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U.S. Foreign Policy Explained
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 15, 2021
Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago wrote 'The Great Delusion' in 2018. Given what is happening in Afghanistan it is worth rereading. He is often controversial but is always worth reading. Mearsheimer is a foreign policy theorist and is often prescient. In 2001, he was skeptical about China’s “peaceful rise” and suggested that the US and China were probably on a collision course. He criticized the Iraq War in 2003 before the invasion took place.
Mearsheimer argues that the U.S. pursued “liberal hegemony” after the Cold War, and this has been a terrible mistake. Internationally, this has resulted in never-ending wars. He argues that ‘liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to restrain.’ Liberalism prizes the concept of inalienable or natural rights, committed liberals are ‘deeply concerned about the rights of virtually every individual on the planet.’ This universalist logic leads liberal states to fight endless wars, and to ‘collide with nationalism, which inevitably wins.'
The main aim of liberal hegemonists has been to remake the world in America’s image. It was assumed that the U.S. had an almost divine right to run the world because it was smarter and better than everybody else. The strategy had three components: 1. Spread liberal democracy across the planet. 2. Integrate more and more countries into the open international economy. 3. Integrate more and more countries into international institutions. This strategy has often failed. Although China joined the WTO it never aspired to become a democracy. America's focus on military might and the pursuit of primacy to spread its values has embroiled us in costly, unwise and unwinnable wars.
Mearsheimer argues that liberal hegemony has failed miserably. It was assumed that the Muslim world could be Americanized. Non-democratic or hostile regimes, like Iran, Syria and North Korea that were opposed to American influence, could be sanctioned and threatened with force. When tougher measures were required, the U.S. could use its powerful military to remove despotic regimes and impose democracy. For decades the U.S. has forcibly overthrown regimes it considers hostile to its interests, usually in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, regime change using military force has not gone well in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Nation-building in the Muslim world has proved expensive in terms of blood and treasure.
Americans are very patriotic, but in recent years US policymakers have not always understood that other countries are also patriotic. They don't want to be occupied by foreigners, even if they mean well. American nationalism has also supplied an unhealthy dose of hubris to the equation. He blames people like Madeleine Albright and others who promoted American exceptionalism. Albright believed that the U.S. is "the indispensable nation" and nobody else has the required wisdom and expertise to lead. If America wasn’t running the show the jungle would grow back and bad people, like ISIS and Putin, would take over. They believe the American president is the leader of the free world and operates like a good shepherd protecting the Western flock.
Mearsheimer argues that aside from the family, the most important group in today’s world is the nation-state. Apart from the EU countries, sovereignty and self-determination are important to most independent nations. They usually resist foreign interference. After WW1, President Woodrow Wilson made self-determination an important aspect of American foreign policy. China and Russia are also fiercely patriotic and nationalistic as we have seen in the South China Sea and Crimea. Mearsheimer believes that nationalism and realism will always trump liberalism. He also believes that great powers dominate the international system, and they constantly engage in security competition with each other, which sometimes leads to war. China and Russia don't aspire to be like the US, they don't want to be part of an American led world order, but they are too powerful to invade and occupy.
Mearsheimer examines liberal hegemony’s track record. Firstly, the Bush Doctrine & the greater Middle East. which was a plan to turn the Middle East into a sea of democracies. The result was a total disaster, it created several failed states instead. Secondly, the Ukraine Crisis and U.S.-Russia Relations. He blames the awful relations between the US and Russia and the Ukraine crisis on NATO expansion. Pushing up to Russia’s borders was a mistake. George Kennan, who advised Harry Truman on containing the Soviet Union, told Clinton he was making a mistake in 1997, and his actions would lead to a new Cold War. Clinton had Albright advising him and she did not seem to understand Russian patriotism or its fear of invasion. Thirdly, he blames the failure of “engagement” with China. Mearsheimer criticizes the way the US has engaged with China, helping it grow quicker while naively thinking that it would eventually become a liberal democracy.
The costs of liberal hegemony begin with the endless wars a liberal state ends up fighting to protect human rights and spread liberal democracy around the world. Once unleashed, he argues that a liberal unipolar power soon becomes addicted to war. The US has spent over $2.3 trillion fighting the war in Afghanistan. Mearsheimer argues that “the idea that the US can go around the world trying to establish democracies and doing social engineering is a prescription for trouble.” Countries will resist foreign interference. Also, in many parts of the world, people prefer security over liberal democracy, even if that security is provided by soft authoritarianism. The Libyans and Iraqis were probably happier under Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. If they stayed out of politics, people could live a relatively normal life. The Christians in Iraq had been protected by the government, after the war they were persecuted. I once met the so-called ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ an Anglican pastor. He received death threats from Islamists and required several bodyguards. Eventually, it became too dangerous for him to stay in Iraq. Russians remember the chaos and anarchy of the Yeltsin years and they don’t want that to return. Putin may be an authoritarian leader but he offers stability.
Mearsheimer argues that problems arose because a liberal order calls for states to delegate substantial decision-making authority to international institutions and to allow refugees and immigrants to move easily across borders. Modern nation-states privilege sovereignty and national identity, however, which guarantees trouble when institutions become powerful and borders are porous. Furthermore, the hyper globalization that is integral to the liberal order creates economic problems among the lower and middle classes within the liberal democracies, fueling a backlash against that order. Finally, the liberal order accelerated China's rise, which helped transform the system from unipolar to multipolar. The liberal international order is possible only in a unipolar world.
Mearsheimer argues that liberal hegemony is finished. The US now needs to worry about the growing military power of rivals like China and Russia. The collapse of the Afghan army in the space of just a few weeks will prompt the military and Washington’s policymakers to reflect on their policy failures over the course of the last twenty years. The US seems to have ignored Afghan culture, politics, and history. Whatever they have tried in Afghanistan has not worked. The US probably has too many international obligations, and we meddle too much in other country's affairs. We should forget about being the world’s policeman and focus more on solving our own domestic problems. We should spend more money fixing the homeland.
The spread of liberal democracy once seemed inevitable, but China will never become a democracy. Russians seem happy with a strong man like Putin as their leader. As Lieutenant General Dan Bolger pointed out in his book 'Why We Lost' about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American army is not good at fighting insurgencies. By the time the book was published in 2018, democracy was in retreat in many places and under considerable strain in the U.S. itself.
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