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Mearsheimer: The collapse of the liberal world order

The days of liberal hegemony may be numbered. John J. Mearsheimer, one of the most important and influential scholars of international relations in the world and distinguished professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and one of the most famous exponents of the school of contemporary political realism, which has roots and tradition in Machiavelli and Hobbes, thinks so.

Published: December 26, 2019, 5:51 am

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    Author of the famous essay The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), a classic work in international relations, Mearsheimer published a new masterpiece last year entitled The Great Delusion. Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale Press University). This publication has generated a great debate in the United States, so much so that the British daily, the Financial Times has included it among the most important works of 2018.

    Because liberal democracy cannot change the world, the famous political scientist explains how at the end of the Cold War, the United States entered the world with the possibility of exercising unprecedented power and influence.

    In fact, with the defeat of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar era, American politicians began to dream of shaping the globe in the image and likeness of the only remaining superpower. As George H. Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft later recalled in a book published in 1999 and entitled  A World Transformed, the United States had found itself “standing alone at the height of power”.

    With the Soviets out of play, the United States and its leaders had “the rare opportunity to shape the world and the profound responsibility to do so wisely for the benefit not only of the United States but of all nations”.

    In his latest work, Mearsheimer explains that “the hegemony of liberalism is an ambitious strategy by which a State seeks to transform the largest possible number of countries into liberal democracies modeled on its own example, while promoting open international economy and building international institutions”.

    In essence, the professor states, “the liberal state seeks to spread its values universally”. Liberalism, in fact, “emphasizes the concept of inalienable or natural rights” and “true liberals are deeply concerned about the rights of practically all the individuals living on Earth”.

    This universalist logic, however, of exporting human rights and democracy is inevitably destined to fail. “Liberal hegemony will not achieve its objectives, and its failure will inevitably entail enormous costs, explains Mearsheimer.

    The liberal state will probably end up fighting endless wars, which will raise rather than reduce the level of conflict on the international chessboard and thus aggravate the problems of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

    Moreover, the political scientist points out, “the militaristic behavior of the state will almost certainly end up threatening its liberal values” because liberalism abroad leads to illiberalism at home”.

    This is exactly what happened to the United States with the much debated Endless Wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.) and with the failed exports of democracy against which Donald Trump expressed himself during the 2016 election campaign stating that he would like to end these.

    The key to understanding the limits of liberalism, underlines John J. Mearsheimer, “is to study its relationship with nationalism and realism” and that is exactly what The Great Illusion does.

    “Nationalism is a powerful political ideology,” he says. It hinges on the division of the world into a wide variety of nations, which are formidable social units “each of which” has its own specific culture.

    Virtually all nations would prefer to have their own state, although not all of them are able to have it. “Even liberal states are national states” he says. There is no doubt that liberalism and nationalism can coexist, but when they clash, “nationalism almost always wins”.

    Although the progressives, favoring their post-modernist vision, have tried in every way to de-legitimize nationalism with superficial arguments (depicting it as an exclusive and racist chauvinist notion), Mearsheimer recalls, dispelling a taboo dear to many analysts, that nationalism “had its greatest impact on sovereignty outside Europe”.

    There, it “helped facilitate decolonization” in the twentieth century, focusing great attention on the principles of self-determination and non-intervention. In fact, it helped to delegitimize empires. Not surprisingly, the countries that were once victims of European imperialism today support the concept of sovereignty.

    Interviewed by the Italian publication InsideOver after the release of his book in the United States, Mearsheimer explained that “liberal democracy is the best type of political system in the world and I am very grateful to have been born and raised in the United States. However, I think liberalism as a political system and liberalism as a foreign policy are two different things.

    “A foreign policy such as liberal hegemony is doomed to fail because it invariably clashes with nationalism and realism, which are far 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 full of nation states) do not like the idea that other countries interfere in their internal policies. Just think of how angry Americans are when they hear that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.”

    Liberal hegemony, the political scientist emphasized in the exclusive interview, “requires that the United States interfere in the policies of countries across the planet.

    It demands from the United States to do large scale social engineering, invading and conquering countries, if necessary. This policy is likely to generate resentment and resistance which will eventually weaken it.

    And for realistic reasons, Russia will resist NATO expansion. “I might add that liberal hegemony hurts liberal democracy on the home front. Specifically, this highly ambitious policy leads to interminable wars and the construction of an increasingly powerful national security state, which will certainly undermine civil liberties within the United States.”

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