Noted political science theorist and University professor John J. Mearsheimer sat down with fellow political science professor Jennifer Pitts at the Seminary Co-op on Tuesday evening last week to discuss his latest book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.
Pitts opened the discussion with the darkly ironic observation that nationalism was reasserting itself as a powerful ideology, against the backdrop of the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI just the day before. Mearsheimer then stressed the important change in the dynamic of international relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, as the world transformed from a bipolar world balanced between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to a unipolar world dominated by the U.S. For the first time in modern history, there was a single global hegemon.
“Godzilla was a liberal democracy,” Mearsheimer noted, “with a crusading impulse hardwired in it to remake the world in its image.”
Mearsheimer is a leading proponent of structural realist theory in international relations, which treats states as black boxes acting according to the strategic structural imperatives of great power politics rather than ideology. “In a realist world, the name of the game is to be the most powerful state in your region of the world,” Mearsheimer explained. This contrasts with liberalism, which focuses on creating stability through international institutions and economic interdependence. The “universalistic” impulse of liberal ideology after the Cold War sought to create a more peaceful world through the spread of liberal democracies (by force if necessary) and integration into institutions and global markets.
Mearsheimer’s description of the liberalist approach as “peace, love, and dough from then on out” prompted chuckles from the audience, many of whom were forced to stand in the back. The appeal of liberalism continues, according to him, because it allows the West to believe themselves the “good guys,” while in realist theory there is just the tragedy of great power politics.
The “Great Delusion” of the book’s title refers to the failure of policy based on liberal ideology, as the rise of China and resurgence of Russia have hastened the end of American global hegemony. Mearsheimer believes that optimistic liberal thinking about engaging with the Middle East through economic and institutional integration to tame terrorism and nuclear proliferation has backfired. Although well-intentioned, the result has been a “staggering” amount of death and destruction in the region due to “misguided America thinking it’s easy to spread liberal democracy and that we’ll live happily ever after.” Similarly misplaced intentions of liberal integration with EU and NATO expansion into former Soviet states in Eastern Europe have created serious friction with Russia, as predicted by realist thought.
Pitts pushed back against Mearsheimer for equating the liberal rhetoric of democracy-promotion with actual policy, pointing to the many foreign policy initiatives cloaked in the language of liberalism with ulterior motives. She spoke in particular about the war in Iraq, where the promotion of democracy was a secondary justification, with no concrete action to back it up. Later questions from the audience also questioned whether the failure to integrate Russia into the West was due to an absence of liberal policy rather than an excess.
Mearsheimer concluded that, as a theory, realism cannot account for everything that could happen but argued that it succeeds 75 percent of the time, which is better than the alternative.