ealists and nationalists are winning the current U.S. foreign policy debate. Rejecting internationalist policies to build a “liberal world order” through the spread of democracy, markets, and global institutions, they advocate a strategy that defends America’s borders and preeminence in the Western Hemisphere, calling for intervention in other hemispheres only when another great power threatens to dominate Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.
The American public seems to agree. After supporting NATO and World Trade Organization expansion in the 1990s and the “global war on terror” in the 2000s, they elected, first, President Obama to end wars and rein in financial elites and, then, President Trump to fortify America’s borders, put “America First,” and significantly reduce America’s military and economic engagement around the world. John Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion and Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions chronicle this dramatic turnaround. Two avatars of realist and increasingly nationalist thinking, Mearsheimer and Walt—who stirred up controversy earlier with their book on the “Israel lobby”—take dead aim at the “delusion” of liberal hegemony.
A brilliant polemicist who teaches at the University of Chicago, Mearsheimer argues that human nature precludes agreement on first principles in world affairs, on what constitutes the good life, and how societies organize to achieve it. Human beings’ basic instinct, he maintains, is to survive, and they do so by grouping together in societies. Although these societies sometimes merge and sometimes break apart, they can never unite across the globe.
For Mearsheimer, nationalist logic works hand in hand with realist logic. Nationalism is all about “sovereignty” and “self-determination,” the desire of every nation to have its own state based on its distinct, particularist culture. That desire ensures that universalist cultures or ideologies—be they Communist, fascist, religious, or liberal—will never prevail. It creates a tension even within liberal states because they too require, “the non-liberal underbelly of national community,” a night watchman and national culture to protect the peace. Thus, “[n]ationalism and realism pay little attention to individuals and rights.” Even in America, Mearsheimer writes, “the public’s support for individual rights is not especially deep.”
This conclusion frightens classical liberals, for whom individual rights exist independent of the state. But it doesn’t bother Mearsheimer because he asserts that classical (or what he calls “modus vivendi”) liberalism, which emphasizes the individual, has long since lost out to progressive or social liberalism, which bows before the state. Echoing the despot Robespierre, he concludes that nationalism even made democracy possible by mobilizing all citizens to the cause of the “fatherland.” He’s right; authoritarian nationalism did that. But liberal nationalism did just the opposite. Through a combination of democracy (elections and broad franchise) and liberalism (individual rights independent of the state), it tamed authoritarian nationalism by placing progressively larger limits on the powers of the despotic state.
The success of liberal nationalism is best seen in the European Union and the United States. The E.U. may be a fragile entity today as the United States was in the 1800s, but it is a far more unified political society than the one that existed a hundred years ago, let alone in the Dark Ages. And the U.S., a majority-minority country in another 30 years, holds together not because it has a particularist culture but because it champions a Bill of Rights protecting the inalienable rights of individuals from state power regardless of their tribal, religious, or cultural origins. Of course, you read nothing about these matters in Mearsheimer’s book. Although he acknowledges how fortunate he is to live in a liberal state, he dismisses the relevance of liberalism for world affairs and U.S. foreign policy.
But a world of increasingly liberal nation-states—now including nonwestern cultures such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India—is some evidence that the appeal of individual rights is both universal and peaceful. Even Mearsheimer acknowledges that liberal nations do not fight one another, yet insists that, as long as one authoritarian nation exists, democracies have to adopt realist policies to balance power. He overlooks the obvious fact that a world in which only one or a few authoritarian states exist is far better for liberal states than one in which many authoritarian states exist.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping understand this face-off between liberal and authoritarian states. That’s why they are so keen to roll back the western liberal order. Putin opposed NATO not because it was a military threat, as Mearsheimer argues—NATO stationed no forces on the border of Russia until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014—but because he believed “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” and he intended to restore it.
Walt, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, agrees with Mearsheimer across the board. He wants to hold accountable the manipulative elite that exploits American primacy to “spread traditional liberal principles of individual freedom, democratic governance and a market-based economy.” This elite, which is “wholly bipartisan” and controls the national media, academy, and government; inflates threats; exaggerates the benefits of global leadership; and conceals the costs of global involvement. Walt believes this elite has even captured Donald Trump. His solution is “to create a countervailing set of organizations and institutions that can do battle in the marketplace of ideas.”
These books are part of that battle. They are timely, informative, and readable. They annoy at times by asserting universal first principles of their own and by calling alternative views “fatally” or “fundamentally” flawed. What if, for example, human nature does not prioritize survival, as Mearsheimer believes, but a better life? How many events have been driven by the human desire to liberate, prosper, or worship freely? Even in a pinch, people have chosen liberty over death.
The issue is not agreement on first principles but how we debate these principles. Liberal orders do so by consent, authoritarian orders by coercion. These books obsess over the violence caused by liberal states, especially the United States, yet say not one word about the far greater violence perpetrated by authoritarian states. Global violence stems more from oppressive tyrants than from human nature or manipulative liberal elites.
The realist strategy is also flawed (dare I say “fatally”?). In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001) Mearsheimer argued that hegemony is always better than equilibrium because more power is always better than less. Hence, America is right to seek and maintain its hegemony in the western hemisphere. At the same time, however, hegemony is not possible globally because of what Mearsheimer calls the “stopping power of water,” the technological inability to mount and sustain aggression across large bodies of water. Other great powers will seek hegemony in their regions (Russia in Europe, China in Asia) but the United States should not become concerned until one threatens to dominate beyond its region.
But why should the United States be concerned even then? Presumably other hegemons too would be thwarted by the stopping power of water. In fact, there is no such thing as the stopping power of water. For centuries western powers colonized the world across vast oceans, and in World War II the United States successfully staged invasions of Europe and potentially Japan by retaining or scratching out footholds in other hemispheres. As Walt acknowledges, once a hegemon achieves dominance in its own region, it can “ally with countries in the Western Hemisphere and interfere closer to American soil.” Foreign powers have done so both earlier in the 19th century and more recently in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The problem is how to recognize when an emerging hegemon abroad threatens the United States at home. Does it have to achieve hegemony outright—say, Hitler on the verge of conquering Great Britain in 1940—before the United States acts? Or does it simply have to reach the capacity to achieve hegemony, as the Soviet Union threatened to to do in 1946. Fortunately, Truman did not wait as long to respond as Franklin Roosevelt did. He preempted a hot military war by starting a cold ideological war, acting on liberal not realist instincts. And in hindsight he was undeniably right. On the advice of realists who opposed globalizing containment, Truman did not do the same in Asia, and the United States was stuck with a hot war in Korea and a divided, militarized peninsula ever since.
Both The Great Delusion and The Hell of Good Intentions focus on U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War. They ignore the vastly different world that was created during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Germany, Japan, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, and more than 60 other countries became democratic in the this period. Was this transformation an accident? For realism, perhaps. Remember, realism doesn’t think internal regime change matters or that it is possible on a grand scale. But for Presidents Truman and Ronald Reagan it was no accident. They saw the Cold War in liberal not realist or nationalist terms. “We said freedom was better than totalitarianism,” Reagan asserted, and “that the differences that separated us and the Soviets were deeper and wider than just missile counts and numbers of warheads.”
Realists and nationalists take this unprecedented spread of democracy for granted. Even if their prescriptions are appropriate for the moment, as the American public seems to think they are, a more restrained U.S. foreign policy is possible today only because the world is a vastly safer place for American interests than in 1941. And that is mostly due to the fact that the United States does not have to defend ourselves against other major industrialized nations, all of which are democratic. Given that reality, America can practice what I call “conservative internationalism” based on classical, not progressive, liberalism. States neither surrender their sovereignty to hierarchical global institutions, as liberal hegemony implies, nor act with equal aggressiveness whether their domestic regime is liberal or not, as realism claims. Rather, they remain independent respecting nationalist traditions, defend the status quo respecting realist logic, and embrace the democratic peace respecting liberal logic that democratic states do not fight against one another. Such an approach does not require a crusade against tyranny such as Truman and Reagan had to wage against the Soviet Union, but only a commitment to stand up for freedom in a few crucial places where authoritarian regimes could rollback democracy’s Cold War gains—Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s use of North Korea as a despotic spearpoint in Asia.
Maintaining that commitment is not possible without maintaining the existing democratic alliances. Even if over the next decade America’s military presence in both Europe and Asia recedes—as it should—American troops should not leave these regions entirely, as realists and nationalists now urge. This holds for no other than the good realist reason that a physical presence in these regions gives the United States a forward post to assess along with allies the threat of rising hegemons (Russia and China). Everywhere else, including the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the United States should move to an offshore strategy, as realists recommend. Defeat threats in these regions such as terrorism but do not commit large standing forces to promote democracy. Stand by democratic friends such as Israel and India, so they remain democratic, but do not chase the chameleon of democratic societies beyond their borders.
America is pulling back. That much is undisputed. But how far will it go? Realists and nationalists may not be isolationists, but if they dismantle NATO and Asian alliances by bringing all U.S. forces home, they are certainly flirting with it.