A profound understanding of American foreign policy depends upon a thorough and a rigorous theoretical understanding of the ideology that stimulates and determines it. Liberalism claims that spreading liberal democracy across the world can be accomplished through an open international economy and international institutions that promote peace in the international system. Throughout his mainly theoretical contribution, John Mearsheimer argues that on the contrary, liberal democracy harms the U.S. and the international system. For him, liberal democracy leads America to become a highly militarized state fighting unceasing wars. In his preface, Mearsheimer maintains that since 1989 American foreign policy, or what he calls “liberal hegemony,” has been destined to fail. He proposes that we can understand this failure by considering the interactions between liberalism, nationalism and realism, and how they affect international politics. Accordingly, Mearsheimer posits that assessing the relations between these “isms” provides the best pattern for illuminating the failure of American foreign policy.
In the first chapter, “The Impossible Dream,” Mearsheimer addresses two questions related to human nature. First, are humans social beings? Or does it make more sense to emphasize their individuality? Second, can human intellect reach a moral consensus on what constitutes a good life? As a realist, Mearsheimer believes that humans are profoundly social beings. He also refutes the idea of a universal truth concerning what defines a good life. Liberalism, however, treats humans as atomistic actors, and emphasises the impossibility of reaching a universal consensus on what constitutes a good life. For him, realism and nationalism are in sync with human nature, and that is the main reason why they always trump liberalism when they clash. This means that nationalism and liberalism can coexist, but when they encounter each other, nationalism wins. Furthermore, Mearsheimer argues that thinking in absolutist terms makes it more difficult to promote tolerance and compromise, and the condition gets worse on the IR level. Therefore, Mearsheimer asserts that if people were moral relativists, this would make the world more peaceful. Acknowledging this fact leads social groups to discover the significance of survival as the main drive for humankind to operate naturally in social groups. This is why Mearsheimer believes that social groups are a survival vehicle, as he expounds in the second chapter, “Human Nature and Politics.”
In the third chapter, “Political Liberalism,” Mearsheimer distinguishes between modus vivendi liberalism and progressive liberalism. Among other things, they differ in the contents of individual rights and the role of the state in maintaining public order. He demonstrates how modus vivendi liberals assert negative rights, which involve for the individuals the freedom to act without the interference of the state, since they have less confidence in it. Progressive liberals believe in positive rights, such as the right to a decent education, so they are interested in an interventionist state that impacts civil society intensively as a “night watchman.” In the early 19th century, thanks to several factors such as improvement in communications, progressive liberalism won out against modus vivendi liberalism, which increased the government’s ability to engage in social engineering.
In chapter four, “Cracks in the Liberal Edifice,” Mearsheimer reminds us of several shortcomings of political liberalism. For him, the most significant one is the radical emphasis on individualism. For Mearsheimer, liberalism ignores the fact that individuals are born into collectivities that shape their behavior and identities; the essential functions of a nation are not only to facilitate survival of its members but also to fulfill their psychological needs, thus enabling people to cooperate effectively in maximizing their security and basic requirements. For these reasons, Mearsheimer states that nations are more than survival vehicles. This argument indicates that nationalism is more powerful than liberalism and the latter has always operated in the context of the former.
What happens when a powerful state adopts liberalism as its foreign policy? The fifth chapter, “Liberalism Goes Abroad,” addresses this question. Mearsheimer claims that liberalism functions well inside states; nevertheless, he acknowledges that it cannot provide a sound basis for a state’s foreign policy –it even becomes a source for trouble as it is extremely interventionist regarding regime change and the use of social engineering to transform the state, at times even by military force. The interventionist policy of liberal democracy contradicts the core principles of nationalism, in which people highly favor self-determination. Hence, it is impossible that a state would voluntarily give up its will to liberal democracy, which also speaks of the triumph of nationalism over liberalism. In the following chapter, “Liberalism as a Source of Trouble,” Mearsheimer reaffirms that when a state pursues liberal democracy as a foreign policy, it harms not only the fabric of liberalism inside its own borders, but also creates greater destruction and instability, antagonizing the major powers. It even damages the countries that are intended to be helped. For example, Mearsheimer demonstrates how U.S. foreign policy failed in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Middle East. He describes the failures in the Middle East by stating that “Washington’s performance in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria has been dismal. Not only has the United States failed to protect human rights and promote liberal democracy in those countries, it has played a major role in spreading death and disorder across the greater Middle East” (p. 168).
In the seventh chapter, “Liberal Theories of Peace,” Mearsheimer scrutinizes three liberal theories of international politics, namely, democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory, and liberal institutionalism. Democratic peace theory assumes that wars never take place between two democracies. Mearsheimer however shows, for instance, that in the modern era, this deemed-impossible-eventuality has taken place at least four times: Germany’s fight during World War I against Britain, France, Italy, and the U.S. In the last chapter, “The Case for Restraint,” Mearsheimer suggests solutions for the failure of U.S. foreign policy. He recommends that the U.S. should jettison its liberal hegemony, since liberals know no limits in using power, which ultimately causes the U.S. endless military loses. Furthermore, he insists that the U.S. should adopt a restrained foreign policy based on a deep understanding of nationalism. To accomplish these tasks, he emphasizes such tasks as building a counter-elite to contribute to a realist-based foreign policy.
Mearsheimer’s book is a remarkable effort in international politics; however, he presents liberalism as good doctrine with a decent intention. Yet it is questionable whether liberalism’s actual objective is to promote peace in the world. Furthermore, although Mearsheimer has insightful critics for liberal democracy, paradoxically he considers himself fortunate to be born and to live in liberal state. He even claims that, “liberal democracy is the best political order” (p. 218). Lastly, Mearsheimer takes it for granted that the three liberal theories of peace are the core of liberalism, which is also debatable. Still, Mearsheimer provides solid and comprehensive arguments in criticizing liberalism, especially in chapters 4, 5, and 6.
Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, which basically lie in the last two chapters, Mearsheimer’s book is superb, a very informative and well-argued critique of liberalism and especially liberal democracy, and an excellent description of how it failed in the past and why it will fail in the future. Great Delusion is thus highly recommended for experts and students in political theory, political science and international relations. This book functions as an exceedingly effective theoretical framework for anyone who wishes to be involved in an insightful critical discussion, not only on American foreign policy, but also on liberal democracy.