the great delusion

Written by Syed Basim Raza 7:41 pm Book Reviews, Published Content

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

The father of offensive realism, John Joseph Mearsheimer, constructed this piece of literature revolving around the critique of “liberal hegemony” and liberalism in US foreign policy. In “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities,” he methodically deconstructs the liberal foreign policy paradigm that has been very relevant in the past century.
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Syed Basim Raza is an MPhil scholar at the National Defence University Islamabad. He completed his Master's degree from NUML Islamabad.

Liberal Values

States, in order to promote liberal values and foster international peace, adopt liberal policies. However, John Mearsheimer in “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” opposes this liberal claim by asserting that the promotion of liberal values involves interference in the matters of other states which can undermine international peace leading to more conflict and wars.

Liberals also believe that liberalism will bring an end to the balance of power politics as claimed by Francis Fukuyama, but Mearsheimer, while repudiating this peaceful ideal approach, maintains that states in a bipolar or multipolar world are mainly concerned with their own survival due to the anarchic system, which makes the balance of power inevitable, a view also upheld by the realists. This eventually makes the dream of liberals to establish peace and promote liberal values, an impossible dream.

Theory of Politics

Laying out his basic theory of politics, the author of “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” explains the different major aspects that are of eminent importance for understanding a political theory. His basic assumptions about human nature are that humans have limitations on their ability to reason and they are social animals to their core.

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After carefully analyzing the educational, religious, economical, philosophical and legal aspects of reason, he reaches a conclusion that while reason helps us in understanding the political world, this help is limited and it does not provide us with answers to fundamental questions. Being social animals, the aspect of social interaction is the prerequisite for humans to live, grow and develop critical faculties.

Another influencing aspect of Mearsheimer’s political theory is culture. Despite the fact that culture can be rejected or changed, it is still a strong unifying force that keeps a society intact and brings consensus amongst the individuals of a social group. Besides, political institutions and politics amongst the social groups (intra-group and inter-group politics) also play a very vital role in Mearsheimer’s theory of politics.

Owing to the notion that all social groups have a tendency to expand, which is a reason for the global anarchic system, they might face impregnable barriers or hurdles during this course. He concludes his theory of politics with the remark, “The great isms of liberalism, realism, and nationalism do not operate in a state of mathematical abstraction: they work the way they do because humanity is the way it is.”

Political Liberalism

Taking up the concept of political liberalism, the author goes back to the basic ideals of liberalism defined by John Locke and the emphasis on individualism. Maintenance of order and reduction of conflicts is managed by the political liberals using a three-pronged strategy i.e emphasis on everyone’s rights, tolerance, the need of the state in case tolerance fails, and a very strong emphasis on the promotion of the economy that makes liberalism very alike to capitalism.

Amongst the major paradoxes of political liberalism, tolerance is one of the very prominent ones. Liberals are very intolerant towards the threats to their ideals and other political orders. The other eminent paradox is that liberalism at its core contains both a particularist and a universalist strand.

The author then defines modus vivendi liberals as those who believe in individual rights without state interference. Explaining the different aspects, he asserts that modus vivendi liberalism is somewhat of a pessimistic theory of politics. Progressive liberals, on the other hand, think that a state if need be, must interfere in social problems and do some social engineering.

It is more relevant than modus vivendi and this is why Mearsheimer cares to explain in detail the two types of progressivism which include unbounded progressives (Fukuyama, Pinker, and Dworkin) who think that liberal ideas are very well nurtured and matured that they can guide humans towards consensus. Bounded progressives such as John Rawls think differently and believe that no set of truths is available but liberals are sensible enough not to fight over their differences.

Progressivism outran modus vivendi and has been very prominently relevant in US governments both with Republicans and Democrats. The three major forces behind the triumph of progressivism are the industrial revolution, nationalism and a strong military need for peacetime.

Mearsheimer, however, does not consider liberal idealism and utilitarianism as part of political liberalism since utilitarianism differs in essential ways from political liberalism due to its disregard for inalienable rights etcetera and the same for liberal idealism, for they believe that humans are social animals.


Enlightening the concept of nations, the author quotes Benedict Anderson who has described a nation as an imagined community since there exists communion and horizontal comradeship. Before the consolidation of nations, the membership of people was identified in the terms of dynastic realms, where people were divided as either the elites or the ordinary people, who combined into a single nation based on a common language and shared interest, thus diminishing the class difference and promoting equality amongst the community members.

Culture, national pride, historical myths, shared common territory, and sovereignty are the features that distinguish contemporary nation-states from ancient social groups. A nation needs a state for exercising its right to self-determination and survival. In multi-national states, minorities, in order to preserve their culture and language and to prevent exploitation of their people, resort to the urge of having their own state.

Nationalism based on homogeneity amongst the population helps the state to nurture a large patriotic military, meet economic ends and to make governance effective. Nationalism negates the liberal theory of universal individual rights since it emphasizes an equal set of rights only for people living in one nation. Despite the differences, liberalism and nationalism can coexist, as evidenced by the presence of a large number of liberal nation-states with thick-cultured and tolerant multinational societies.

Liberal Foreign Policy

Mearsheimer carefully observes the case of a powerful state adopting a liberal foreign policy i.e liberal hegemony. Rights lie at the heart of liberalism and the best way to guard these inalienable rights is by converting every country into a liberal democracy; for that matter, a liberal power will always intervene in other states’ matters militarily, and will never back off from doing all sorts of social engineering.

The case of such policy starts with the liberal assumption that it will bring eternal international peace, as in a world full of liberal democracies, there will be no war. Liberals are very inclined towards bringing a regime change in order to protect rights abroad, facilitate peace and safeguard liberalism at home.

Realism, according to the author, has been and will be relevant for centuries to come whether in the domestic or international realm. Despite the fact that realism is a particularist theory in its essence and that there is no place for rights or international community in realism, there exists a strong relationship between realism and liberalism.

For liberal hegemony to be a foolish foreign policy that leads to failed wars and failed diplomacy is a bold argument made by the author. Nationalism, a strong factor which enhances the resistance to liberal hegemony, can erupt in a viscous manner at the international level for a liberalizer and the resistance may even mold into potential terrorism.

Other states might also resist the liberalizer due to realist motivations and they might have compelling reasons to check the liberalizer’s expansionist and interventionist policy. Mearsheimer clearly states: “…spreading liberal democracy around the world is destined to fail much more often than it succeeds”.

Realism & Nationalism

Realism and nationalism are the building blocks of the modern nation-state system. Realist logic of fear of survival and attainment of large military force due to the undeniable balance of power politics drove Europe to transform into nation-states. Nationalism basically reinforced this realist logic by contributing majorly to cultural coherence, unity, military power and even domestic administration.

Benedict Anderson notes: “Since the end of world war 2 every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms”. Mearsheimer adds that the possibility of a “world state” is remarkably low and even if it happens, it won’t be a liberal state, it’ll have to rule with an iron fist and its stability and existence for a long period of time is questionable so anarchy is here to stay and the great powers have very little choice but to act by the principles of realism.

Liberal Democracy

The formula of liberal democracy to establish international peace can be explained in view of three theories: democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory, and liberal institutionalism. However, none of these theories is actually workable under international anarchy due to their restricted scope.

Democratic Peace Theory

Democratic peace theory maintains that liberal democracies don’t go to war against one another taking into account liberal values. However, the core idea of the democratic peace theory is flawed as evidenced by the wars between democracies such as WW1. The democracies have also been involved in victimizing civilians during wars, paying no heed to the human rights which they champion.

Besides, this theory does not explain the confrontation of a democracy with a non-democracy which is guided by a balance of power. Consequently, as long as there is a prospect of war, the focus of the states will remain on ensuring survival and until then the liberal approach cannot supersede the realist logic.

Economic Independence Theory

The economic interdependence theory asserts that economic interdependence between states makes war more costly and therefore rules out any chances of war. However, the author suggests that no prosperity is likely to be achieved when survival is at stake and therefore a chance of a limited war with manageable economic costs is still possible.

Also, the states may go to war expecting strategic and economic benefits in case of victory. Furthermore, economic interdependence itself sometimes fuels tension between states, especially during strained economic times. For instance, the reinvigoration of nationalism in Europe during the euro crisis.

Liberal Institutionalism Theory

Liberal institutionalism, the weakest theory, suggests that rights and duties, stipulated upon the state by the international institutes, prevent them from commencing a war. However, these rules are mostly in line with the interest of powerful states and also the institutes are weak since they lack enforcement mechanisms due to an anarchic system.

According to the liberals, the main aim of institutions is to enhance cooperation, but the author contradicting this suggests that cooperation via the international institutions is only possible when states have overlapping interests since conflicting interests can lead to competition between states which may eventually lead to violence. Therefore, the author, by calling himself a realist, asserts that the state due to an anarchic system and limitations of liberal peace theories have to resort to realpolitik.


Concluding “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities” with some predictions and recommendations, Mearsheimer asserts that the US should adopt a policy based on realist ideals and strong consideration of how nationalism limits the manoeuvrability of a great power in the international arena.

There is no doubt that theoretically, realism considers war as a strong tool, but there is enough evidence that suggests that realist scholars show more restraint. Similarly, nationalism is a major factor that presses great powers to adopt a restraint policy and prevents them from intervening in other states’ matters.

As the author predicts, there can be two future scenarios: one that the world will turn to multipolarity with China as a rising power and the resurrection of Russia; in this scenario, the US will have to abandon its liberal foreign policy and adopt a realist policy. The second scenario dictates that if China faces slow economic growth, the US will continue to follow a foreign policy based on liberal hegemony.

Mearsheimer as a communicator is phenomenal and his clarity of ideas and expression has no match. Revolving the book around the relationship between the three great isms; realism, nationalism and liberalism, he beautifully devises the best advice for future foreign policy prospects of the US.

The author’s thoughts on the relevance of realism, and the triumph of nationalism and realism against liberalism, are very practical and their application can be seen demonstrably when one indulges in the International political arena.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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