Structural Realism Has No Clothes

John Mearsheimer has for decades been among the foremost scholars of structural realism. Mearsheimer has also become a leading proponent of the school of “restraint”: the idea that the United States is overcommitted abroad and should reduce its military footprint. Mearsheimer has now given us what may prove to be his magnum opus. The Great Delusion is his effort to ground a lifetime of scholarship in the grand debates of political theory. This is a major contribution to the literature on political theory, international relations, and U.S. foreign policy.

Liberal Hegemony

Mearsheimer’s central complaint is that the United States has pursued a grand strategy of liberal hegemony, which is costly, self-defeating, and doomed to fail. Liberal hegemony aims “to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies.” Mearsheimer characterizes liberal hegemony in bold language: “In essence, the United States has sought to remake the world in its own image.” Liberal states “have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to restrain.” The United States “is likely to end up fighting endless wars.” He warns that liberal hegemony “calls for doing social engineering all across the globe.”

This is not, however, an accurate description of U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote in my book, a liberal hegemon worth the name trying to enforce liberalism and entrench American hegemony would have acted differently than the United States has since 1989. For example, the United States did not insist on the democratization of Kuwait after its liberation from Iraq in 1991. When it did intervene in Afghanistan, after 2001, it did so in response to a direct attack and made only desultory and unimpressive efforts to liberalize and rebuild the country.

The U.S. did not halt Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in Venezuela or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s in Turkey; did not halt or reverse coups against democratically elected governments in Turkey, Mali, Pakistan, Thailand, or Egypt; did not find opportunities to use the Arab Spring to advance liberalism in the Middle East; and did not invest in the reconstruction of Libya after overthrowing its government. Perhaps most damningly, it made only a paltry and ineffective effort to push for the democratization of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and did nothing to stop Putin’s reestablishment of autocracy there. At the height of its power, in 1989, the United States withdrew a quarter of its troops from East Asia and 80 percent of its military forces from Europe, cut its active-duty military personnel and its defense budget by a third, destroyed its own chemical weapons stockpile, and demobilized three-quarters of its nuclear warheads.

This is not the strategy of a crusading liberal hegemon. The United States demonstrably has not tried to do “social engineering all across the globe,” is not “addicted to war” and has no “crusader mentality.” Mearsheimer exemplifies the way in which so much of the foreign policy commentary in the past decade has fallen prey to recency bias over Iraq: because the United States’ most recent large foreign policy initiative failed, commentators read that failure backwards and forwards in history and find Iraq-like problems everywhere they look. Mearsheimer overstates the extent of American interventionism and bellicosity—sometimes dramatically—and takes into account none of the ways in which the United States has already retrenched over the past three decades.

Mearsheimer’s Nationalism

But most of this book is not a work of international relations scholarship; it is a straightforward engagement with classical issues of political theory, focusing on the relationship between liberalism, realism, and nationalism. Mearsheimer here lays his cards on the table with admirable clarity. He is a realist and a nationalist. He enjoys liberalism at home but thinks it is ruinous when used as a guide to foreign policy. The short version is that “Nationalism is more in sync with human nature than liberalism” because nationalism “satisfies individuals’ emotional need to be part of a large group with a rich tradition and a bright future.”

That nations exist and command primary allegiance over human lives is important for Mearsheimer’s overall argument. He is a realist because he believes we cannot arrive at a common understanding of the good life across cultural and national lines; we therefore band together in tribes or nations that serve as survival vehicles; and these national units compete with one another for power, wealth, and survival in an anarchic world. The nation “fundamentally shapes [people’s] identities and behavior,” he argues, elsewhere going so far as to claim that nations “help shape their essences and command their loyalties,” and that “nationalism is much like a religion.”

Despite the importance of the concept of the “nation,” Mearsheimer spends strikingly little time interrogating it. Mearsheimer seems to think that the existence of mutually distinct and internally coherent nations is too obvious to need defense or empirical demonstration. “The human population is divided into many different nations composed of people with a strong sense of group loyalty,” he says, and now that nations have acquired states, “The world is now entirely populated with sovereign nation-states.”

That is an extraordinary claim because of how much evidence there is against it. Excluding micro-sovereignties, there are almost no nation-states in the world today. Virtually every state in the world today is a pluralistic, multiethnic, multilingual polity in which questions of who or what defines membership generate intense debates. Perhaps only Japan and a few smaller European countries have the strong sense of oneness and a cultural consensus that Mearsheimer says defines nations (and Europe is in the midst of a fractious debate about immigration and national identity). Nationalism—the correspondence between nations and states—has always been more aspiration than reality, in part because of the ambiguity surrounding what exactly a “nation” is.

Nationalism is better understood as internal imperialism, the rule by a majority group over minority groups under the ruling group’s language, culture, or religion. As a nation’s definition gains specificity—as it settles on a particular language, culture, or religion—it necessarily excludes those who do not share the nation’s identity. That is why everywhere a full-bodied nationalism has actually been tried, it has rarely resulted in states that are at peace with themselves and their neighbors. Historically, nationalism has an unsettling tendency to attract racist, xenophobic, and sectarian fellow-travelers. The age of nationalism is the age of civil wars, insurgencies, terrorism, and “national” liberation movements, to say nothing of inter-national competition and war.

Mearsheimer and Liberalism

Mearsheimer is trying to use nationalism to explain and defend realism in foreign policy and explain why realism is superior to liberalism. He argues that liberal neutrality is a façade—which amounts to saying that liberalism is impossible at root. “When liberals talk about inalienable rights, they are effectively defining the good life,” despite their protestations of neutrality about the good. This is all the truer when liberalism goes abroad. When the liberal hegemon tries to foster liberalism in illiberal societies, Mearsheimer claims, it discovers that many people do not like liberalism. “Many people around the world do not privilege individual rights,” he says, “There is little evidence that most people think individual rights are inalienable or that they matter greatly in daily political life.”

Mearsheimer is content to assert this as fact without citing evidence. In fact, a 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center across 38 states across the world found 78 percent of respondents supported representative democracy, which is tightly correlated with individual rights. The poll included respondents in non-Western states like the Philippines, Turkey, and Kenya, and autocratic states like Russia. Another worldwide Pew poll in 2015 found 65 percent support for women’s rights, 74 percent support for religious freedom, and 56 percent support for the freedom of speech. Even the notoriously illiberal Middle East registered 73 percent support for religious freedom and 43 percent support for free speech.

It is, in fact, an odd time to doubt the global appeal of liberalism and democracy because the post-Cold War era is the high point of human freedom in recorded human history. Mearsheimer claims that “true Liberal democracies have never made up a majority of states in the international system.” The word “true” does a lot of work in that sentence. Freedom House estimates that 45 percent of states in the world are “free” today and another 30 percent are “partly free”—and that is after a decade of democratic decline. By another measure, Freedom House counts a majority—114 of the world’s 195 states—to be electoral democracies. There is nothing uniquely Western about not wanting to be oppressed. Liberalism is far stronger and more broadly popular than Mearsheimer grants.

Mearsheimer and American Foreign Policy

This does not impede Mearsheimer from his main purpose. Mearsheimer engages in a long commentary on the Clinton, Bush, and Obama foreign policy records in which he makes plain his disdain. He asserts that the United States “helped start” the war in Syria and “played a central role in escalating the conflict.” He repeats his famous claim that “American policymakers also played the key role in producing a major crisis with Russia over Ukraine.” He says the Bush administration created a “virtual gulag” at Guantanamo Bay. He blames the United States for interventions in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria and says the United States has waged seven wars since the Cold War (it’s unclear what or how he is counting). The only consistent thread in this list of accusations is that America is always to blame.

Mearsheimer’s engagement with the Ukraine crisis is illustrative. He argues that “Western elites were surprised by events in Ukraine because most of them have a flawed understanding of international politics.” (I was not surprised, having accurately predicted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). More importantly, he blames the United States for antagonizing Russia by expanding NATO. “Ukraine serves as an enormously important strategic buffer to Russia,” he explains. In Mearsheimer’s telling, Russia was justifiably upset by Ukraine’s tilt westward and NATO’s 2008 promise of eventual membership. In response to American policymakers’ insistence that Russia’s security perceptions are invalid, Mearsheimer replies that “It is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them.”

So do the Ukrainians, of course, who figure nowhere in Mearsheimer’s analysis. Ukraine, understandably upset by Russia’s history of aggression, was just as entitled to seek security however and wherever it could, including from the West. More importantly, Mearsheimer’s analysis of the Ukraine crisis involves a double-standard. When Russia demands a sphere of influence in Europe as part of its security, Mearsheimer accepts its demand at face value. When the United States does the same, Mearsheimer writes thousands of words explaining why American policymakers are not only mistaken, but illegitimate.

This is unsurprising because moral equivalence is at the heart of Mearsheimer’s realism. “There are no universal truths regarding what constitutes the good life,” he writes. That is why Mearsheimer is comfortable in a world of nation-states grouped around distinct cultures and competing visions of the good vying for power and wealth, without too much concern for which state has the better side of any given moral argument. (The idea that human beings act with consistent amorality is, of course, a strikingly unrealistic way of viewing politics). This leads Mearsheimer into an odd contradiction. Earlier, Mearsheimer very clearly holds up tolerance and compromise as goods. But within the framework he has advanced, he gives us no reason to prefer tolerance and compromise over their opposites. Some fascist thinkers advocated for the positive value of violence and war because, they argued, it helped foster camaraderie, unity, and national strength. If there are no universal truths about the good life, why should we value tolerance and compromise instead of violence and war?

Mearsheimer concludes by calling for greater restraint in U.S. foreign policy. Mearsheimer’s own case for restraint, which he has been making for decades, was never persuasive. But what is remarkable is that, despite decades of scholarship and change in global politics, today’s structural realists have revised or changed almost none of their views. The rise of China, the return of multipolarity, and the emergence of cyberspace and artificial intelligence have caused Mearsheimer to revisit or update none of his conclusions. After the Cold War the United States cut its military and diplomatic budget and personnel and withdrew most of the troops it had stationed overseas—yet Mearsheimer continues to call for more retrenchment. It is unclear just how far the United States should retrench to satisfy Mearsheimer and his fellow structural realists.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that The Great Delusion is a poorly argued polemic against U.S. foreign policy that takes little note of empirical data and misrepresents its critics. Students of international relations may be forgiven for fearing that structural realism has deteriorated from a viable research program into an intellectual straightjacket. The field deserves better.


Capitol Storm Clouds

A War of Ideas?

Rather than focus on what set of ideas America must revive or reject, we might focus instead on the concrete realities which define our political life.