The U. S. Is Not a “Liberal Power”

I encourage you to read the excerpt from John Mearsheimer’s latest book, “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” at The National Interest. Here’s a snippet:

Liberal hegemony is an ambitious strategy in which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions. In essence, the liberal state seeks to spread its own values far and wide. My goal in this book is to describe what happens when a power­ful state pursues this strategy at the expense of balance­-of­-power politics.

Many in the West, especially among foreign policy elites, consider liberal hegemony a wise policy that states should axiomatically adopt. Spreading liberal democracy around the world is said to make eminently good sense from both a moral and a strategic perspective. For starters, it is thought to be an excellent way to protect human rights, which are sometimes seri­ously violated by authoritarian states. And because the policy holds that liberal democracies do not want to go to war with each other, it ultimately provides a formula for transcending realism and fostering international peace. Finally, proponents claim it helps protect liberalism at home by eliminating authoritarian states that otherwise might aid the illiberal forces that are constantly present inside the liberal state.

That’s Wilsonianism in summary. The upshot of the piece is that the U. S. is not a liberal power; it just plays one on TV.

I think the reality is that the U. S. is in turns liberal, promoting democracy and liberal values, and self-interested, promoting its own interests. We are at our best when the two coincide and at our worst when solely promoting our domestic political interests.

The most basic problem with Wilsonianism is that there is a genuine difference of opinion among countries about fundamental values and there is really no such thing as universally accepted values. When, as is the case, that the U. S. is an outlier in areas like freedom of speech and religion, conflating our values with universal values is problematic. Even the United Kingdom from whom we learned about fundamental freedoms isn’t as absolutist as we with respect to freedom of the press.

I am not a Wilsonian; in the past I’ve said I don’t have a Wilsonian bone in my body. Heck, I think that promoting individual liberty within our borders is enough of a challenge for us.

9 comments… add one
  • Guarneri

    “The most basic problem with Wilsonianism is that there is a genuine difference of opinion among countries about fundamental values and there is really no such thing as universally accepted values.”

    And applicable to activism in general.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

    C.S. Lewis

  • More succinctly by Chesterton: “She has devoted her life to others. You can tell the others by their hunted look.”

  • Jan

    Wonderful C.S. Lewis excerpt, Drew. It reminds me of the screed incorperated in the recently enacted anti Kavanaugh movement, whereas “woman must always be believed” or you’ll be cast as anti-woman, relentlessly stalked and vilified for the rest of time.

  • Ben Wolf

    If we really believe the U.S. is exceptional we must accept our values, culture and politics cannot be exported because they are unique to us.

  • That’s the Jeffersonian view. Hamiltonians don’t care much about values and Jacksonians don’t care much about other countries as long as they’re not attacking us.

  • steve

    Have seen the CS Lewis quote before seemed clever, but then I couldn’t think of any example where such a society ever existed. Then I thought of all o the awful tyrannies which really have existed in the past. You could even just look at North Korea right now. So which would it be, Sweden (which maybe comes closest to what he describes) or North Korea?

    Steve

  • Gray Shambler

    I would consider myself a Jacksonian then, but what is now considered an attack? Would the PRC’s intellectual property theft be enough? How about that they manufacture and export almost all of the pseudoephedrine used to soak the west and east in Meth? I would say these are attacks, and warrant counterattacks, possibly even military.

  • Gray Shambler

    “If we really believe the U.S. is exceptional we must accept our values, culture and politics cannot be exported because they are unique to us.”
    Not exported, but if we believe in who we are, they should be enforced in our sphere of influence.

  • Roy Lofquist

    “That’s the Jeffersonian view. Hamiltonians don’t care much about values and Jacksonians don’t care much about other countries as long as they’re not attacking us.” ~ Dave

    So I looked in my wallet. There were two Washingtons there. I haven’t seen a Jefferson in 30 years or so. One Lincoln, one Hamilton, and a few more than one Jacksons. I’m a fan of Old Hickory. I sense he’s making a big comeback.

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