From the bookshelf: ‘The great delusion: liberal dreams and international realities’
8 Jul 2019|

Policymakers are generally uninterested in, if not actively contemptuous of, the scribblings of academics. There have, of course, been some notable exceptions to this general pattern, and even some individuals who managed to be both. Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski spring to mind. The other thing Kissinger and Brzezinski had in common was that they were both ‘realists’, the one conceptual paradigm that has exerted a powerful influence on policymakers—whether they know it or not.

John Mearsheimer is probably the most influential realist in the world today. The great delusion demonstrates why: punchy, clearly written prose and a compelling argument. It’s one of the most important contributions to scholarly international relations literature. It’s also one of the most depressing for someone of my philosophical and psychological disposition, not least because its trenchantly argued central thesis looks all-too-plausible.

People familiar with Mearsheimer’s work—and anyone reading this probably is—will recognise some familiar themes in this volume. The international system is ‘anarchical’, always will be, and ‘great powers have little choice but to act according to realist dictates’. Realists have nothing but disdain for the lesser lights of the international order, and not just failed or micro states either: ‘middle powers’ don’t rate even a mention in a world governed by Mearsheimer’s realist principles.

There are, however, two major claims in this book that policymakers in Canberra—and everywhere else for that matter—would do well to chew over, even if their subsequent actions are unlikely to have any material impact on international outcomes.

First, and perhaps most comfortingly for Australia’s strategic elites, the United States really ought to stand up to China, Mearsheimer contends. Indeed, the US ‘will have no choice but to adopt a realist foreign policy, simply because it must prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia’.

This is a theme first outlined in Mearsheimer’s previous opus, The tragedy of great power politics. Anticipating the much-discussed ‘Thucydides trap’, Mearsheimer argued that not only is conflict with China more or less inevitable, but that all American policymakers can do is to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning by slowing down China’s economic ascent. In the realist universe, rich countries buy more bombs as that’s ultimately what counts in deciding which country calls the literal and metaphorical shots.

It’s doubtful that US President Donald Trump has read any of Mearsheimer’s work but I’d be surprised if at least some of his rapidly changing cast of advisers haven’t. It helps to explain the current zero-sum approach to trade disputes, after all. It may also help to explain the Trump administration’s equally disdainful attitude towards international institutions.

The feeble and ineffective nature of international institutions is another prominent feature of the Mearsheimian world view, and it gets a sustained airing in the current volume. Interestingly, however, Mearsheimer takes this argument one important step further and claims that misconceived liberal idealism (rather than realism) is actually the cause of many of the world’s current problems. On the one hand, this is because liberal idealism is delusional bunkum at best, outright hypocrisy at worst: ‘No liberal state has ever shown serious interest in helping other states to gain economic advantages at its expense just to fight global injustice, and there is little reason to think any ever will.’

On the other hand, the attempt to impose justice, encourage liberal values, democracy and all the rest of it is not just a recipe for ‘doing more harm than good’ (think Iraq), but even more worryingly ‘once unleashed on the world stage, a liberal unipole soon becomes addicted to war.’ While it’s certainly true that the US has been at war for over 90% of the time since its inception, this is not necessarily because it’s been a champion of liberalism.

On the contrary, the US has a history of supporting some fairly loathsome regimes who are decidedly illiberal—the Trump administration’s infatuation with Saudi Arabia being the most indefensible contemporary case in point. But Mearsheimer may be right in thinking that this reflects a fairly hard-nosed calculation of the national interest, even if he is wrong about the construction of more achievable ‘realistic’ foreign policy ambitions as a consequence. For better or worse, the Trump administration has demonstrated a continuing willingness to ‘engage’ with the world, albeit erratically and without any obvious overarching strategy or goal other than ‘America first’.

As Mearsheimer rather mournfully concedes, ‘realism does not inspire a hopeful outlook for the future.’ There will be little disagreement on that score, at least. Realists would argue that it’s their job and responsibility to ‘tell it like it is’ and wrestle with problems their delusional liberal counterparts would rather ignore or pretend they can address. Looking around today’s world, with its catalogue of ineffective institutions, rising authoritarian powers, failing democracies and international flashpoints, one can see his point.

The great crisis that Mearsheimer entirely neglects to mention, though, is the one problem that absolutely necessitates collective action and cooperation on an unimaginable and unprecedented scale.

I refer, of course, to climate change. Realists are probably right about the chances of doing anything about that, too, but they could at least have the intellectual honesty to tell us where we’re all headed if we continue to put ‘realistic’ national interests ahead of all others. Perhaps they should re-read Hobbes; no one does well out of a war of all against all. The great delusion is a book for the ages. If its central thesis is accurate, though, there may not be future ages to appreciate it.