The Failure of American Hegemony: Why Nationalism Trumps Liberalism Every Time | John Mearsheimer
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The Failure of American Hegemony: Why Nationalism Trumps Liberalism Every Time | John Mearsheimer


Today’s episode of Hidden Forces is made possible
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app, remember you can give us a review. Each review helps more people find the show
and join our amazing community. And with that, please enjoy this week’s episode. What’s up everybody? My guest today is John Mearsheimer. Dr. Mearsheimer is professor of political
science and international relations at the university of Chicago, and someone whose writings
and lectures I was assigned to study early on in my undergraduate coursework in American
foreign policy. His intellectual contributions have had a
profound influence, not only on me but on the thinking of an entire generation of students
in international relations. He’s been a vocal critic of neoliberal hegemony,
nation building, as well as the so-called forever wars that America has been engaged
in ever since our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He’s long argued on behalf of the realist
school, which views the international system as fundamentally anarchic and where the most
dominant concern among the great powers is defined by their desire and competition for
security, that sometimes leads to war. Our conversation today focuses on two major
themes of professor Mearsheimer’s latest book, “The Great Delusion,” where he attempts to
explain why American foreign policy since roughly the end of the Cold War up until the
present day has been such a colossal failure. And how much of that failure can be ascribed
to a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of America’s foreign policy elite about the
relationship between nationalism and liberalism, arguing that nationalism is by far the more
powerful of the two forces, and that therefore liberal hegemony was always destined to fail. He makes the argument for a more restrained,
humble US foreign policy that acknowledges not only the limits of nation building but
also the realities of international conflict that the United States is at risk of instigating
with countries like China and Russia with whom it is currently in a deep security competition. This conversation continues well into the
overtime. And this week’s rundown is particularly useful,
I think, for anyone trying to grapple with some of the concepts of international relations
that we lay out today. So if you’ve been on the fence about subscribing
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gotten consistent value from the work we do. So without any further ado, here is my conversation
with professor John Mearsheimer. Professor John Mearsheimer, welcome to Hidden
Forces. My pleasure to be here. It’s my pleasure having you on. How long have you been in New York? I’ve been here just today. Oh, you just got in? Yes. Although I was born in New York of many moons
ago and lived in New York city and then in West Chester County for most of my early life. Where did you grow up initially in New York
city. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up mainly
in Queens in an area called Richmond Hill. Oh, interesting. Where in Brooklyn where you born? I was born in an area called Crown Heights. Oh, that’s interesting. Well, you’re in Chicago now, how long have
you been at the university of Chicago? I’ve been there for roughly 37 years. I went there in 1982, it was my first teaching
job, and I’ve never left. So I told you that I first read your work
when I read the Israel Lobby, and I think it was 2007, is that correct? Yes. And you co-authored that with Stephen Walt,
and we had Steven on the program, I think he was episode 92. I see. So I’ve been waiting to have you on ever since
and I’m so happy we’re able to do this in person. You are now out with a new book. It’s been out for a couple of months now. It’s called the Great Delusion. What are you on now? Is this, like your fifth book? This is my sixth book. Your sixth book. So this is sort of a continuation of The Tragedy
of Great Powers, except that instead of being a rubric for realism, this kind of traverses
liberalism, realism, and nationalism. It looks how they all interplay. I like to think that I’ve written two major
theoretical works. The first was The Tragedy of Great Power of
Politics, which is really a realist track. It lays out my theory of realism. This new book, the Great Delusion goes beyond
tragedy, and it talks about the relationship between realism, nationalism, and liberalism. So the scope of this book is wider than the
scope of tragedy. So what was your objective in writing the
book, and what did you feel was missing from your body of work up until this point that
you wanted to address here? Well, I had two reasons for writing the book. First of all, I was very interested in explaining
why American foreign policy from 1989, when the cold war ended, up until roughly 2018
had been such a colossal failure. In other words, what went wrong? If you think back to the early 1990s, there
was so much optimism in the air about the direction the international system was headed,
about American foreign policy, and something went badly wrong. So number one, I wanted to try and figure
out what went wrong. Number two, I was also interested in writing
a book about the relationship between realism, liberalism, and nationalism. I always thought that nationalism was an incredibly
powerful political ideology and I had not written hardly anything about that. I’d written a little bit about liberalism,
and of course a lot about realism, so I thought it was time to write a book that dealt with
all three of those isms. And in doing that, I thought I could say a
great deal about what went wrong with American foreign policy over the course of the post
cold war period. What made you focus on nationalism? I thought from just watching how the world
works and reading different books and articles over the years, that nationalism was incredibly
powerful. Because of course, nationalism made a comeback
after the 9/11 attacks in a big way in the United States. I think that’s true in a certain sense, but
the argument that I make in the book is that nationalism is always there. Sometimes it’s below the surface and you don’t
see it. And I think what happened in the 1990s is
that liberalism was paid an enormous amount of attention and we talked liberalism, liberalism,
liberalism. And people began to think that nationalism
had disappeared, but of course it had not disappeared. And, as you point out, after 9/11, and certainly
in the last few years, it has begun to rear its head and become very obvious to almost
everybody in the West. So the book is really interesting because
like I said, it’s a theoretical treatise. There are references to historical facts,
but they’re there in service of helping build a larger theoretical framework, and there’s
also a lot of philosophy. And you pay a lot attention to that. And much of that really has to do with like
questions of human nature and also the individual, like what comes first, the group or the individual? I guess my first question is when did you
begin to study these writers like David Hume or Machiavelli or Plato or some of these philosophers
that dealt with these questions, and how important do you think this is? And perhaps also, how much is this missing
in political science, in the kinds of educational experiences that students have in college? How much are these foundational texts missing
and how important are they? Why did you include them basically? Well, my view is that to understand how the
world works, you have to have theories in your head, right? And if you have theories in your head, the
question you want to ask yourself is, what are those theories? Where did you get those theories from? And I therefore began to think, as I embarked
on this project that deals with liberalism, realism, and nationalism, about the great
writers who had written about subjects like liberalism. And of course I went to people like Thomas
Hobbes and John Locke and so forth. John Rawls. John Rawls for sure. Of course. Yes. And I began to examine their works very carefully. Now I want to emphasize that when I was a
graduate student at Cornell, in the latter half of the 1970s, I studied these individuals,
but it was my first introduction to them and my knowledge was quite superficial. But for purposes of writing this book, I had
to dig really deeply, and I had to figure out exactly what I thought nationalism is,
exactly what I think liberalism is, and then how do they compare to each other. And that involves dealing with big theoretical
issues. And by the way, these are not issues that
the average person cannot understand. I think these are pretty commonsensical and
pretty straight forward issues. It took me a long time to figure them out,
right? And figuring out how all the pieces of the
puzzle fit together. But nevertheless, I think the story that I
tell in the book, even though one would say it’s theoretical, is a book that a well-educated
person could understand. Totally. And I actually would recommend to listeners
not only to read your book, but to read it together with Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous
Mind.” Because I’ve read that book also, I don’t
know if you’re familiar with Jonathan’s work, but that deals basically with why people are
divided along politics and religion. And I think it embeds really well with what
you did in this book because both books, I think, help really bring a lot of clarity
to people who struggle to understand why are we so divided, why we argue along so many
lines. I mean so much of what I saw in his book in
terms of how he talks about conservative versus liberal, I saw in the way that you talked
about nationalism and liberalism. So what was the story that you’re trying to
tell in the book? Well, one of the main themes in the book is
that nationalism is a much more powerful force than liberalism. And the question you have to ask yourself
is why is that the case? My argument is that liberalism and nationalism
are built on a very different assumption about human nature, and that nationalism is built
on a more solid foundation. Now what exactly am I saying? Liberalism is predicated on the assumption
that we are all individuals from the start and that we come together and form social
groups. We form social contracts, but we are above
all else individuals. Nationalism, on the other hand, assumes that
we are from the get go social animals. We belong to groups. We belong to tribes. We belong to nations. Now the question you have to ask yourself,
the $64,000 question, so to speak, is which one of those assumptions is correct? And the fact is that we are all social animals
from the beginning, who later in life, this is when we get to be say eight or nine years
old, begin to carve out room for our individualism. So our individualism is subordinate to our
tribalism. That’s a very different way of looking at
the world than the liberal perspective, which starts with the individual. And I think is basically wrong headed. And for that reason, I think nationalism is
a more powerful force than liberalism, which is not to say liberalism doesn’t have any
power or any attractiveness at all. It certainly does. America is a fundamentally liberal country,
but America is also a very nationalistic country. We are a liberal nation state. That’s liberal nationalism. So there’s so many things I want to kind of
drill down in what you’re saying. One of them is this distinction between what
is a more primal force, which is nationalism, it sounds like, and liberalism, which is something
that relies much more on reason and reason thinking, right? You make this contrast in the book. My argument just about liberalism, and your
question is an excellent one because it gets at the essence of what liberalism is all about. Liberalism is predicated on the assumption
that we have powerful abilities to reason, but we cannot reach universal agreement on
the big questions about life. In other words, is abortion good or bad? Is affirmative action good or bad? Is democracy the best political system or
not? Human beings disagree over first principles. And sometimes they disagree so fervently that
they will kill each other. Liberalism is designed to deal with that problem. It’s designed to deal with the limits of reason. And the way liberalism works is that it privileges
individual rights. Remember the emphasis on the individual. And the idea is that if you and I disagree
on a particular issue, what happens in a liberal society is you have the right to live your
life the way you see fit and I have the right to live my life the way I see fit. If you want to be a Catholic, and I want to
be a Protestant, there’s space for you to be a Catholic and space for me to be a Protestant
and space for this person over here to be an atheist or this person to be a Muslim. So we all have rights, we all have freedoms
to live life as we see fit. And then the other thing that liberalism does
is it preaches the norm of tolerance. You have to have tolerance to make a liberal
society work. If you want to be a Protestant or Catholic
and I’m the opposite, I have to be tolerant of you and you have to be tolerant of me. So again, liberalism is predicated on the
belief that we cannot reach agreement on some of the core issues about human life. And therefore we have to carve out space in
civil society for each of us to be able to live our life the way we see fit. In other words, we have to have the right,
the freedom to live as we see fit. And we also have to be tolerant of each other. That’s really what liberalism is all about,
and it’s what makes it so attractive. So we should probably try to define some of
these terms like what is nationalism, what is liberalism? But you’re kind of doing that already. I want to throw out a couple of thoughts that
I had while you were talking. One is just in terms of moral philosophy,
this is the ought problem, the fact that the world is a certain way, but we have a sense
of how it should be. And everyone has a different idea of how it
ought to be. And this is sort of the fundamental problem. But two things that came to mind. One was when this country was founded, it
was founded with a certain set of Judeo-Christian principles and ideals. And I assume that most of the people, most
of the founders are, if not all of them, had some sense of universal morality that was
not something that they had to arrived at through reasoned investigation. And I wondered to what extent how liberalism
has transformed over the decades and centuries where we’ve become a more agnostic or atheist
society and we’ve had to sort of update how we think about universal morals. Because we still have a sense of right and
wrong in America, and we see that very much in foreign policy, so I want to throw that
out. And the other thing is you mentioned tolerance,
and you make this great point in the book about… I think you call it the liberal paradox, which
is that on the one hand a liberal society needs to be tolerant but at the same time
it can only tolerate so much. Because if it tolerates anything then the
state, which is integral to securing those rights, which really aren’t inalienable, goes
away. What are your- Well, let me deal with your first point, and
then if I forget the second- Oh, [crosstalk 00:17:35]- … I’m sure we can go to that one. … I scraped it down. I don’t think that this country was created
on the basis of Judeo-Christian principles. I think that this country was created on liberal
principles. And I think the founding fathers were not
that religious, and what they wanted to do was to create a state that left lots of room
for people to practice religion as they saw fit. And that’s what a liberal society is all about. Now, liberalism, I believe, has evolved over
the years in the sense that in the beginning the emphasis was mainly on negative rights. You had the right to live the way you saw
fit. And what’s happened over time is that liberals,
not all liberals, but a lot of liberals have come to emphasize not just negative rights,
the right to free speech, the right to assembly and so forth and so on, but they have begun
to introduce positive liberties into the story. In other words, people have the right to equal
opportunity. That’s a positive right. The right to equal opportunity. So what we have done is we have moved from
classical liberalism, with an emphasis on negative rights, to progressive liberalism
where there is an emphasis on positive rights. So like libertarianism, right? When we think about it, that’s- Exactly. Libertarianism was, in a sense, classical
liberalism. All you did was concentrate on negative liberties,
on freedom in the libertarian story. And libertarians don’t like positive rights. They don’t like the idea that you create a
state that goes out of its way to help people achieve equal opportunity. That’s a positive right. And libertarians don’t like that. But the fact is that libertarians have lost
the game. We live in a world of progressive liberalism. We live in a world where progressive rights
really matter. I do want to talk about that because you make
some interesting points in the book about the forces that have made it difficult for
libertarianism to actually exist in America, which is really interesting stuff I have thought
about before, like including industrialization. I want to go back to this point though about
the founders. So in that case, in your research, where did
the founding fathers, so to speak, the founders of this country, what was the foundation for
their sense of morality, which informed the drafting of the constitution, the bill of
rights? Well, the founding fathers were almost all
from Great Britain or from England, and they had been heavily influenced by liberal thinking
in England. And here people like Thomas Hobbes, who, although
he was not a liberal, I believe, was the person who laid the foundation for liberalism, and
people like John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and others just mattered enormously. And the founding fathers, in putting together
the constitution, thought long and hard about how to create a liberal state. They were dealing with a country, and we’re
talking here about the United States, that had a whole slew of different religions within
it. Most of them were Protestant religions, but
there were puritans, there were Baptists, there were Methodists, there were just all
sorts of different kinds of religions in the United States of America at the beginning. And they didn’t want to privilege any one
religion, they wanted to give people the right to practice religion as they saw fit. That’s what liberalism is all about. Well, America, at its founding, was a more
liberal… Am I correct to assume that it was a more
liberal society than the Great Britain? And are you saying that that was in part a
reflection of the realities of an extremely diverse country? I’m not sure that it was in practice more
liberal when it was founded, mainly because of slavery. Right. But when did they abolish slavery in Great
Britain? They abolished that later, after 1783. But the point is there were many more slaves
in the United States. And the slave trade was an enormous business
in the US. Absolutely. During that time. Absolutely. Yeah. I think in principle, the United States was
a fundamentally liberal country from the beginning. And again- … it was a fundamentally liberal nation
state. It’s the combination of liberalism and nationalism. But it was a fundamentally liberal state in
principle from the beginning, but in practice it was not, mainly because of slavery. And I would also note when the European immigrants,
the so-called hyphenated Europeans begin to come in in the 1830s, from 1830 up until world
war II, they’re actually treated- The Irish and the Italians. … very [crosstalk 00:22:33]. Those, Yeah. Yes, exactly. Especially the Irish. Yeah. Also, of course, there’s the native peoples
of the Americas. A couple of days ago I downloaded a C-SPAN
podcast. I used to listen to C-SPAN stuff a long time
ago. It’s been a while. But I came across a couple of lectures, fascinating. They weren’t really good unfortunately, but
they had a fascinating title, and it was basically looking at the policy, what would effectively
be the foreign policy of the settlers towards the natives in the Americas at the time. It’s interesting, because I was preparing
for this conversation, I just thought I’d never thought of it that way. And of course I’m pretty sure what was the
Bureau of Indian Affairs was like one of the first departments that was created in the
United States. I don’t know that for a fact, but I’m sure
that was the case. It was an old one. So let’s go back to this question I had, which
was to really define what do we mean when we talk about nationalism? I mean, you’ve talked about some of it, but
what is nationalism? Nationalism is, as I said before, predicated
on the assumption that we are all social animals and that we, in the modern world, are born
into social groups called nations. We’re born into the Italian nation, the American
nation, the Japanese nation. There are all these different nations around
the world, right? That’s the first part of the definition. And the second part of the definition is the
belief that each one of those nations should have its own state. Its own physical territory also. Yes, physical territory. Of course, if you have a state, you have physical
territory, you have control over that territory. And very importantly, you emphasize the importance
of sovereignty or self determination. You do not want other nation states interfering
in your politics. That’s what sovereignty is all about. But anyway, to go back to the definition,
the word nation state, and of course the planet is filled with nothing but nation States,
if you think about it. The word nation state encapsulates the definition
of nationalism. We are all social animals born into nations
and those nations that we’re born into want their own state. Think about Zionism, right? What Zionism is basically Jewish nationalism. Theodore Hertzel, who was the founding father
of Zionism, his most famous book is called the Jewish State. Jewish nation state, the Jewish state. Think about the Palestinians. What do the Palestinians want? They want a state of their own, a Palestinian
state. This is what the two states solution is all
about. So you can see when you talk about Zionism
and you talk about Palestinian nationalism, that it’s really all about this concept called
the nation state, which again embodies nationalism. Well, I mean the same was true. I’m Greek and the same is true also of the
Greek nation. And it’s interesting, we saw also, by the
way, the same thing happen after the breakup of the Soviet Union and also during the world
war one interwar period. There was also, I guess, historically, a lot
of the great powers used nationalism to try and reorganize the world, whether it was in
Africa, Eastern Europe, et cetera. And so like nationhood would be considered
the largest social grouping that we have ever devised in the world. The largest sense of grouping. I don’t know if it’s the largest grouping
ever, right? Some people might say that civilizations are
larger grouping. What would be an example of that? Like the Huntington style? Yes, exactly. Sam Huntington wrote about civilizations,
which is a broader concept than nations, but I believe that civilizations are nowhere near
as powerful as nations are. And that would be one of my fundamental criticisms
of Huntington’s book. Talking about civilizations doesn’t take you
far, if you want to understand the modern world, you want to talk about nations. And to get to your question, there’s no doubt
that what’s happened over the past 200 years is that lots of the political institutions
that were out there like empires, think of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire,
the Russian empire and so forth and so on. They have all fallen apart in large part because
of nationalism. And that’s why the world today doesn’t have
any meaningful empires, its instead comprised of nation States. What happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire? You now have Austria, you have Hungary, you
have the Czech Republic, you have Slovakia and so forth and so on. What happened to the Ottoman empire? It completely fell apart. You have Turkey, that’s the remnant state,
and then you have all these different States in the middle East. That’s so interesting. It’s been a very long time since I read that
paper. I didn’t read the book, I read the paper,
and it was 2003. But I recall Huntington saying that China,
the Chinese nation is not really exactly a nation, it’s kind of a civilization. I think it was sort of an interesting point
that he made and I don’t know if you remember that. I mean it’s just come into my head now, but
it’s a remarkable country because it’s 1.4 billion people that manage to basically have
a very strong sense of nationhood and identity. But it’s a nation state. It’s not a civilization. It is. But I’m just saying, I remember him saying
that in the paper. Or I think at least he said it. And it just came to my mind because it is
such a large community that has a sense of nationhood. Yes. You know what I’m saying? And that’s unusual because we don’t have like
anything near that size, I guess Indians. But Indians are very tribal too, right? It’s almost like confederal in a sense. It’s not confederal, but- No, I think you can talk about an Indian nation
state. I mean in all of these countries, whether
you’re talking about China or India, there are divisions. For example, in India there are Muslims, huge
Muslim community, and there are Hindus. And in a place like China, there’s Tibet and
then there’s the Uyghurs. There are all sorts of tensions among different
groups in both of those societies for sure. But they aren’t both nation States. Does it matter in your view? And also how would you even go about measuring
this? Measuring social cohesion within a nation? Like we saw, for example, one of the issues
with US social engineering trying to build democracy in the Middle East, the challenges
that the United States government had in a country like Iraq where you had these tribal
divisions, where this country was sort of clubbed together. How do you think about that when it comes
to looking at nations and nationalism? Well, I think that there are a number of nation
states around the world, which are comprised of different groups. And one might even say comprised of different
nations that are looking to break away. Like Syria. Syria would be one. I mean Spain is actually another example,
if you think about Catalonia, right? I mean the Catalonians for the most part would
love to gain independence from Spain, and the government in Madrid is doing everything
it can to hold Spain together. There are many people who think that as a
result of Brexit, Great Britain will break apart. Scotland. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales will go
their separate ways. So I think what our discussion here highlights
is that although I talk about nation states as if they were closely knit coherent holes,
that’s usually not the case. And the nationalism in many cases is quite
thin. But nevertheless, I believe it is there. We’re going a little bit off topic now with
my question, but I’m going to ask, as it popped into my head. When I was in college, I was studying for
a year abroad and I wrote a paper based on some of the stuff that we were learning in
a class on European Union, and it was around the irony of integration. That as the European Union was integrating
more and more, there was fractures were happening within the nation states themselves. And I think this is a really fascinating example
of the power of nationalism, the European union, right? Well, the European Union was designed to ameliorate,
if not do- Exactly. Yeah. … away with nationalism. What you wanted to do is take Germans and
turn them into Europeans, take Greeks and turn them into Europeans, take Spaniards and
turn them into Europeans. That did not happen, number one. And number two, as you’re pointing out, if
you look inside the various states that comprise the European Union, inside most of those states,
you saw quite significant political cleavages. You saw real centrifical forces. This is true in Spain as we were talking about. France also. Yeah, France, it’s true. In Belgium. And this is true in many countries around
the world. When I was studying this, the country that
I looked at closely was France with the national front. Le Pen. Le Pen’s party. Europe’s fascinating because it really… It seems to me that Europe was the attempt
by the Europeans to do… Basically it came right after a world war
where Hitler and the Nazi Reich had attempted to unify the continent by force, and then
the project basically look to still unify the continent but do it diplomatically over
a long period of time. And it seems that it’s failing. I don’t know what you think of where the European
Union is at this point. Well, I think almost everybody agrees that
the European Union is today in trouble. I think up until roughly 2009 when the Euro
crisis hit big time, most people were quite confident about the direction the EU was headed. I mean at the end of the 1990s, the Euro was
introduced, and the 1990s were a period of great prosperity for countries in the European
union. I think most people thought the EU was headed
in the right direction and in fact nationalism would be ameliorated over time. Then starting in about 2009, things began
to go south. And I think in 2016 with Brexit, a hammer
blow was delivered to the EU. And now if you just sort of look at what’s
going on in countries like Italy and countries like Greece, and you look at the differences
between France and Germany over how to run Europe, it doesn’t look like a happy future
is in store. It’s so fascinating because this brings us
back to what you said at the beginning, which was really how we went from the 1990s to where
we are today. And the 1990s was such an optimistic time,
not just in the US but Maastricht was passed in the early 90s, Germany reunification happened. The Euro, monetary union, when they were… It’s remarkable to go back, because I had
studied this period in college, when the technocrats in Europe would debate… As you know, I’m sure, the technocrats in
Europe were debating Maastricht and the Euro. They saw the problems that they could encounter,
but they saw them as opportunities. They saw the discrepancy between fiscal monetary
policy, the tensions it would create as crisis opportunities for further integration. They saw it optimistically. Now, these things are sources of instability
on the continent. Yes. It’s quite remarkable. It is quite remarkable. I think the article, one of the most important
articles written in modern times, it was Francis Fukuyama’s piece that appeared in the national
interest in 1989, entitled, The End of History. And basically what Fukuyama argued in that
piece was that the liberal democracies had defeated fascism in the first half of the
20th century. They had defeated communism in the second
half of the 20th century. And now the only viable political form of
government that was left for every state on the planet was liberal democracy. So Fukuyama’s basic argument was that over
time we were going to have more and more liberal democracies until we reached the point where
the planet had nothing but liberal democracies on it. And in a world like that, we were going to
live happily ever after. And if you read the Fukuyama piece carefully,
he says at the end that he believes the greatest problem that we are likely to face in the
future is boredom. Boredom. Because he thinks that liberal democracy is
on the march and it’s for everybody. And of course it’s not turned out to be the
case at all. It’s amazing these periods of optimism. Now who was it in the early 20th century who
wrote similarly about industrialization? The optimism around the type of wealth that
industrialization would create, where people would become effectively bored. That was the- Well, there was a book called The Great Illusion. Oh, Angel’s book, right? That’s right. Norman Angel. Right. Yeah, exactly. And the title of my book is a play on Norman
Angel. It’s interesting. I think I had read pieces of Norman’s book,
and I had seen it referenced often because of course it came right before World War I. And had effectively predicted that World War
I would not happen- Correct. … on account of economic interdependence
that the great powers would no longer go into conflict because their fates were so intertwined
economically and that the importance of their economies would trump security. Yeah. This is a common argument even today with
regard to US-China relations. Many people believed that United States and
China will not ever fight each other because of all the economic interdependence. The basic underlying assumption here is that
prosperity trumps security. That states care more about prosperity than
anything else. And because you have all these economic interdependence,
if you go to war, the end result will be that you’ll damage the prosperity that both sides
or all sides are enjoying. And many people thought this was the case
before World War I. But obviously security concerns trump prosperity
concerns and you had World War I. Countries like Germany, and I believe Germany
was principally responsible for starting World War I, were concerned about the balance of
power. The Germans were deeply fearful that Russia
was going to grow and grow and grow, and because it had such a large population, it would become
the dominant power in Europe and it would threaten Germany. So what the Germans wanted to do was attack
Russia and weaken it before Russia got so powerful that it could attack Germany. Those calculations trumped calculations about
prosperity, which were largely driven by all of the economic interdependence in Europe
at the time. That’s also a really fascinating period. We covered it only peripherally in an episode
with Bruce Schneier on cybersecurity because I used the Cult of Offense, the Schlieffen
plan as a stepping stone to where we are today with cyber warfare because of course mobilization
mattered during World War I. It mattered enormously. They were incentivized to mobilize. And we’ve just talked about it in the context
of cyber war, where now not only is there an advantage to striking first, if you don’t
strike fast enough, you could lose your weapon because the weapon is an exploit and the exploit
could be patched. That’s just a fascinating period to study. Yeah, well the Germans had a problem in World
War I, not to get too far- No, please. I love these stuff. But the Germans faced the two front war problem. They had to fight the Russians in the east
and the French in the west at the same time. Actually the French and the British in the
west, and the Russians in the east at the same time. So they had a deep seated interest in striking
as fast as possible against France and Britain in the west, defeating France and Britain
in the west while leaving themselves exposed in the east, and then shifting forces to the
east to deal with the Russians. That situation created incentives for the
Germans to strike in the west with the Schlieffen plan as quickly as possible. This also makes me think about something. I wonder, have you found in your research,
historical research, that there is a correlation between being landlocked and being nationalistic? Are countries that are more exposed to threats,
that are more threatened, are they more nationalistic than other countries? Than an Island country, for example, like
New Zealand? No, I don’t think so. I think that nationalism is everywhere. I think that every country is nationalistic. I think countries that operate on real estate
where they have next door neighbors who can attack them, think about war differently than
countries that are basically islands. If you’re Great Britain, you’re not going
to think about attacking France or attacking Germany because you have this huge body of
water called the English channel between Britain on one hand and the continent on the other. But if you’re Germany and France or you’re
Germany and Russia or you’re Germany and Poland, and your next door neighbors, and your armies
can just cross the border that separates these different countries, you think seriously about
war all the time. So I think it’s just how you think about war
that’s different between Island countries and let’s call them land powers like Germany
and France and Poland and Russia. Because this also makes me think about something
else. You mentioned Russia and the concern that
the Germans had about Russia’s population growth. Well, not its populations growth. They took its population growth for granted. What they were worried about was its economic
growth. It was population growth plus economic growth. So population, economics, and I think geopolitical
or geo-strategic positioning or territorial positioning are probably the sort of three
classic pillars that manifest as sort of power in a nation state. I don’t know if I’ve got that right exactly. But what I’m basically trying to say is that
we have sort of analog, traditional notions of what power politics is about, or what military
strength comes from rather is what I meant to say. Military positioning. So where you’re positioned, the size of your
population, and the strength of your economy. But we live in a very different world today
where technology has disrupted modern warfare at the very least, and we also see changing
demographics, but it’s not clear to me that let’s say a country with very poor structural
demographics like Germany or Japan for example, would be at the same disadvantage today as
they would’ve been a hundred years ago militarily because of their population. You don’t talk about that much in the book. I don’t know that you did or didn’t really
come across, but do you think about that at all? How does that work in your mind? Well, I talk about this at great length in
the Tragedy of Great Power Politics. My argument is that the two principle ingredients
of power are population size and wealth. You have to have a large population and you
have to have a lot of wealth. China was not considered a great power during
the cold war in large part because it didn’t have a lot of wealth. I mean it did have a lot of population, a
lot of people, but it didn’t have a lot of wealth. China today has a lot of people and it has
a lot of wealth, and that’s why we are so worried about China. So those are the two key building blocks. I don’t think where you’re located geographically
tells you much about power. It tells you a lot about your potential for
fighting wars against neighbors. Now there is one major qualification to that
argument and that is the presence of nuclear weapons. One could argue that even if you’re not very
powerful, you don’t have that large population. Let’s just say you’re Japan compared to China,
right? Japan is a much smaller country, population-wise,
than China is. And let’s hypothesize a situation where they
have the same per capita gross national income, right? So wealth is pretty much equal. One could argue that Japan doesn’t have much
to worry about because it has, in this world I’m describing, it would have nuclear weapons. Japan with nuclear weapons would be okay. It would be secure versus China, even though
China is much more powerful in terms of those traditional indicators of population size
and wealth. And that’s because of nuclear weapons. But the fact is, if you look at how states
behave, most states don’t think that nuclear weapons buy you that much security, and they
do care about the size of their army and the size of their Navy. So nuclear weapons do matter, but they don’t
matter that much. And what that tells me- That’s interesting. … is you can go back to the story I tell
in Tragedy of Great Power Politics. The story that existed well before nuclear
weapons, which is that what really matters for measuring the global distribution of power
is population size and the strength of your economy. That’s really interesting. I wish I had read Great Power of Politics
because I have two questions that seem to run counter that, or they have embedded in
them some sort of assumptions or beliefs. So when you were talking about nuclear weapons,
I was thinking about Iran, of course, and I was… Actually I should have also mentioned North
Korea, but also thinking about Ukraine, a country that gave up its nuclear weapons. And I wonder would they be in the same position
they are today, vis-a-vis Russia, had they not given up their nuclear weapons? Question number one. And question number two, in a world, let’s
say where we experience climactic changes, significant climactic changes, for example,
is there not an argument to be made that perhaps there is a point at which population becomes
a liability for national cohesion in a country, let’s say, like India? Could that actually be counterproductive? Let me deal with your first question. You probably don’t realize this, but I wrote
an article in 1993 that appeared in the same issue of Foreign Affairs where Samuel Huntington’s
famous Clash of Civilization- No, I didn’t know this. … article appeared, where I said that Ukraine
should keep its nuclear weapons. That’s so interesting. And that it should keep its nuclear weapons
because- That’s ironic, given what we were just saying. Yes, because the day will come where the Russians
will cause trouble in Ukraine. I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be laughing. And the Ukrainians will- Interesting. … wish they had nuclear weapons. So interesting. So how do you square that with what you said
before about, it doesn’t really seem to matter so much? Well, I think almost everybody agrees that
nuclear weapons make it almost impossible for another country to invade that nuclear
armed country. My point to you was that countries with nuclear
weapons tend not to feel very secure. Just think about Israel. Israel is the only country in the middle East
that has nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent. Yet the Israelis worry constantly about their
security. During the cold war, in Western Europe, we
had the American nuclear umbrella over every country in NATO. Yet we built very powerful conventional forces
and we constantly worried about a Warsaw pact conventional attack into Europe. In other words, the Israelis don’t think nuclear
weapons provide that much deterrence and NATO forces, NATO countries didn’t think nuclear
weapons provided that much deterrence. So it’s how countries think about nuclear
weapons. But my point is if Ukraine had nuclear weapons,
I think the Russians would not be in Eastern Ukraine today. I think they still would have taken Crimea. I think that Ukrainian nuclear weapons probably
would not have prevented Russia from taking Crimea, but I do not believe they’d be in
Eastern Crimea. And I would believe the Ukrainians would feel
more secure, not totally secure, given what I said about how countries think about what
nuclear weapons give them in terms of deterrence, but they’d feel more secure than they now
do if they had nuclear weapon. I also wonder to what degree there’s an asymmetry. In other words, the North Koreans, I think,
benefit much more, and I think the Iranians would too, by having nuclear weapons because
there’s a disproportionate threat that they can deliver against the United States. In other words, for Israel, they would be
using the nuclear weapons against countries within striking… I mean very close to themselves. They’d be threatening those countries directly. Whereas in the case of like a North Korea,
they can basically have a completely dilapidated economy and maintain their grip on power entirely
because they can threaten the United States, which is basically a proxy of the country
that’s immediately to their South, which is the real concern, which is South Korea. Well, the North Koreans would have a similar
problem to the problem that Israel has in terms of using nuclear weapons against countries
that are close by. Well, I mean against the United States, they
basically can threaten the US- Not yet. North Korea can’t threat us yet. I thought the debate was that they might actually
be able to do it. They haven’t tested an intercontinental ballistic
missile to prove that they could do it, but theoretically they might have something that
could hit California. That’s not correct? Not yet. Oh, interesting. Not yet. I do not believe that they’re there yet. I do believe that they will get there. I think the greater threat at this point in
time is that they would use nuclear weapons against either the South Korea or Japan, and
you want to remember that there are large concentrations of American military forces
in both South Korea and in Japan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the North Koreans would use
nuclear weapons, that they’d target those American forces. But you’re correct that it is somewhat difficult
for North Korea to think about using nuclear weapons in its neighborhood. And the same thing is true of course, of Israel,
with regard to Israel. But I would just say turning to Iran, I think
from Iran’s point of view, it should have nuclear weapons because if Iran had nuclear
weapons, I believe the United States and Israel would not be threatening to attack Iran. Now it’s not in our interest for Iran to have
nuclear weapons. I want to be very clear in that. From an American point of view, and certainly
from an Israeli point of view, you don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. But from Iran’s point of view, having a nuclear
deterrent I think would force the Americans and the Israelis to stop threatening Iran
for fear that Iran might use those weapons. I want to come back to those contemporary
issues and what you think are some of the strategic challenges facing the world as we
move forward into this new century. But I want to again, come back to your book
and explore some more of these themes. So one of the things that you write about
in the book is that nations want states and states want nations, which I thought was really
interesting. Can you explore that here a bit? What do you mean when you say that? Well, you want to remember that when I talked
about what is nationalism? Nationalism is all about nation states, right? And that came out of the treaty of Westphalia? The nation state? No, the states that existed at the time of
the treaty of Westphalia, which was back in the 17th century. I think in 1649. But back then, you were dealing with dynastic
states, not nation states. Most people believed that nation states came
on the scene in the late 1700s. Usually either France or the United States
are categorized as the first nation states. Post monarchy? Post French revolution. Post French revolution. Napoleon actually- Pre Napoleon? Yeah. Well, just immediately before Napoleon. So if you look at the key works on nationalism,
it’s usually the United States or France that is sort of treated as the first nation state. And that’s why nationalism is a powerful force
in the 1800s, the 1900s, and of course in this century. It’s a force that’s been around for a little
over 200 years. But before that, before the French revolution,
before the American revolution, you did not have nation states, you had dynastic states. Right. And those were different political forms for
sure. We have this great quote by David Armitage. Is there any relation with him and Rich Armitage? Not that I know. Are they the same generation? I wasn’t familiar with him before that. But he has this great quote that you have
in the book, and the excerpt that you have in the book is, and I quote, “The great political
fact of global history in the last 500 years is the emergence of a world of states from
a world of empires. That fact more than the expansion of democracy,
more than nationalism, more than the language of rights, more than even globalization, fundamentally
defines the political universe we all inhabit.” Would you agree with that? Yeah, I would agree with that. And he’s basically saying that if you look
at the planet today, it’s filled with nothing but nation states. Again, this emphasizes, or this makes clear
how powerful nationalism is as a force. But if you were to look at Europe, let’s say
in 1450, or you were to look at the globe in 1450, it was filled with all sorts of different
kinds of political forms. Europe had principalities, duchies, city states,
empires. It was fascinating. Yes. It was a remarkably heterogeneous world. And what happened over time is that all those
empires went away, right? Europe came together as a body of nation states,
and then all over the planet in places like Africa, places like Asia, what happened was
nation states were formed, and that’s the world that we live in today. I think that’s basically what Armitage is
talking about. And he in effect is saying, in my opinion,
that nationalism is more important than globalization or any of these other forces that we pay so
much attention to. This is not to say that things like globalization
don’t matter, that would be ridiculous. Or to say that nuclear weapons don’t matter,
or that liberalism doesn’t matter. That’s not the argument. My argument is nationalism is just so powerful
to just shape the world in profound ways. So what would a map of Europe in 1100 AD look
like? Well, a map of Europe in 1100 would be filled
with a whole sort of smorgasbord of different kinds of- You wouldn’t even be able to make it out. I say that because- It’s one of those things where if I gave you
a week to memorize all the different places on the map in Europe, you probably would fail
the exam. There are probably like werewolves and elves
and stuff in there. Yeah. It was just a very different world than exists
today. This was medieval Europe. Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was in high school in 10th grade, I
was in an AP European history class and the teacher was very passionate about European
history, and he had us read “A World That Only If By Fire,” which is a sort of history
of the middle ages. I’ve mentioned this before some years ago
in another interview, and some people got on my case about it, saying it wasn’t accurate. I don’t know how accurate you can get about
the middle ages. But it was fascinating. It was a fascinating read just sort of describing
this world. One of the things that she mentions in the
book, the author was that basically beyond borders, there were… Literally maps also would show like unicorns
and things like that, which I guess brings me to the thing that I was really thinking
about, which is how our world, to go back to Armitage, that our world is defined by
the nation state, and that in fact we think about the world, that very much our mental
constructs of the world are in terms of nations. And I think that’s a powerful thing to recognize. I think that in the liberal west, that is
not always true. I think that most liberals in the west, and
this certainly includes the United States, think about liberal states. Most Americans don’t think of the United States
as a nation state. They do not think of the United States as
a very nationalistic power. They think nationalism is a force that doesn’t
matter that much here in the United States. What really matters is liberalism. But of course my argument is that they’re
wrong. Elsewhere around the world, once you’re outside
of the United States or more generally outside of the West, nationalism is just a well-recognized
force, and people consciously think in terms of nation states. Is that because we’re an empire and we have
felt for so long so secure in our position? No, it’s because we’re a liberal state and
liberal ideology is so deeply baked into our DNA that we gravitate to thinking about liberalism
above all else. And you want to remember our earlier discussion
here, where I pointed out to you that there’s a real tension between liberalism and nationalism. And liberals tend to dislike nationalism intensely. So they don’t want to pay nationalism much
attention, therefore they’re not going to tend to talk, this is Americans, in terms
of nation states. They’re going to talk in terms of the liberal
state. This is Fukuyama. Yeah. Early 90s. This is early 90s. Nationalism was a scourge that the Europeans
in particular, the European project, The EU was about eliminating nationalism from Europe,
which was seen as the cause of war. That’s correct. Do you see that argument being made all the
time? So it’s very important to understand that
this tension between liberalism and nationalism exists, and that in liberal countries like
the United States and most West European states, at this point in time, nationalism is seen,
to use your terminology, as a scourge. But the French, the French have always been
hyper-nationalistic and they are a very liberal state. Yes, that’s true. And my point to you is that everybody’s been
nationalistic. Most countries have not been that out front
about it. But let me give you a good example. This is one of my favorite quotes from an
American policymaker, who is viewed as a card carrying liberal, who, if you think carefully
about what she is saying, is talking in very nationalistic terms. And this is Madeline Albright, who was asked,
when she was secretary of state, why the United States was intervening all over the world. And she said, “It is because we are the indispensable
nation. We stand taller and we see further.” Just think about what she’s saying. 1990s again. We are the indispensable nation. There’s the word, nation. She recognizes we are a nation. We are the indispensable nation, we stand
taller, we see further. That’s the chauvinism that invariably comes
along with nationalism. So Madeline Albright, who is a profound liberal
imperialist or profound liberal hegemonist, is also a first order nationalist. Absolutely. Again, it made me think about the 90s. As you were talking, I was looking at another
quote that I had here of Hannah Arendt that you have in the book, where she talks about
the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human, as the greatest danger to the rights
of the people, specifically in the case of Germany. But again, it brings us to this tension between
liberalism and nationalism because nationalism is so empirically important for securing the
rights that liberals hold so dear. Right? So I mean, what are we seeing today, in your
view, in terms of this resurgence of nationalism in the US, in the UK, in Europe, what’s being
tapped into that’s causing that? I think there are a number of things that
are going on here. I think that liberalism has failed in a number
of important ways, and what it has done is that it has brought nationalism to the surface
in ways that we didn’t anticipate in the 1990s. A really good example of that would be open
borders immigration. And in Europe in particular with the case
of Syrian refugees, which harps on the strings of liberal impulses and yet it’s destabilizing
to the nation state. Yes, this is a really good example of the
tension between liberalism and nationalism. You want to remember that liberalism privileges
individual rights, and liberalism says that those rights are inalienable. This is of enormous importance. That means that every person on the planet
has the same set of rights. Therefore, there’s going to be a powerful
tendency in the liberal approach to international politics to favor open borders or porous borders,
to worry about the rights of people in the Middle East and to see them in very similar
terms to the way Europeans are supposed to see themselves, because we all are part of
this body of people who have universal rights. So liberals are going to have no trouble with
open borders. In fact, they’re going to like open borders. But nationalism is all about tribalism. It’s all about the belief that you belong
to a particular tribe, you operate on a particular piece of real estate. You control those borders, you control who
comes in, you control what the nation looks like. And then if you really begin to think about
it, is at odds with the idea that you can just let anybody in the country. And you see the same thing in the United States. Trump understands full well that the American
people are very nationalistic, and they just don’t want open borders. Illegal immigration drives most Americans
crazy. The idea that just anybody can come in. Americans are not against immigration, but
the belief of most Americans is that the government should control who comes in and the government
should reflect the will of the people. But liberalism, in very important ways, again,
pushes in a very different direction. It favors open borders. It doesn’t favor discriminating against people
who come from other countries and want to come here because we all have inalienable
rights. There’s a certain similarity between all of
us. That’s interesting, and that brings us to
your distinction about Universalist and Particularist strands. Also, something else that’s really interesting
here is that liberalism celebrates diversity and yet too much diversity begins to chip
away at the national solidarity that’s needed to keep the state together. That’s exactly right. Professor Mearsheimer, I want to continue
this conversation into the overtime where I really want to talk about liberal hegemony,
and that’s really a way of talking about American empire, and that’s not a traditional empire,
but the American hegemony since World War II. And then I also want to see how much we can
tackle in terms of some of these current geopolitical issues we face, in particular China. And I know you’ve talked a lot about China. I’ve seen a number of recent talks that you’ve
given. For regular listeners, you know the drill. If you’re new to the program or if you haven’t
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back. I look forward to it. Today’s episode of Hidden Forces was recorded
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7 Comments

  • Aengrod

    What a load of nonsense. Guy lists different 'religions' which turn out to be different denominations of Christianity, ergo he has no idea what he is talking about. Also, there are no such thing as Judeo-Christian values. Two religions are complete opposite, including values.

  • finewhatever

    Interesting Discussion. I had not even heard of Mearsheimer before. I have heard of Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington who were mentioned. Thanks for posting this.

  • Fusion

    This guy proves that you can take something that everyone already knows, stamp your name on it, and then get paid to talk about it. Pretty sure every kid in high school has figured this out.

  • marsmotion

    fascinating discussion. thanks for sharing. japans biggest worry will be if the ring of fire goes really active. how do you think that the coming non human caused climate shifts and cosmic super wave or solar activation cycle earth changes will interact with human organizational structures like nation states? will the shifts cause cooperation or nation state wars? the latter, solar activation/super wave pour more EM energy into the earths core causing more volcanism and earthquakes and continent subduction and lifting. the super wave will bring in more cosmic particles from space affecting human dna and causing more solar flares. these coming earth changes, not human caused, will be very large factors in the future.

  • Hidden Forces

    Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to Hidden Forces and gain access to the episode overtime, transcript, and show rundown here: http://patreon.com/hiddenforces

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