Since November 2016, the U.S. foreign policy community has embarked on an extended voyage of soul-searching, filling the pages of publications like this one with essays on the past, present, and future of the liberal international order and the related question of where U.S. grand strategy goes from here. The prevailing sentiment is not for just more of the same. Big questions are up for debate in ways they have not been for many years. What is the purpose of U.S. foreign policy? Are there fundamental changes in the world that demand a corresponding change in approach?
Into this earnest and reflective conversation enter Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, each with a new book, each making his long-standing argument about the failures of U.S. foreign policy with renewed ferocity. Walt’s is called The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy; Mearsheimer’s is The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. The titles give clear hints of the cases they lay out: against democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, nation building, and NATO expansion; for restraint and offshore balancing.
Each of the two books does add something new. Walt’s contains an extended attack on the foreign policy community, painting a dark picture, across multiple chapters, of a priesthood gripped by various pathologies, leading the country astray. Mearsheimer, meanwhile, turns to political theory to explore the relationship among liberalism, nationalism, and realism. Liberalism, he says, cannot alter or abolish nationalism and realism, and where the three meet, the latter two will prevail over the former. (Although he takes pains to stress that he is talking about liberalism in the classical sense, not as it is understood in American politics, his repeated assaults on “social engineering” reveal that he may mean it both ways.)