The Great Delusion. John Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer, John. The Great Delusion. Yale, New Haven, 2018. NF; 6/22.

Mearsheimer is a political scientist and specialist in international relations, known for his orientation referred to as realism. In this plain-spoken at times colloquial book he is devastatingly critical of progressive liberalism which he says is in control of the United States. His criticism focuses on progressive liberalism’s belief that every human being has positive inalienable rights, and that a liberal democracy has a duty to convert other nation-states to its views, which it believes will lead to peace.

Mearsheimer says that among human values or first principles the most important one is survival. He believes it, along with nationalism, are fundamental to human nature. Progressive liberalism he says “invariably loses when it clashes with nationalism”. This he believes is why liberalism’s attempt to socially engineer other countries leads and has led to continual war. Progressive liberalism ends up forcing itself into realist situations and so its agenda of human rights-based world peace loses moral consistency and credibility and just fails.

Mearsheimer says he “begin(s) with two simple assumptions about human nature: there are significant limits on our ability to reason about first principles, and we are social animals at our core.” This seems to mean that different nations will disagree about first principles – what the good life is– and each will identify its first principles with its nation and its people will form a strong emotional social conviction which is nationalism. He and what he calls modus vivendi liberals reject the progressive liberal enterprise of convincing everyone about universality of inalienable rights as a first principle, and argues for restraint in confronting other countries who may have different ones. Coexistence with nations’ various first principles including illiberal ones is the only way to peace he believes.

His labels of political movements is different than the ones I’m used to (liberals and conservatives) in that he talks of liberals as either “progressive” or “modus vivendi” where the latter correspond roughly to what I would think of as moderate conservatives in the United States:

Modus vivendi liberals, in line with their emphasis on protecting individual freedoms and their skepticism about positive rights, maintain that the state should involve itself in society as little as possible. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be dismissive about governments’ ability to do social engineering. Progressive liberals take the opposite view.

In the background throughout this book is scepticism about the possibility of world government. In a nation the state government with its police and judiciary is a “night watchman” preventing or controlling violence, but we are repeatedly reminded that there is no such arbiter in the international world. “How can liberalism be a pacifier in a world without a night watchman?” he asks, and insists the “structure of the international system is anarchic, not hierarchic, which means that liberalism applied to international politics cannot work.“

This book was published early in Donald Trump’s presidency, but the present problems involving Russia and the Ukraine were already brewing. There is a more recent video of Mearsheimer being interviewed where he is firmly critical of the US and other Western countries’ pushing Ukrainian membership in NATO in Russia’s face and supplying the Ukrainian military with weapons while remaining unwilling to enter the war.  Putin preoccupied with survival and expressing Russian nationalism cannot afford to lose in the Ukraine, nor can the progressive liberal US afford backing down in another military conflict. China, he says, will be the only winner in this war. Of course what’s certain is that the losers will be the Ukrainian people.

As I’ve said before in other contexts I’m convinced that failure by the left and right to tone down their ideology and get serious about compromise is the United States’ biggest problem. Each side holds different visions of human nature and both insist their vision is correct and exclusive of the other’s. For the left, people are fundamentally decent, cooperative, and kind. For the right human beings are selfishly but understandably fixated on personal survival and well-being. Isn’t it blindingly obvious in our faces that both of these caricatures are critically important, exist in just about everybody, and need to be respected?

In reading this book and balancing it with Tom Malleson’s Fired Up About Capitalism I’m trying again (as I did with Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities and books by conservatives Roger Kimball and Patrick Deneen) to see if I can make some kind of sense of the problem I’ve just described. Having finished these two books I find them both convincing and reasonable. But both authors seems to suffer from a Great Delusion: the other side is winning and is in control of society. Or at least there’s a need or opportunity to represent things that way. It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma. We don’t trust them not to push their interest all the way because we can’t.

It continues to bemuse and bewilder me (at times drive me half-crazy) that as well as an obvious and carefully-maintained blindness to the positive values of the other side, the caricatures of both the right and the left involve beliefs based in a religious, quasi-religious, or humanistic philosophical ideology. Fairly fundamental traditional Christianity on the right and non-denominational humanism on the left. People are fundamentally good say both sides! Except for the crazies on the (here insert right or left). All our troubles are their fault!

The only way I can see out of that trap is for each “side” to understand and accept that holding the conviction that their opponent is winning and can’t be reasonably negotiated with is true for both sides. And there really is a lot in common between the fundamental ideology of both sides.

I give this book credit as a clear and consistent description of what it calls modus vivendi liberalism. When will someone disinterested credibly write the story of America locked in this fatal opposition of views?


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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