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The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities
John J. Mearsheimer
Yale University Press, $30.00 (cloth)
A Foreign Policy for the Left
Yale University Press, $30.00 (cloth)
On February 2, 2003, the political scientist John J. Mearsheimer published a co-authored op-ed in The New York Times that lambasted the Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq. In a carefully laid out argument, Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, a fellow scholar of international relations, predicted that deposing Saddam Hussein would cause more problems than it solved. They argued that the dictator needed to be contained, and that preventative war was not just unnecessary, but harmful.
Of course, neither Bush nor his cronies listened, and on March 20 the Iraq War began. When it was officially wound down in December 2011 (note that we still retain thousands of U.S. troops in the country), it had cost almost $1 trillion; resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and about 4,500 U.S. soldiers; generated untold suffering amongst people who lost limbs, family members, and their mental health; and destabilized the region by empowering the Islamic State and engendering a massive refugee crisis.
There are significant problems with realism's ontology. To understand why this is so, we must examine realism’s midcentury origins.
Since then, Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate who served in the Air Force, has been a stalwart opponent of U.S. military adventurism, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His latest book, The Great Delusion, is his attempt to explain why so few people in the U.S. foreign policy establishment—a loose network of government bodies, think tanks, NGOs, lobbying groups, and research organizations—seem to agree with him. Doing so, Mearsheimer maintains, will help us understand “why post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy was so prone to failure” and will (hopefully) help the nation chart a better path forward in an era where the United States’s relative power position is in decline.
According to Mearsheimer, U.S. foreign policy has failed because after the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, elites in both parties embraced a grand strategy of “liberal hegemony” that seeks “to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies while also fostering an open international economy and building formidable international institutions.” This strategy is doomed, he argues, because it is insufficiently attuned to two realities of international politics. First, it does not take into account the power of nationalism, which causes foreign peoples to reject U.S. attempts to intervene in their affairs. Second, and more important, Mearsheimer believes liberal hegemony ignores the centrality of balance of power politics to international relations.
Like many realists before him, from Hans Morgenthau to Henry Kissinger, Mearsheimer considers “international anarchy”—a term that simply refers to the fact that there is no world state able to legitimately adjudicate international disputes—the primary determinant of geopolitics. Because there is no world state, war is an ever-present possibility, which means that wise states must always focus their attentions on the “balance of power”—the power relationships that exist between states—and attempt to increase their relative position within it. For realists, these are the fundamental, tragic, and untranscendable realities of international politics that prevent the realization of perpetual peace.
While international relations are sometimes nasty and brutish, we must never assume that they always are.
But the United States, of course, has not been a wise state. To explain why, Mearsheimer argues that sometimes a liberal state is so much more powerful than any potential challenger that its elites can disregard the balance of power and embrace the quixotic notion that they can make the world in their liberal, democratic, and capitalist image. This, obviously, was the position the United States found itself in after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and everyone reading this knows where the story ends: in the mountains of Afghanistan, the streets of Iraq, and the deserts of Libya, where U.S. intentions have gone to die.
These failures lead Mearsheimer to advise that the United States abandon liberal hegemony and embrace a grand strategy of “restraint” characterized by a much more limited use of U.S. power abroad. Specifically, he affirms that the United States should stop provoking Russia by encouraging the expansion of NATO and the European Union; should stop promoting democracy in Russia’s neighbors; and should end the permanent war in the Middle East.
Mearsheimer, however, by no means advocates a full retrenchment of U.S. power. Indeed, he is quite concerned about the rise of China, which he considers the only nation able to potentially challenge U.S. hegemony. As such, he maintains that the United States must “prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia.” This presumably means that Americans should retain their presence in East Asia, especially the South China Sea. If the United States prevents China’s ascent, Mearsheimer suggests we could reap the benefits of hegemony without suffering the drawbacks of overextension.
There is much to admire in Mearsheimer’s case against liberal hegemony, which has time and again failed to achieve its grand ambitions. I have no doubt that the United States has little to gain by provoking Vladimir Putin or striking weddings in Yemen with drones. On balance, a strategy of restraint would be far superior to one characterized by disastrous interventions, and those who envision more robust social welfare services at home should consider building bridges with realists such as Mearsheimer who want to contain the U.S. military and its ballooning budget.
Realism’s midcentury origins lead Mearsheimer to emphasize worst-case scenarios, which is clear in his anxiety over China’s rise.
However, there are significant problems with Mearsheimer’s ontology—and, indeed, with the ontology of realism in general. To understand why this is so, we must examine realism’s midcentury origins. Realism was developed in the 1940s and 1950s by a cohort of German émigrés scarred by the international relations of the 1930s, a decade in which two great powers—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—launched a devastating world war that killed and maimed tens of millions. It is not surprising that in response to the horrors of World War II—and the inability of the League of Nations to prevent it—thinkers such as Morgenthau, John Herz, Hans Speier, and Arnold Wolfers developed a theory of international politics that was incredibly pessimistic about the possibilities of international cooperation and which considered great power wars endemic features of geopolitics. These beliefs formed the core of realism and remain at the center of its philosophy.
These convictions are problematic, however, because they reify a peculiar historical moment as ontological reality. As Mearsheimer succinctly puts it, “realism is a timeless theory” that is true throughout all eras of history. But as the historian Nicolas Guilhot has shown, this belief “places limits upon the kind of political goals that one can pursue and . . . makes it difficult if not impossible to pursue positive or transformative goals.” Thus Mearsheimer maintains that human beings will never be able to create a world state capable of transcending international anarchy and are instead doomed to fight war after war until one, presumably, finally wipes out the entire species. There is a reason that Mearsheimer’s most famous book is titled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
From a historical perspective, though, Mearsheimer’s pessimism appears unwarranted. If anything, the broad sweep of human history evinces a trend toward ever-larger political units that encompass wider and wider geographic and cultural spaces. Human beings, in other words, have repeatedly built new solidarities that at one time appeared impossible. Why would this process stop at the nation-state, a political form that is only 225 years old? Even if one believes a world state is an unrealistic fantasy, why is it impossible to create novel political constellations based on mutual respect and cooperation? Simply put, I am not convinced that Mearsheimer is correct to claim that human beings are congenitally unable to build regional, continental, and, perhaps, global political communities that, eventually, transcend war. While this process will no doubt be difficult and painful, there is no reason to believe it is impossible—unless you think it always is, and will forever be, the 1930s.
Our average condition is one of safety, and it is from this base that we must develop our grand strategy.
Realism’s midcentury origins also lead Mearsheimer to emphasize worst-case scenarios. This is clear in his anxiety over China’s rise, which he considers a threat to U.S. hegemony, and hence to the U.S. national interest. Beyond the fact that it seems to me profoundly unrealistic to believe Americans will indefinitely support a U.S. military presence in East Asia, it is unclear why, exactly, the emergence of another great power far from our shores threatens the United States. Indeed, a negotiated security transition in East Asia (the United States maintains approximately 375,000 personnel in its Indo-Pacific Command) would free up funds that could be used to bolster the social safety net and address domestic income inequality, two of the most pressing issues of our time. It could also make China a true stakeholder in maintaining international peace. Furthermore, there are historical reasons to be wary of worst-case scenarios. During the Cold War, the mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was necessarily an existential enemy bent on the United States’s destruction engendered costly arms races, prevented the sort of honest negotiations that could have ended the U.S.-Soviet struggle in the 1950s, and encouraged Americans to create a massive global basing system (currently about 800 bases in dozens of countries). More recently, the fear of another 9/11 led to the fruitless “War on Terror” and its many violations of civil liberties that Mearsheimer rightly deplores. This is all to say that we must not allow worst-case scenarios to determine U.S. foreign policy. In the entirety of its existence, one could argue that the United States’s survival has been urgently threatened by external forces only twice—during the War of 1812 and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Our average condition is one of safety, and it is from this base that we must develop our grand strategy.
Mearsheimer’s—and many realists’—obsession with worst-case scenarios emerges from the assumption that “most states, most of the time, follow balance-of-power logic.” This is simply not true. As manifold historians have demonstrated, decision-makers pursue policies for a diversity of reasons, whether they be ideological, economic, developmentalist, racial, gendered, or, perhaps most importantly, political. To take a famous example, Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam War not only—or even mostly—because of the “domino theory,” but because he was anxious about his political future. In retrospect, even the Cold War—the balance-of-power struggle par excellence—seems to have been mostly about the ideological fight between capitalism and communism. Ironically, Mearsheimer himself has recognized the limits of the balance of power as an explanans of state behavior, co-writing a book about the pernicious effects of the “Israel lobby” on U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, in The Great Delusion he admits that an important way to combat liberal hegemony “is to build a counter-elite that can make the case” for a heterodox approach to world affairs. By Mearsheimer’s own admission, then, the balance of power often does not explain U.S. international relations. A central category of realist thinking about geopolitics is thus undercut, which implies that the pessimism of realism might be unwarranted.
Despite its flaws, Mearsheimer’s realism provides a much better guide for making foreign policy than the one presented in Michael Walzer’s strange A Foreign Policy for the Left. Walzer, one of the most prominent political theorists of the twentieth century, unfortunately seems stuck in that era: his recommendations atavistically reflect the hopes of the “long 1990s” (1989-2001), when Americans believed they could use their awesome power to do whatever they wanted in the world.
Walzer’s understanding of foreign policy, in short, is parochial; one might even say it exists outside history.
Walzer’s primary concern is humanitarian intervention, which is a somewhat odd focus in 2018. As Samuel Moyn aptly put it in his review of A Foreign Policy for the Left, “Walzer elevates the narrow and rare problem of when to send the military to help strangers into the decisive one around which the future of American foreign policy revolves.” Walzer’s understanding of foreign policy, in short, is parochial; one might even say it exists outside history. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers have been forced to answer the question of humanitarian intervention less than a dozen times. Compare this to the fact that in 2017 alone U.S. Special Forces were deployed to 149 countries. Given these material realities, should the resurgent left be focusing its energies on humanitarian intervention or U.S. militarism?
From a biographical perspective, it is easy to see why Walzer is preoccupied with humanitarian intervention. Born to Jewish parents in New York City in 1935, Walzer’s early political development was defined by an ethical confrontation with World War II and the Holocaust. The source of his interventionism becomes obvious in A Foreign Policy for the Left when he warns that “anti-militarism . . . produced one of the worst moments in left history—the opposition of many . . . British, French, and American leftists to rearmament against Nazi Germany in the 1930s.” Similar to realists such as Mearsheimer, the bogeyman of Hitler continues to shape Walzer’s understanding of geopolitics. While leftists would be foolish to argue that a Hitler-esque figure will never again emerge, they should also not pretend that tin-pot dictators such as Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Bashar al-Assad are existential threats akin to the Nazi tyrant. The same is true for the “Islamist zealotry” against which Walzer wants to prosecute an “ideological war.” It is perhaps time for younger leftists, less traumatized by events that happened over seven decades ago, to begin asserting their voice in foreign policy discussions.
Walzer would benefit from a hefty dose of Mearsheimerian realism.
In several instances, Walzer appears not to have a full grasp of contemporary geopolitics. This becomes disappointingly clear when he claims that “a very limited (and ineffective) American intervention” in the Syrian civil war “was overwhelmed by the massive interventions of other states.” Walzer seems to be arguing that more military investment in Syria would have ended, or at least attenuated, the violence. This is twice wrong. First, the United States continuously intervened in Syria from the start by financing regime opponents, backing the actions of regional allies, and eventually arming local proxies. These policies, alongside an “Assad must go” posture and an initial refusal to include Iran in negotiations, may not have put U.S. boots on the ground, but they exacerbated the growing militarization of the conflict in ways that escalated and prolonged the bloodshed. It is difficult to see what adding U.S. troops to the maelstrom would have accomplished.
Second, and more important, Walzer’s position ignores the balance of power. As Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana have noted, the U.S belief “that with enough [military] pressure a tipping point could be reached and the Assad regime would fall . . . ignored the obvious fact that Syria’s centrality to Iranian and Russian regional security interests meant that these countries would not allow the regime to fall.” While it is true that Assad and his external backers bear the overwhelming responsibility for the violence in Syria, the U.S. decision to treat the nation as a regional chess piece without reckoning with the interests of competing states proved disastrous. Unless the United States was willing to fully commit its military to Assad’s overthrow—which was politically unlikely in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq—Iran and Russia were not going to allow it to happen. As this suggests, Walzer’s understanding of foreign policy would benefit from a hefty dose of Mearsheimerian realism.
Walzer, however, is right to criticize those American leftists who believe that “Americans will be more safe in the world and the world will be better off . . . if we concentrate on creating a just society at home.” (Though he does go too far in referring to this position as the “default”; to my knowledge, few young leftists defend isolationism.) He is also correct to argue that the United States is simply too powerful, too influential, and too embedded in the globe’s political, economic, and cultural systems to retreat from international relations. But it is unclear why leftist internationalism must center on military intervention, as opposed to, say, closing down overseas bases—a topic Walzer barely addresses and which to me seems like a pressing problem. Though Walzer honestly desires to “help people in faraway countries escape poverty and terror,” he never considers that the best means to do so is to remove a U.S. military that has repeatedly caused the very horrors he wants to assuage.
U.S. foreign policy is made by a small group of non-elected elites ensconced in executive agencies and free from public and Congressional accountability.
In spite of its significant problems, A Foreign Policy for the Left does contain several insights. Perhaps the most important is Walzer’s argument that the left should focus both on “what our own state is doing in other people’s countries” and on what “our [i.e., leftist] parties, unions, and nongovernmental organizations” should do in the world. In other words, Walzer usefully highlights the distinction between state foreign policy and what might be termed the foreign policy of civil society. Though these are related, they are not the same. In the former, the central actors are elites—analysts, experts, bureaucrats—which underlines the need for the left to develop cadre able to effectively manipulate the levers of state power should a democratic socialist government be elected. In the latter, the central actors are ordinary people who have the capacity to build transnational solidarities based on an anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, and post-capitalist politics. The question for the left is how to integrate these two types of foreign policies into a coherent program that is popular, effective, and wise—no easy task, and one to which leftists must dedicate themselves in the coming years.
Unfortunately, neither Mearsheimer nor Walzer offer recommendations for how to reform the foreign policymaking process. For both scholars, foreign policy centers on what the United States should or shouldn’t do in the world. Yet, today, several of the most important questions of foreign policy lie at home. Since at least 1945, U.S. foreign policy has been made by a small group of non-elected elites ensconced in executive agencies and free from public and Congressional accountability. In the wake of the myriad foreign policy disasters since 9/11, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Syria to Yemen, this elite has unsurprisingly lost its legitimacy. Indeed, during his primary campaign President Donald J. Trump made hay by lambasting the establishment for its many failures. And he wasn’t wrong. Given that the United States is entering a new geopolitical era defined not by unipolarity and hegemony but by multilateralism and power sharing, it might be time for Americans to rethink how U.S. foreign policy is made. How can we ensure U.S. foreign policymaking is more democratic? How can we guarantee that foreign policymakers are held to professional and legal account? These are critical questions that foreign policy thinkers, who for too long have focused on the world and not the United States, must begin to address in earnest.
If we give up on transformational politics or if we remain mired in the stale platitudes of the 1990s and 2000s, our foreign policy will continue to be defined by failure, destruction, and death.
Mearsheimer and Walzer represent two important sides of the mainstream foreign policy debate. Though at first glance they have little in common, in significant ways both are responding to the geopolitics of the 1930s and 1940s. But the world of 2018 is manifestly not the world of 1945—let alone of 1933—and it is perhaps time to develop a new geostrategy unencumbered by past traumas. While international relations are sometimes nasty and brutish, we must never assume that they always are. If we give up on transformational politics, as Mearsheimer does, and if we remain mired in the stale platitudes of the 1990s and 2000s, as Walzer is, our foreign policy will continue to be defined by failure, destruction, and death. For the sake of Americans and those living abroad, we cannot allow this to happen.
Daniel Bessner is Joff Hanauer Honors Professor of Western Civilization at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a contributing editor at Jacobin.
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