upon his return, announced that he had discovered “natural rights.” And everyone has been playing along ever since. Even the name is ironic- if there is one thing not to be found in nature, it is rights. The lion seems oddly insensitive to the right-to-life of antelopes, and nature is much more apt to exterminate a species than preserve it. Of course, none of this is to imply that natural rights are somehow nonsensical or flawed; indeed, they have proven to be a very good thing. But are they the best thing? Most non-Western societies (which constitute a majority of the world’s population) operate according to an ethic-of-community in which natural rights are secondary and not inalienable. In such societies, individuals serve as the foundations from which communities can flourish.
Mearsheimer believes this lack of universal consensus on the preeminence of natural rights throws a deadly wrench into the machine of IR Liberalism.
Mearsheimer’s second assumption is that humans are inherently more social than individualistic. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most basic one is that being a group member is a great way to stay alive. Again, this idea is lost on most wealthy Westerners who live in prosperous environments that afford illusions of self-sufficiency. Many of us could work from home, have everything we need delivered, and attempt to forego any reliance on social groups. It’s hard to fully stress what an aberration this level of security is relative to the vast majority of human history and current world circumstances. However, beyond raw survival, people also find identity, meaning, purpose, and a whole host of other essential psychological needs through their association with various social circles. The truly autonomous individual seems an illusion.
Suppose we extrapolate man’s social nature to the macro level. In that case, Mearsheimer’s implications are clear: nationalists’ sentiments will always trump whatever empathy or trust we have for peoples of other nation-states. Simply put, most Americans are still going to care more about other Americans than about people in foreign countries with whom they have no strong social bond. While this may sound prosaically obvious almost to the point of stupidity, Mearsheimer contends that, at its core, IR Liberalism thinks this dynamic can be changed – that the level of trust and empathy we feel for our immediate neighbors can be extended to foreigners. However, after all the rhetoric about being a conscientious “global citizen” is said and done, are most Westerners willing to go fight and die to protect the natural rights of someone they’ve never met?
THE LIMITS OF LIBERALISM
When we view these assumptions about human nature in light of two further observations of international dynamics, we see the limits of IR Liberalism. The first observation is that most countries are nowhere close to being genuinely democratic, and the international realm is essentially anarchic without a dominating great power. No one entity has authority over all the others – much less the capability and willingness to exercise said authority. Nation-states are ultimately on a self-help system, like kids in the schoolyard left to their own devices while the teacher is on lunch break. To rectify an injustice, there is no one to appeal to. International bodies have proven wildly ineffectual at stopping genocides, resolving territorial disputes, and preventing the blatant stealing of one country’s resources by another.
The second observation is that foreign leaders can never really know each other’s true intentions. World history is nothing if not an endless series of pacts, betrayals, the hedging of bets, the flipping of sides, and the saying of one thing while intending another. This happens even among nation-states of ostensibly similar ideological inclinations (witness the tumultuous happenings of the European Union).
Let us accept Mearsheimer’s four points for the sake of argument. First, reason cannot settle disputes about the relative import of natural rights. Second, man cares deeply about his closest social bonds. The third point is that the international realm is anarchic and actual democracies are rare. Lastly, we can never know the true intentions of others. These are the fundamental tenets of IR Realism.
Then let us return to the proclamations of IR Liberalism: democracy, inalienable natural rights, and diplomatic, economic, and security interdependence are the achievable variables in creating a peaceful and prosperous world order. To say there is extreme dissonance between these two lists seems an understatement. They appear more or less mutually exclusive; if one is true, the other must somehow be false. If Mearsheimer’s premises are accurate, IR Liberalism is an unachievable fool’s errand,* which should be abandoned in favor of IR Realism. This theory more closely aligns with the true state of human nature and international affairs.
*It’s important to note that Mearsheimer has no major issues with liberalism in the domestic context, where there is a central authority to arbitrate disputes and where social bonds are highly operative.
DYING (AND KILLING) FOR PEACE
IR Liberalism laid roots in the Wilsonian thinking of the 1920s and has purportedly been the modus operandi of every administration since Eisenhower (Trump is proving a bit of an exception). Naturally, there are plenty of case studies to examine – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. Let’s reiterate the driving logic: IR Liberalism believes in the universality of inalienable natural rights and the special role of democracies in protecting and promoting these rights worldwide. This provides a powerful incentive to intervene (often militarily) in the inner workings of another nation-state, whose sovereignty is violated under the auspices of protecting the natural rights of its citizens. There is an invariably moral flavor here that makes claims of exclusivity and superiority: the good life is defined by natural rights and an ethic-of-autonomy for us, so it must be for others as well. While domestic liberalism promotes tolerance at home (where natural rights are unquestioned), IR Liberalism promotes intolerance abroad where natural rights must be imposed by force.
Mearsheimer’s main charge is that this line of thinking has kept the U.S. continuously involved in conflicts of intervention for the last seventy years. While many of the non-democratic regimes we have opposed (or deposed) were led by some genuinely bad guys, the question becomes: what is an acceptable cost to institute these changes? As John Tirman has pointed out in a recent book, the problem is that we typically only care about and measure American blood and American treasure when evaluating the cost of foreign intervention. These factors constitute only a minuscule fraction of the total burden of any conflict – a burden that is primarily levied on foreign peoples. U.S. wars of intervention may have cost trillions of American dollars and hundreds of thousands of American lives since WWII. Still, they have entirely evaporated several foreign economies and have led to tens of millions of foreign deaths.
This is an unsettling, paradoxical observation that Mearsheimer decries as the ultimate hypocrisy of IR Liberalism. History seems to show that trying to impose democracy in a foreign state will invariably come at the cost of countless innocent civilian lives, and in the end, it rarely proves successful. The most fundamental and inalienable of all the natural rights is the right to life, yet this is precisely the one we incidentally violate on a massive scale when we initiate a war of intervention in order to create a democracy or in order to protect natural rights. Something does seem to be amiss with the logic here. Additionally, our obsession with our natural rights has shaped an American way of war focused on using firepower, technology, and standoff distance to protect our troops. This strategy has led to the greatest of Western military euphemisms: “collateral damage.” Here’s another unsettling question: how many Iraqis died a violent death in the final ten years before the overthrow of Saddam versus the first ten years afterward?
Mearsheimer concludes his discussion by reiterating that most of the world is not a democracy and does not value natural rights in the same way Westerners do. If we would treat state sovereignty with the same reverence we treat natural rights, the world may not be as democratic as it is now, but it certainly would have seen far less death and destruction in the last several decades.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
1. Mearsheimer could be accused of a somewhat slanted interpretation of events, as the demarcation between Realist and Liberal actions probably isn’t as well-defined as he suggests. We seem to be interested in protecting the natural rights of others only when there is also something else to be gained.
The Western world has stood idly by and watched genocides when natural rights were (mostly) all that was at stake. Yet we have intervened in far less severe situations when some other tangible interest seemed to be in jeopardy – whether a regional balance-of-power or the protection of vital energy resources. Liberal rhetoric is often employed to gain domestic support for actions that, in hindsight, look very Realist from an international perspective. Pure IR Liberalism probably hasn’t been as operative as Mearsheimer would have us believe. When American blood was shed in Mogadishu, we realized just how flimsy Liberal motivations are without some Realist underpinning.
2. I think Mearsheimer’s assumption about the social nature of man is questionable. I tread lightly here, since Aristotle’s maxim that “man is by nature a social animal” seems to be more or less vindicated by human history, and Mearsheimer is hardly remarkable in following this line of thinking. However, I’d like to offer an alternate hypothesis.
Man is both a physical organism seeking survival and a psychological entity seeking meaning, purpose, and identity. These two fundamental requirements are radically different, but both are radically important; we do whatever it takes to satisfy them. Historically, social groups have an excellent track record of fulfilling both of these needs, but this doesn’t logically entail that man is inherently social. Such a claim improperly conflates an action with its underlying motivation. A man may inherently look like a meat-eater, but in actuality, he is just inherently hungry; the meat would be seen as superfluous if he had some other viable way to satisfy his hunger. Likewise, it’s totally conceivable that certain environments could provide alternate modes of securing physical safety and psychological satisfaction without appealing to social groups.
For example, in prosperous Western societies where physical survival is no longer a daily concern and ideological tolerance is higher, we find that divorce rates are on the rise, birth rates and church attendance are declining, and the extended family (even more so the tribe) is something only to be found in classic literature. If man is inherently social, why do social bonds seem to be dissolving in some communities? Perhaps man’s historic sociability has simply been in the service of his physical survival and psychological satisfaction. As he finds alternate means to secure these, he might dispense with tribe, totem, and toddler altogether. Only time will tell.
What would this mean for IR Liberalism? It’s hard to know. However, it does imply that nationalists sentiments could erode over time, making the vision of an interconnected world order seem increasingly plausible to more and more people.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.