Yale University Press, 2018, 328 pp., $30
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018, 400 pp., $28
Oxford University Press, 2017, 304 pp., $34.95
Cornell University Press, 2014, 256 pp., $29.95
Hegemony is a funny kind of word. Its dictionary definition includes “leadership”—with that term’s neutral or benign connotations—but also the more fraught notion of “dominance.” Its usage in sociology and political science tilts decidedly toward the latter, emphasizing how groups and states employ power and coercion to control others.
Hence, the term “liberal hegemony” is an even stranger construction, marrying “dominance” with notions of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. In practice, it refers to America’s supposed commitment to using its unique power to bend the world toward its preferred ideology of democracy, free markets, and human rights. Being described as hegemonic is not usually a compliment, and indeed, “liberal hegemony” is mostly (though not always) employed by critics of American foreign policy—both liberals and otherwise. Christopher Coyne and Abigail Blanco, for example, argue that implementing a strategy of liberal hegemony “requires, attracts, and reinforces a mentality fundamentally at odds with liberal values.” From a very different vantage point, Russian proto-fascist Alexander Dugin has asserted more expansively, “if you are for a global liberal hegemony, then you are an enemy.”
New Assaults on Fortress Liberal Hegemony
Today, the claim that liberal hegemony has been the centerpiece of U.S. grand strategy lies at the heart of no fewer than four recent books by American academics. Barry Posen of MIT led the way in 2014 with Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Then 2017 saw the release of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition by David C. Hendrickson of Colorado College, followed in 2018 by The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy by Stephen Walt of Harvard University. These latter two feature the most strident arguments of the group.
The books are distinct in style and focus, but they all feature four common themes. First is the one already noted: that America’s bipartisan U.S. grand strategy from the collapse of the Soviet Union until Donald Trump’s presidency is best described as “liberal hegemony.” Second, this strategy is responsible for a track record of dismal foreign policy failures. Third, the ideology and culture of America’s foreign policy institutions have prevented honest and effective remediation of these strategic errors. And fourth, Washington’s adoption of a more restrained— and, for all but Hendrickson, also more “realist”—grand strategy would better serve both U.S. interests and global security.
Mearsheimer’s definition of liberal hegemony—which could serve for all of the authors—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.” While these tendencies have existed throughout modern U.S. history, it was the end of the Cold War and the “unipolar moment” that the authors believe freed American leaders to pursue liberal hegemony in earnest.
In practice, Walt explains, this pursuit “involved (1) preserving U.S. primacy, especially in the military sphere; (2) expanding the U.S. sphere of influence; and (3) promoting liberal norms of democracy and human rights.” This is an accurate enough description of U.S. foreign policy, but do these features add up to “liberal hegemony”?
Critique of the Critique
The four books comprise serious arguments, well constructed by serious people. But their common diagnostic foundation is too weak to bear the weight of their critiques. Indeed, the strategy of liberal hegemony, as postulated by Mearsheimer and Walt especially, is a straw man, much more easily demolished than the complicated reality behind making and executing American foreign policy. One need not be a card-carrying member of The Blob to take note of the following four problems with the overall critique they advance.
The evidence is much more mixed than the critique suggests.
To characterize U.S. foreign policy over 25 years as a bipartisan juggernaut free from serious strategic dissent requires sweeping a lot under the carpet. Even the empirical centerpiece of the argument that liberal hegemony failed—the Iraq War—is more complex than is presented by these scholars. To be sure, a vision of liberal international order and an expansive view of American power were both crucial to President Bush’s decisions about and execution of that war. But even many influential supporters of the war were neither as sure of its righteousness nor as confident of its feasibility as the likes of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. While many academic realists opposed the war, supporters came from diverse backgrounds and motivations. Painting, say, Bill Kristol, Ken Pollack, and Christopher Hitchens with the same brush of ideological American grandiosity on this issue is simply ahistorical.
The authors also give too little weight to obvious counter-examples of American missionary commitment to liberal values. The enduring strength of its relationships with Saudi Arabia and other repressive Arab monarchies—even after the Arab Spring, but especially before—is no mere asterisk to a description of America’s evangelism of democracy and human rights. By the same token, if Washington is dedicated to remaking the world in its image, how does one explain its traditional delicate balancing approach to India and Pakistan?
Even if one is willing to tolerate these major caveats to the liberal hegemony critique, there is another evidentiary problem. Walt and Mearsheimer direct much of their disdain at the “liberal” half of the purported strategy. A central claim common to the books is that America is more likely to use force and less likely to respect sovereignty under this strategy: first, because its conception of its “interests” is more universal and less negotiable than that of other states; and second, because liberalism blinds Americans to the salience of nationalism and other identity-based loyalties.
Yet most of the evidence they marshal about U.S. foreign policy failures has much more to do with the “hegemony” half of the equation. It is mostly Washington’s ambition for leadership and resulting over-extension that they criticize, whether in the form of military interventions or attempts to expand the remit of international institutions and alliances. There is no doubt that such activism has frequently prompted pushback, and the liberalism associated with U.S. policy has certainly shaped the nature of America’s pursuit of primacy. But, as Hendrickson clearly appreciates, it is far from clear that liberalism is itself a crucial reason for the widespread resistance to America’s role in the world. Even Walt quotes the historian Timothy Garton Ash as saying “the problem with American power is not that it is American. The problem is simply the power.” There is wisdom in the comment, but Walt’s arguments remain untempered by it.
Moreover, some of the liberal hegemony critics deem even notable examples of pragmatic and non-ideological American restraint as too interventionist. Presidents Bush and Obama were harshly criticized for not exerting more American power in response to conflicts in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. But for Walt and Mearsheimer, at least, their responses are, somehow, simply more examples of misguided activism.
The critique ignores or disdains the agency and aspirations of small-state populations.
One of the authors’ principal shared grievances against post-Cold War U.S. policy is the expansion of NATO, which they consider needlessly and blatantly provocative to a Russia that might otherwise have found its way to a productive security relationship with the rest of Europe. There is a good case for this argument; indeed, this view was long held by many members of the so-called foreign policy elite that Walt and Mearsheimer dismiss as monolithic and incapable of nuance.
That said, telling the story of NATO expansion as a parable of unbridled American hegemony requires ignoring not only the pro-expansion policies of others allies in “old Europe,” but also the fervent aspirations of the former Warsaw Pact states clamoring for greater freedom and security. This “pull” from Eastern and Central Europe was at least as important a driver of NATO expansion as the “push” from Washington. But there is little room in the liberal hegemony critique for the agency and aspirations of smaller states.
In a similar vein, Mearsheimer and Hendrickson are very critical of U.S. policy toward Ukraine and its conflict with Russia over the past decade. Mearsheimer goes so far as to say that, “The United States and its European allies are mainly responsible for the crisis” prevailing there since 2014. The logic appears to be that Moscow cares a lot about its influence over Ukraine, while Ukraine is peripheral to U.S. vital interests; therefore Ukrainian interests ought to be irrelevant to the United States. This is a defensible but debatable premise. To infer from it that the United States and Europe are primarily to blame for the current troubles in Ukraine requires an extraordinarily narrow interpretation of the region’s history and politics.
Contrast that analysis with a recent article by Michael Mazaar and Michael Kofman. While advancing a similar critique of U.S. policy toward Russia (and U.S. strategy in general), they still manage to acknowledge that “Russia’s historic strategy for attaining security at the expense of others, its paranoid and narrow strategic culture, and its elite-driven decision-making process all constitute the real nub of the problem.” No one would argue that this fact inoculates Washington from criticism. But to elide it, as Mearsheimer does, is truly to miss the point that the pervasiveness of America’s power, both hard and soft, is enabled by many willing partners with independent interests of their own. Russia and China cannot make the same claim. The liberal hegemony critique makes no allowance for such fundamental differences in the attractiveness of power among the “great powers” or the rest of the world.
The critique devalues the moral dimensions of statecraft.
Advocates of liberalism in foreign policy typically identify two distinct advantages: strategic and moral. Strategically, liberalism supposedly serves American interests best in the long run because democracies tend not to fight with each other and free markets are best at generating wealth. But also, advocates point out, freedom and the rule of law are morally superior to their alternatives.
The liberal hegemony critics mount detailed arguments against the strategic rationale; these are best adjudicated elsewhere. On the moral front, their rebuttals are simpler and boil down to the claim that too much American ambition yields unnecessary conflict and instability, which in turn outweigh the benefits of spreading liberal values. But here again, the critics’ reasonable concerns about overstretch are undermined by their rickety framework. Their conflating of the separate notions of liberalism and hegemony cause them to throw the liberal baby out with the hegemonic bath water.
For example, Posen and Mearsheimer both argue that a key reason for the supposed failures of liberal hegemony is that (in the latter’s words) “nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism.” As a matter of history, few would deny that nationalism and realism have been more powerful forces than liberalism. But does this justify a normative recommendation to jettison liberalism entirely in foreign policy?
Similarly, Mearsheimer complains that “liberalism makes diplomacy harder” by shrinking the range of acceptable compromises available to states who care about values as well as self-interest. Again, the logic here is sound, but is making diplomacy easier really a worthy trade for abandoning any sense that the powerful ought to be concerned with justice? Imagine what the world today might look like had every powerful state since the dawn of the Westphalian era followed the critics’ advice to abjure values in foreign policy in surrender to the countervailing tides of nationalism and realism.
From a moral perspective, the liberal hegemony critique has nothing to offer except the more modest level of responsibility that comes with being less ambitious. And being less ambitious does not actually demand or require relinquishing liberal values, even in foreign policy. As Emile Simpson put it recently, “Accommodating others does not mean giving up your own values; it just means recognizing their proper limits, on a case by case basis.” Hendrickson seems to be alone among the four authors in allowing for such an approach.
The critique caricatures the world of “elites.”
This sort of all-or-nothing moral attitude toward liberalism leads some of the critics into a final intellectual cul-de-sac: gross caricatures of the beliefs and motivations of an indistinct but apparently large and powerful American “foreign policy elite.” Often, the arguments seem to confuse pervasive advocacy of liberal values in the foreign policy community—for which there is ample evidence—with an inability to consider other issues like national interest and balance of power—for which evidence is scant. These values can coexist and be balanced with each other, as they have been throughout history.
All four authors find fault with too much consensus on wrongheaded ideas among this professional community, or the “official mind,” as Hendrickson puts it. However, it is Walt and Mearsheimer who prove powerless to resist the siren song of sweeping generalizations. Both of their books are shot through with reasonable claims buried beneath unsupportable categorical statements, often sarcastically denigrating opposing points of view. Consider a few examples (emphasis added):
- “. . . the foreign policy community believes spreading liberal values is both essential for U.S. security and easy to do.”
- “Advocates of liberal hegemony believed that its blessings would be apparent to nearly everyone and that America’s noble aims would not be doubted.”
- “. . . proponents of liberal hegemony assumed that the United States could pursue this ambitious global strategy without triggering serious opposition.”
- “Many in the West, especially among foreign policy elites, consider liberal hegemony a wise policy that states should axiomatically adopt.”
- “Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to restrain.”
Such statements attribute unreasonable views to faceless, naïve-sounding groups with no specific quotations to support them. Who ever said or thought these things supposedly so central to liberal hegemony? The authors do not say.
Mearsheimer seems particularly emotional about Washington’s role in precipitating Russian aggression in Ukraine, which he believes “anyone with a rudimentary understanding of geopolitics should have seen . . . coming.” He might consider that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of actual foreign policy decision-making would appreciate that most choices involve balancing risks with imperfect options. When things go badly, this is not dispositive evidence of cluelessness, or even of surprise.
He continues with the rather extraordinary assertion that, “Western elites were surprised by events in Ukraine because most of them have a flawed understanding of international politics. They believe that realism and geopolitics have little relevance in the 21st century and that a ‘Europe whole and free’ can be constructed entirely on the basis of liberal principles.” Needless to say, no “Western elites”—much less “most of them”—are quoted expressing any such foolishness.
This kind of argumentation is known as the fallacy of the straw man. It is a tool of polemics, not analysis. Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s readers should be on guard accordingly.
Rescuing Restraint from its Advocates
None of the above should be taken as a thoroughgoing defense of liberalism, hegemony, or American foreign policy in general. It is true that U.S. policymakers have often overestimated their ability to transform the politics of other countries, miscalculating the relative appeal of nationalist, tribal, and liberal forces. It is true that American advocacy of liberalism sometimes generates unwelcome (and unanticipated) backlashes. And it is certainly true that there are structural impediments to radical change embedded in American national security policy institutions.
But all these facts still do not support a depiction of U.S. foreign policy as a single-minded ideological crusade waged by an unreflective and monolithic elite. And labeling these features of U.S. policy “liberal hegemony” simultaneously gives Washington too much and too little credit: too much credit for coherence and consistency; and too little for sustaining diversity and debate over the proper priorities for America’s role in the world. As a diagnosis of what ails American grand strategy, liberal hegemony is at best a gross oversimplification.
As for prescription, each of the authors calls for a more restrained strategy, one that retains great power but trims America’s pretensions to dominance and its commitments to global security. Washington should take their warnings of unrealistic American ambitions to heart. But the case for greater restraint does not depend on a wholesale philosophical repudiation of liberal values in foreign policy. It depends most of all on a more careful calibration of goals with available resources, capability, and will; that is to say, it depends on matching ends to means.
Beyond that, academics and practitioners in the so-called Blob would be better served thinking of power and principle, liberalism and realism, balance-of-power politics and moralism, as dialectics in need of constant balance rather than as incompatible poles. We the People would be better served, as well.