Liberalism as a Source of Trouble

Crop of Book Cover for The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

I first discovered John Mearsheimer’s work in 2014 when he published a courageous article in Foreign Affairs on why the Ukraine crisis was the West’s fault. The blame could not be laid at Putin’s doorstep. From Mearsheimer’s realist political perspective, you had to be pretty dumb to imagine that Putin would permit NATO ships to dock at Sevastopol in the Crimea or wrench the Ukraine into the Euro-NATO orbit. Anyone who has two brain cells to rub together can figure out that Russia would not tolerate such developments. And it didn’t!

The Mueller report did not find any evidence, either, of Russian meddling in the US election of 2016. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but the lifting of dense fog around Russia and the Ukraine, Russian meddling and far-fetched ideas (espoused by the likes of Canada’s luny Russophobe Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland) that Russia desires to restore the old Soviet Empire can be cast in the malevolent bin of truth decay. Can truth be just over the horizon? Well, maybe not yet! Most thinkers these days imagine that Armageddon will arrive before we reach the land of shining truth.

Mearsheimer, who is a prominent US political theorist from the University of Chicago, had the guts to challenge the massive propaganda masking the US engineering of the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government. Now, in his new book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018), Mearsheimer displays the same moxie as he dissembles the “liberal hegemonic” futilities of US foreign policy. The title of my article, “Liberalism as a source of trouble,” is the title of chapter six in his book. The book surprised me. I didn’t think it possible that a mainstream political theorist from America could take a cold, hard look at his own county’s repugnant actions on foreign soil. So let me extract some of his provocative ideas for CP readers.

His basic question is a fascinating one: “What happens when a country that is deeply committed to individual rights and doing social engineering to promote those rights employs that template in the wider world?” (p. 120). The answer: “That formidable state will end up embracing liberal hegemony, a highly interventionist foreign policy that involves fighting wars and doing significant social engineering in countries throughout the world” (ibid.). The liberal hegemonic framework, fueled by America’s missionary religious impulses and an over-bearing hubris, permits the US to forgo international law to topple any regime deemed authoritarian and worthy of American tutorials in how to create an open economy and liberal democratic institutions. Sounds good? Well, for Mearsheimer the US  ends up invading countries (lots of them) and destroying the very goals they espouse publicly. This paradoxical outcome undermines the liberal hope that toppling authoritarian regimes like Iraq can lead to a more peaceful world. It hasn’t. Every invaded country is a bloody, shameful mess. Does the world look more peaceful to you?

Liberal hegemony carries a heavy burden. Once a country decides to fight to protect human rights and spread democracy around the world, a “liberal unipole becomes addicted to war” (p. 152). Once addicted—and who can doubt that the US military-industrial complex needs a constant fix—the globe provides a vast mission field and opportunities to fight. The righteous policy-makers (even if this righteousness is vitriolic) believe they have the right, responsibility and knowledge to use military force to achieve their goals. Pursuing liberal hegemony, however, negates diplomacy, making it harder to settle disputes with other countries peacefully and undermines the notion of sovereignty—a  “core norm that is intended to limit interstate war” (p. 152). Only recently the US has “given” the Golan Heights to the egregious state of Israel and “chosen” the reprehensible puppet Juan Guaido as “president” of Venezuela. The Syrian ambassador to the UN wondered whether the US might also give Israel North and South Carolina as well.

Beware of liberal democracy at work beyond its own national borders. Mearsheimer says that the liberal elites refuse to “learn from their failings and become averse to using military force abroad, but that seldom happens” (ibid.). Rather, the liberal hegemonic project stirs up conflict, fosters instability, fails and leaves the invaded state in trouble. The elites always think they know what is best for a particular country. They disregard the authoritarian country’s interests. They don’t bother even talking to the leaders. Diplomacy is out; military action is in. Fighting is always better than talking. The US constantly pressures other nation-states, even a nuclear power like Russia, to accept their agenda. Now, the US government is hysterically shouting out that Russian troops (there are now 100 military advisers based on a co-operative agreement made in Venezuela in 2001) should leave the US’s backyard. Bolton’s bombast is burning brightly. “Hey, Russian goons, stay away from our territory!

Mearsheimer observes that, the Clinton administration in 1992 embraced liberal hegemony from the start. The policy, he argues, “remained through firmly intact through the Bush and Obama administrations” (p. 153). What have been the results? During this period the US has been involved in “numerous wars” and “has failed to achieve meaningful success in almost all of these conflicts” (ibid.).  First, Washington has played the “central role in destabilizing the Middle East, to the great detriment of the people living there.” Second, Britain has to share the blame “for the trouble the US has helped cause.” Thirdly, “American policymakers also played the key role in producing a major crisis with Russia over Ukraine.” Fourth, “Back in the US., America’s civil liberties have been eroded by an increasingly powerful national security state” (ibid).

The “great delusion” of America, according to Mearsheimer, is that America can only be “secure ”when, as Dean Rusk once said, the “total international environment is ideologically safe” (p. 154). Now, Washington can go to war under several pretenses: to impose liberal democracy and a neo-liberal economy on all sovereign nation-states and to protect various victims of alleged human rights abuses. Let it be clear, though, that invasion to protect is a selective strategy. For Mearsheimer, Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 is the “best example of liberal interventionism” (p. 155).

Bush and his gang were supremely deluded: they would defeat al-Qaeda and then Iran, Iraq and Syria. And who knows where else. They thought that the best way to deal with terrorism was to “turn all countries in the Middle East into liberal democracies” (ibid.). A “great zone of peace” would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of burnt corpses and shattered lives. Peace would arrive! Calm elections would occur! Starbucks on every corner!

The great delusion of US foreign policy is that it is possible to function as a de factoform of world government. Mearsheimer thinks that this delusory, perhaps insane, project presses the liberal hegemonists to develop “deep-seated antipathy toward illiberal states” (p. 157). The unipolar state is disinclined to diplomacy. It demands full surrender. One cannot compromise with evil. This form of Manichean mythology, embedded in right-wing Christian Zionism, has horrible consequences. For me, the unipolar state acts too much like the moth drawn inexorably to the flame.

Liberal hegemony undermines sovereignty. As Mearsheimer puts it, “Respect for sovereignty is the most significant norm in international politics, and its purpose is to minimize war and facilitate peaceful relations among states” (p. 158). This means, fundamentally, that nation-states have the “ultimate authority” over events inside one’s borders and that “foreign powers have no right to interfere in their politics” (p. 159). The cornerstone of international law, sovereignty, means that “countries are not supposed to invade each other, at least not without permission from the UN Security Council” (ibid.).

Mearsheimer claims that norms have little impact on state behaviour. While I don’t agree with his forlorn realism completely, he says that the norm of sovereignty was eroding by the mid-1990s, “mainly because the US took to interfering in the politics of other countries even more than it had in the past” (p. 160). He states bluntly: “Liberalism, of course, is all about meddling in other countries’ politics, whether the aim is protecting the rights of foreigners or seeking to spread liberal democracy” (ibid.). The US has led the crusade against sovereignty. For Mearsheimer, this means that the “erosion of sovereignty is one more reason a powerful state with a liberal foreign policy ends up fighting never ending wars and fostering militarism at home” (pp. 161-2). Ironically, the US liberal hegemony espouses peace-making and democracy-gifting goals, but ends up creating great instability in the global system. The US actions are more chaotic and unpredictable than ever.

The US unipolar state can’t keep out of other people’s business. They don’t invade powerful states. But they antagonize their target states like Russia by interfering in their internal affairs through using civil society institutions, CIA-fronted organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, sanctioning business persons and particular industries, mucking around trying to disrupt trade relations with Europe and elsewhere, hammering away at alleged human rights violations. This mucking around activity is topped off with a relentless anti-Russia propaganda game and endless insults from leaders. The US has also promoted “colour revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine to turn them into subservient liberal democracies.

Mearsheimer also takes us on grim trip through the US’s devastation in the Middle East. He states: “Washington’s performance in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria has been dismal” (p. 168). It “has played a major role in spreading death and disorder across the greater Middle East.” Incentive to acquire nuclear weapons has “increased in the face of America’s policy of forcible regime change” (ibid.). Consider Gaddafi: Mearsheimer says he would still be around if Libya had nukes. Beware North Korea! Give up your nukes and the conquistadors will be at your doorstep.

All of this intervention and interference in other country’s affairs has been driven by persons who knew little about the countries they were invading. The US invaders also knew little about the factions making up the country, and how a US invasion would set them against each other. Perhaps they didn’t even fully realize that in the age of nationalism, “occupation almost always breeds an insurgency, as the US discovered in the Philippines, and later in Viet Nam” (p. 169).

Final irony: “States that promote liberal hegemony invariably damage the fabric of liberalism inside their own borders” (p. 179).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.