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  • The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John J. Mearsheimer
  • Jude P. Dougherty
MEARSHEIMER, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018. xi + 313 pp.

John J. Mearsheimer is a political theorist and international relations scholar who holds the Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professorship at the University of Chicago. The book is an indictment of post-Cold War United States foreign policy.

Mearsheimer tells us, “When I began this book ten years ago, I was interested in why United States foreign policy in the post-Cold War period was so prone to failure. I was especially interested in explaining America’s fiascoes in the greater Middle East.” He finds that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. adopted a profoundly liberal foreign policy dedicated to turning as many countries as possible into liberal democracies, that is, [End Page 609] to remake the world in its own image. It was driven by an idealistic assumption: “The freedom we prize is not for us alone but is the right of all mankind.” Unfortunately, in implementing that policy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Washington has played a key role in sowing death and destruction throughout the Middle East. Far from promoting cooperation and peace, liberal policy has brought instability and conflict.

Exploring the foundations of liberalism, Mearsheimer contrasts liberalism and its assumptions with what he calls nationalism, the recognition that there are nations each with its own culture. First principles are important. It matters how one understands nature and human nature. Rhetorically, he asks, “Are men and women social beings above all else, or does it make more sense to emphasize their individuality? Nation states, [he answers,] reflect the fact that human beings are primarily social beings who have fundamental views on what constitutes the good life. Liberalism plays down that social nature to the point of almost ignoring it by treating individuals as atomistic players.” Furthermore, liberals ignore the geographic element, which creates a social milieu that is foreign to others.

Jeremy Bentham may have called natural rights “rhetorical nonsense,” but nationalists, embracing the concept of “natural rights,” are skeptical of positive rights, which can be both conferred and taken away by a rudderless state. Nationalists, perhaps better called realists, maintain that the state should involve itself as little as possible in personal and family life. In common, they resist government attempts at social engineering in contrast to the liberal propensity to do so.

Mearsheimer presents himself as personally committed to liberal democracy. He writes, “I define democracy as a form of government with a broad foundation in which citizens get to choose their leaders in periodic elections. Those leaders then write and implement the rules that govern the polity. A liberal state thus defined privileges the rights of citizens and protects them through laws.”

Mearsheimer pursues his analysis under titles such as “The Limits and Perils of Social Engineering,” “The Costs of Ignoring Geopolitics,” and “Liberal Blindness.” He shows that the liberal worldview dominated the thinking of the Bush and Obama administrations, under which U.S. foreign policy supported the expansion of the European Union and NATO into Eastern Europe. The United States and its allies, he finds, are mainly responsible for the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. “The taproot of the trouble is NATO’s expansion, and its larger strategy to move all of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, out of Russia’s orbit and integrate that territory into the West.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, historian and diplomat George Kennan, who supported so-called containment policy during the Cold War, advised against the expansion of NATO to Russia’s frontiers. In a 1998 interview, as quoted by Mearsheimer, he said, “I think it is a tragic [End Page 610] mistake. There is no reason for it whatsoever. No one is threatening anyone else.”

In short, in Mearsheimer’s view, Russia and the West have been operating with totally different handbooks. Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting as realists, whereas Washington remains adhered to progressive liberal ideas about United States hegemony.

It is clear that the liberal...


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pp. 609-611
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