John Mearsheimer—University of Chicago political scientist, America’s pre-eminent “realist” scholar of international relations, and (among his many other distinguished and high-impact publications) co-author, with Harvard’s Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby—has given his countrymen a Christmas present they can really use. More specifically, John has just published an important and bracingly brilliant article, “Imperial by Design”, in The National Interest. It should be required reading for anyone who cares about the direction of American foreign policy, in the Middle East or more generally. We are pleased to highlight it here for our readers, though, of course, we recommend reading the piece in its entirety.
John states his main argument up front, in crystal clear fashion. He argues that, for the past twenty years, America has let itself be seduced by a dangerous formula—that “the United States should take the lead in bringing democracy to less developed countries the world over”. He archly notes that “liberal imperialists” on the left, as well as neoconservatives on the right, have endorsed this formula:
“After all, that shouldn’t be an especially difficult task given that America had awesome power and the cunning of history on its side…
The results, however, have been disastrous. The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows, countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior, and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators. The Founding Fathers understood this problem, as it clear from James Madison’s observation that ‘no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Washington’s pursuit of policies like assassination, rendition and torture over the past decade, not to mention the weakening of the rule of law at home, shows that their fears were justified.
To make matters worse, the United States is now engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so far cost well over a trillion dollars and resulted in around forty-seven thousand American casualties. The pain and suffering inflicted on Iraq has been enormous. Since the war began in March 2003, more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, roughly 2 million Iraqis have left the country and 1.7 million more have been internally displaced. Moreover, the American military is not going to win either one of these conflicts, despite all the phony talk about how the “surge” has worked in Iraq and how a similar strategy can produce another miracle in Afghanistan. We may well be stuck in both quagmires for years to come, in fruitless pursuit of victory.
The United States has also been unable to solve three other major foreign-policy problems. Washington has worked overtime—with no success—to shut down Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability for fear that it might lead to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. And the United States, unable to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place, now seems incapable of compelling Pyongyang to give them up. Finally, every post–Cold War administration has tried and failed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all indicators are that this problem will deteriorate further as the West Bank and Gaza are incorporated into a Greater Israel.
The unpleasant truth is that the United States is in a world of trouble today on the foreign-policy front, and this state of affairs is only likely to get worse in the next few years, as Afghanistan and Iraq unravel and the blame game escalates to poisonous levels.”
John is equally clear when it comes to diagnosing the source of America’s “world of trouble” on the foreign-policy front:
“The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected [various strategic alternatives], instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.
Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America’s image. The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better. Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country’s politics. With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless.
This grand strategy is ‘imperial’ at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries. One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries—save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea—would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests.”
John reminds those of us who voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 that, on foreign policy issues, Bush largely ran against the kind of liberal imperialism that Gore advocated and that the administration he served as Vice-President had practiced. But, of course, after 9/11, Bush took the quest for global dominance to new heights, especially in the Middle East:
“By pursuing this extraordinary scheme to transform an entire region at the point of a gun, President Bush adopted a radical grand strategy that has no parallel in American history. It was also a dismal failure.
The Bush administration’s quest for global dominance was based on a profound misunderstanding of the threat environment facing the United States after 9/11. And the president and his advisers overestimated what military force could achieve in the modern world, in turn greatly underestimating how difficult it would be to spread democracy in the Middle East. This triumvirate of errors doomed Washington’s effort to dominate the globe, undermined American values and institutions on the home front, and threatened its position in the world.”
In this vein, John points out that “the Bush administration’s fondness for threatening to attack adversaries (oftentimes with the additional agenda of forced democratization) encouraged nuclear proliferation. The best way for the United States to maximize the prospects of halting or at least slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons would be to stop threatening other countries because that gives them a compelling reason to acquire the ultimate deterrent. But as long as America’s leaders remain committed to global dominance, they are likely to resist this advice and keep threatening states that will not follow Washington’s orders.”
John warns that the Obama Administration, for all its talk of “change”, has largely embraced the same delusions of global dominance that got the United States into such trouble on the foreign-policy front under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The alternative, as John points out, is not “Fortress America” isolationism. It is a posture he describes as “offshore balancing”—which is actually the United States’ traditional approach to grand strategy, before it developed hegemonic hubris. America still has not faced up to its most fundamental strategic choices in a post-Cold War world. John Mearsheimer has given it an indispensable guide for thinking through those choices.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett