Books | US’s Post-Cold War Folly

Instead of trying to spread liberalism, its foreign policy should have been pragmatic

Irfan ul Haq

The foreign policy the US followed after the end of the Cold War to establish liberal hegemony in the world was doomed to fail. A more restrained foreign policy based on a sound understanding of nationalism and realism could have proved more effective. These are the main arguments acclaimed scholar John Mearsheimer has put forward in the tome that analyses Washington’s underpinnings of its international relations.

Mearsheimer writes that liberal thinkers generally concur that people have a set of inalienable rights. It takes a night watchman or a state to guard these rights. Additionally, many liberal academics contend that the state as an institution must practice social engineering to guarantee that people have equal opportunities as well as rights. This brand of liberalism may thrive in societies with some degree of social and cultural cohesiveness, but the author argues that this falls short when used as an analytical framework for world politics.

According to Mearsheimer, the fundamental issue is that humans are social beings. In international politics, group rights count for more than individual rights. Since the founding of the modern state system, nationalism has grown to be the most significant source of political identity and this has found its expression. Moreover, he suggests that liberal thinkers generally recognise the limits of applying their maxims to world politics as there is no night watchman standing above states.

Great liberal powers are not really in a position to pursue liberal hegemony (bi or multi-polarity) because of issues of anarchy. Attempting to remake the world in one’s own image is a tedious task. Contrarily, in a unipolar world, the lone great power will be strongly disposed to act in accordance with liberal ideals and pursue an interventionist strategy to uphold human rights around the world. But Mearsheimer contends that such a strategy will fail because it clashes with both nationalism and a realist balance-of-power thinking.

The growth of what Mearsheimer terms as liberal militarism, which threatens liberalism both domestically and abroad by imposing exorbitant financial burdens not only on the target state but also on the social engineering state itself, is another effect of liberal hegemony. Think about the US’s Middle East strategy, for instance. Public pronouncements about spreading democracy notwithstanding, several of Washington’s closest allies in the region—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—are among the world’s most illiberal countries.

Instead of safeguarding human rights and encouraging democracy, the US has played a major role in spreading death and damage across the whole region, the author notes. The same goes for US foreign policy in Asia. As Mearsheimer points out, Washington has started to form a balancing coalition against China by cozying up not only with democracies like India but also with authoritarian states such as Singapore and Vietnam. In other words, the US has selectively applied liberal principles in the post-Cold War world. It also disregarded geopolitics. The liberal hegemony that is inherent in NATO’s expansionism has caused Russia and Georgia to engage in major conflicts.

Mearsheimer advises the US to pursue a more prudent foreign policy grounded in realism and an awareness of how nationalism restricts a great power’s room to manoeuvre. The Great Delusion is a book that anyone interested in the current crises of the liberal international order should read. What is more, Mearsheimer’s ability to express complex thoughts in a readable language is admirable. It is worth emulating by other scholars.


John Mearsheimer
Yale University Press, Pg 328, Rs 1,540


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