John Mearsheimer speaks on recent book

John Mearsheimer, a prominent realist international relations scholar from the University of Chicago, visited Notre Dame on Tuesday, September 11th to discuss the decline of the liberal international order and elucidate the claims made in his new book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.

Hosted by the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC), Mearsheimer is one of many speakers invited to campus this year to broaden the conversation on international relations and national security policy. NDISC, a center established in 2008 and currently directed by Professor Michael Desch, seeks to bring together leading security scholars and engage interested students, particularly through its forum-style Seminar Speaker Series.

As a renowned realist and widely-cited political scientist, Mearsheimer appears frequently on International Relations course syllabi; thus, his visit provided many students the opportunity to hear directly from a scholar whose publications they had encountered in their courses.

Mearsheimer’s talk at the NDISC event centered on the decline of the liberal international order, a timely subject given the controversies surrounding President Trump’s foreign policy and the uncertain, if not tenuous, trajectories of multilateral arrangements such as the WTO, NAFTA, and NATO. While critics have blamed President Trump for undermining the liberal order, Mearsheimer argues that Trump is only a product of liberalism’s predestined fall. According to Mearsheimer, “the order contains the seeds of its own destruction,” and the foundational principles of liberalism were bound to bring about its decline.

Mearsheimer argues that the survival of the liberal international order—an “order” being the cluster of institutions or rules that contribute to the governance of states in the international system—effectively relies on the underlying balance of power among those states. Liberalism, a global order focused on promoting universalist ideologies of democratic governance, economic openness, and institutional cooperation can only survive in a unipolar world in which there is one dominant power. Because the dominant state does not have to expend as much energy securing its power, it can turn its attention to the advancement of its own ideologies abroad if it so chooses. Yet, if another great power emerges, the dominant state must return its focus to balance-of-power politics, and the ideologically-based international order diminishes. Mearsheimer remarks that in such a world, the great powers have to compete with each other, and the order changes from ideological unipolarity to realism.

According to Mearsheimer, this theory explains the progression from the Cold War order to the post-Cold War order, as well as the shift in the global order evidently occurring in the present day. The Cold War represents a pivotal moment in power politics of the late 20th century, marking the transition from a bipolar realist world order characterized by power balancing between the Soviets and the U.S. to a unipolar order in which the dominant U.S. espoused a universalist liberal ideology. Today, the world appears to be transitioning back to great power competition between the U.S. and China, supposedly a death sentence for U.S.-led liberalism.

Mearsheimer emphasizes that “unipolarity is in the rearview mirror,” and the conditions that sustained the liberal international order no longer hold. He claims the liberal world order has six fatal flaws and, as a result, must confront its inevitable demise.

  1. With the rise of China as a great power, states have realized that alternatives to liberal democracy exist, and these alternatives are especially attractive to regimes that seek to preserve their soft authoritarian power.
  2. The crusading sole pole “bent on spreading democracy around the globe” (namely the U.S. since the end of the Cold War) finds itself engaging in, and ultimately losing, endless wars with minor powers. Mearsheimer points out, “We lose. We’re losers. But we fight endless wars.”
  3. The crusading sole pole also ends up poisoning relations with other major powers. By pushing western democratic ideals, the U.S. alienated China and Russia.
  4. Liberalism disregards group differences and clashes with nationalism, the most forceful ideology. Many states have come to view liberalism as imposing on their sovereignty and national identity.
  5. The hyper-globalization supported and sustained by liberalism causes serious economic and political problems.
  6. China’s integration into the world order and membership in institutions such as the WTO has undermined unipolarity and ensured the decline of liberalism.

Because the U.S. is economically linked to China in a way that it never was with Russia, Mearsheimer projects that the new international order will deal with economics in a much more significant way, perhaps already seen in the tariff wars, trade agreement negotiations, and weakening WTO influence.

Kate Lederer is a senior studying economics and political science. Her surfing career began and ended when she visited Lisbon, Portugal during her semester abroad this past spring. She can be reached at