The title of this article has been amended to more accurately reflect the views expressed.
John Mearsheimer is an American International relations scholar, most notable for his theory of offensive neorealism. He is currently promoting his new book ‘The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International realities’.
What is your new book about?
Basically, this is a book about American foreign policy since the Cold War ended. What I’m trying to do is figure out why the US has performed so poorly in the foreign policy front since the end of the Cold War and particularly since 9/11. It has been one disaster after another. One of the principle problems, and not the only one by any means, is that Donald Trump is in the White House – there is this huge dissatisfaction, not only on domestic policy but foreign policy.
The basic argument is that the US adopted a policy of liberal hegemony after the Cold War which is all about remaking the world in America’s image. The principle goal is to spread democracy all over the planet. But there are two other goals – one is to incorporate all the states in the system, especially the major powers into the open international economy, get them hooked on capitalism with economic incentives. The other is to embed countries all around the word into the institutions created after the Second World War like the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization.so those are the basic goals
“My argument is that this is a remarkably foolish foreign policy and it was destined to blow up in their face, which it did.”
What are the main arguments and how does it differ from your other claims?
If you look at the question of why we failed, my basic argument is a story about 3 isms – liberalism, nationalism and realism. And obviously liberal hegemony as a foreign policy is highly ambitious. And my argument in a nutshell, liberal ultimately ends up running up against nationalism and realism, which are much more powerful forces than liberalism, which in effect defeats liberalism.
Tragedy is really all about realism. It’s a theory on realism. I talk a little bit about liberalism and nothing about nationalism. But this is a bigger book, and it takes my realist theory and embeds it into a bigger argument about realism, nationalism and realism.
What would a more realist American position look like within this liberal order and is it destined to implode on itself?
Yes, I think that American foreign policy and the liberal order that we created, created the seeds of its own destruction and that in part led to Donald Trump.
But there’s a second dimension to this, and that is with the rise of China and the resurrection of Russia, we have moved from a unipolar world in which the United States really dominated the stage and was in apposition to reshape the world to one where the US must compete against China. That order which we created is no longer revenant in the multipolar world that we’re entering. Again, for two reasons, one because we are in a world containing the seeds of its own destruction, but two, because of the rise of China and the resurrection of Russian power. The structure of the international order has changed.
You argue that liberalism created the seeds of its own destruction, and of Donald Trump. Could you expand on that?
Liberal hegemony calls for turning all the countries into liberal democracies. With a powerful country like the US, it is tempted to use its military to facilitate that. The Bush doctrine which was designed to spread liberal democracy all over the Middle East, ultimately ended up with us fighting wars. And by us, I not only mean the United States, but also Britain, who have been our sidekicks ever since. So, the US and its friends started wars that were designed to promote democracy. And it failed. It was an utter failure. The amount of murder is mayhem we have created in the greater Middle East is stunning.
On the economic front, the US and its allies pushed very hard to create a hyper globalized system starting in the late 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s and the idea was to let capital flow with few restrictions to emphasize the importance of international institutions and give them a lot of authority. And the result of this is that we got a tremendous amount of wealth generation which went to the upper 5% and the middle and working classes were left out and this resulted in Donald Trump.
Another significant problem with the liberal international order, there was a very high premium based on porous borders. Europe was also a very tolerant policy towards refugees. This is very admirable, but the problem is we live in a world of nation states which have cultures. And people in these nation states get very upset when large numbers of refugees come in. We saw this in Germany. Or when you have free flow of people inside an institution like the European Union. we’ve created this dissatisfaction in Britain and the US with the liberal international order and a liberal foreign policy. But they are the two paradigmatic liberal states. And the result is that they did a great damage to themselves. It is quite remarkable!
The leaders in these liberal democracies did not have a health appreciation of the power of nationalism and realism. When you invade a country like Iraq, you are asking for big trouble, as they believe in sovereignty and self-determination. And the Americans complain bitterly about the Russians interfering in their elections – “This a violation of sovereignty!” But of course, the US goes all over the world and interferes in every country in the planet.
As my mother taught me when I was a little boy, what is good for the goose, is also good for the gander.
And how do you perceive realism in the UK? Especially regarding Brexit.
What happened with Brexit is nothing to do with realism. This is the power of nationalism at play. The two reasons people voted for Brexit was one that too much sovereignty had been surrendered to Brussels especially on the economic front and also to do with immigration. I believe that Britain and the members of the EU, did not surrender sovereignty, they gave up authority to Brussels to make decisions. So, the fact that Britain is leaving the EU is an example of realist sovereignty still alive. This tells you that nationalism is still alive and well. This tells me that the EU is one of the most successful institutions in the world. But the EU is still a collection of nation states.
What is the role of international institutions going forward?
In the US we have a president that hates international institutions. He’s never seen one that he didn’t hate. But there is no way that countries can operate in this highly interdependent world like the one we live in without lots of institutions. And we now have and will continue to have formidable institutions. The key issue for the future is what do these institutions look like and who wields the power. In the unipolar world when the US was Godzilla, it had tremendous influence in those institutions, but moving forward, the situation appears to be changing with the rise of China and the resurrection of Russia. The US will have less influence, and the Chinese will have more for sure. There will be changes in the kinds of institutions, and the distribution of power. But they will be a set of powerful institutions as they will have to serve international politics and international economics.
Within the American school of IR theory, your view is in a minority position, do you see it gaining some credibility among students and professors?
Both in the US and Britain, hostility to realism is great. I sometimes refer to Britain as a realist free zone. The argument I would make, during the unipolar moment, which ran from 1990 – 2016, you could not have great power politics because there was only one great power. And the essence of realism is great power politics and the system. So, realism didn’t stand much of a chance. It was easy for its adversaries to beat it up. Inside the foreign policy establishment inside the US is that we have left unipolarity behind and we are moving into a multipolar world. Almost everybody in the security realm believes that we are now entering great power competition, and now realism is relevant in a serious way again. It must be a big comeback!
If you could have dinner with one intellectual, dead or alive, who would it be?
Thomas Hobbes – he’s the father of realism. As Marx said, “Hobbes is the father of us all.” Though Marx himself would also be very interesting, and I’d like to get his insight on events today.
If you could be famous outside of academia, what would you be famous for?
I have zero musical talent! The three things I was never any good at were dancing, foreign languages, and singing. Maybe comedy? With my New York accent, I could rebrand as the Robin Williams of realism.
If you could bring one US President back from the dead, who would it be?
Abraham Lincoln. The US was lucky to have Lincoln as the president during the Civil War – he was the most able president the US has ever had. However, bringing any president back from the dead would probably benefit the current administration. People often misinterpret realism and assume that it argues that the individual has no role in international politics. The structure of the international system is the most important determinate of behaviour, but leaders do matter.