John J. Mearsheimer is one of the most important and influential international relations scholars in the world. Last September, he published The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale Press University), which generated a great debate in the United States. The Financial Times has included it among the most important works of 2018. According to Mearsheimer, liberal hegemony, the foreign policy pursued by the United States since the Cold War ended, is doomed to fail. This is due to a distorted view of international politics. Here, Mearsheimer talks about his latest work, the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and the future of the European Union.
Roberto Vivaldelli: The Great Delusion reflects on the foreign policy adopted by the United States from the end of the Cold War to today. In the book, you explain how liberal hegemony was a huge disappointment. What led the United States to embrace this deeply ambitious strategy?
John J. Mearsheimer: There were a variety of factors that led the United States to pursue liberal hegemony. First, the coming of unipolarity meant that the United States did not have any great power rivals, because the United States was by definition the only great power in the system. Given its tremendous power, the United States did not have to engage in balance-of-power politics. It did not have to act according to the dictates of realism, and thus it was free to pursue an ideological foreign policy. That was not possible in either a bipolar system, like we had during the Cold War, or in the multipolar world that we are now moving into. Unipolarity, in short, enabled the United States to pursue liberal hegemony.
Second, the United States is a profoundly liberal country that believes liberal democracy is the best possible political regime and that if all the countries on the planet were liberal democracies, the world would be a much better place for everyone. That kind of thinking provided a powerful impetus to go on a crusade to spread liberal democracy across the globe.
Third, the United States and its West European allies thought that it would be quite easy to spread liberal democracy, because they believed that people who lived in authoritarian states wanted to live in a liberal democracy instead. Thus, once an authoritarian leader like Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, it would be easy to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy. In short, the United States was quick to adopt liberal hegemony because it was extremely powerful, and at the same time it was convinced that it would be easy to spread liberal democracy, which was the panacea to many of the world’s biggest problems.
RV: Has the American foreign policy elite become aware of the mistakes made over the past 30 years?
JJM: There is little doubt that most people in the American foreign policy establishment understand that liberal hegemony has been a failure. There is simply too much evidence of failure to defend that policy. Just look at all the murder and mayhem the United States has helped create in the greater Middle East. It is truly stunning how little success the United States has had at spreading liberal democracy into that region. Furthermore, almost everyone recognizes that “engagement” with China has failed, and that although the expansion of NATO and the EU had some initial successes, it ran into a brick wall in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. The result is poisonous relations between Russia and the West. It is also important to emphasize that when Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he constantly emphasized the failings of liberal hegemony. And he won the election! Whether the foreign policy elite learns the right lessons from its past mistakes is another matter.
RV: You argue that liberal democracy is the best form of government but liberalism in foreign policy is dangerous. Why?
JJM: I emphasized in The Great Delusion that I think liberal democracy is the best type of political system in the world and that I am very thankful that I was born and raised in the United States. Nevertheless, I think liberalism as a political system and liberalism as a foreign policy are two different things. A foreign policy like liberal hegemony is bound to fail because it invariably runs up against nationalism and realism, which are much more powerful forces than liberalism.
For example, nationalism is an ideology that privileges the concepts of self-determination and sovereignty. Nation-states—and we live in a world filled with nation-states—do not like the idea of other countries interfering in their domestic politics. Just think about how angry Americans get when they hear that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Liberal hegemony, however, calls for the United States to interfere in the politics of countries all over the planet. It calls for the US to do social engineering on a grand scale, to include invading and conquering countries if necessary. This policy is sure to generate resentment and resistance that will ultimately undermine it. And for realist reasons, Russia will resist NATO expansion. I might add that liberal hegemony is bad for liberal democracy on the home front. Specifically, that highly ambitious policy leads to endless wars and the building of an increasingly powerful “national security state,” which is sure to undermine civil liberties inside the United States.
RV: The emergence of China and the reawakening of Russia will lead the United States to return to realism?
JJM: The rise of China and the revival of Russian power in recent years have put an end to the “unipolar moment,” and led to the emergence of a multipolar word. This means that realism has returned and that China, Russia, and the United States will have to compete with each other for power. It also means that liberal hegemony is effectively finished as a grand strategy, since the United States is no longer free to pursue an ideologically based grand strategy. It now has to focus on balance-of-power politics instead.
RV: Kenneth N. Waltz argued in Theory of International Politics that the transition from a multipolar to bipolar order favored European integration. In 1990, you wrote Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War. Europe’s future will be in the name of greater integration or probable disintegration?
JJM: I do not think that the future of European integration, which really means the future of the EU, will have much to do with the present shift from unipolarity to multipolarity. I believe that the EU is in trouble and that the situation is likely to get worse, not better, over time. Part of the problem is the euro, which does not work well without fiscal and political integration—and that is not going to happen.
Another aspect of the problem is the free movement of peoples within the EU, which tends to stoke nationalism. Brexit, for example, was caused in good part by British unhappiness over the large number of East Europeans who had moved to Britain. And if there is another flood of refugees into Europe, that will cause enormous trouble. Many Europeans also feel that their countries have surrendered too much authority or sovereignty to Brussels, which is not accountable to the electorates in the various European countries. In essence, there is a “democratic deficit,” which generates hostility toward the EU, especially when it is not performing well economically. I don’t think the EU is going to disintegrate, but it is in real trouble and there do not appear to be many workable solutions on the table.
RV: Is Teheran a direct threat to the United States as many liberal and neocon claim?
JJM: Iran is not a direct threat to the United States. It is not even an indirect threat to the United States. First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and it has signed an agreement with the world’s major powers that makes it impossible for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Second, Iran does not have missiles that can strike the U.S. homeland. Third, Iran has weak conventional forces, which cannot be used against the United States or any country in the Middle East that is under the American security umbrella. Fourth, Iran is not a serious threat to attack another country in its region. It has not launched a war against another country even once in modern times, and there is no evidence that it is now preparing to take the offensive against any of its neighbors. Fifth, Iran is not the source of America’s terrorism problem. To the extent that any one country deserves that title, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.
The truth is that it is the United States that is a direct threat to Iran, not the other way around. The Trump administration, with much prompting from Israel and Saudi Arabia, has its gunsights on Iran. The aim is regime change, and there is much evidence that the United States might use military force to achieve that goal.