Will survive the liberal order

A padded hobbes. On John J. Mearsheimer's image of man and history


John J. Mearsheimer's new book The great delusion. Liberal Dreams and International Realities has subjected US foreign policy to thorough criticism from the perspective of realism since the end of the Cold War. Mearsheimer explains the anthropological foundation of this approach to international politics. However, this analysis shows that his anthropological foundations and the theses of realism do not go together. In addition, the will to survive as the unspoken basis of Mearsheimer's theory today requires cooperative solutions.


John J. Mearsheimer's new book The great delusion. Liberal Dreams and International Realities critically analyzes U.S. Foreign policy since the end of the Cold War from a realist perspective, grounding its critique on an anthropological foundation. This analysis shows that Mearsheimer’s anthropological foundation and his realist approach are not conclusive. Moreover, the will to survive, which is the underlying principle of Mearsheimer's theory, requires cooperative approaches in the contemporary world.

Mearsheimer and Realism

Realism as a theoretical tradition in international politics is still powerful. Thinkers like Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger and Kenneth Waltz have worked out, refined, and established this tradition and demonstrated its strength in the analysis of international politics. Even more: you have also pointed to the long historical tradition of realistic thinking from Thucydides to Machiavelli to Thomas Hobbes as key witnesses of realism and thus made it clear that realism is not a phenomenon of constituted, sovereign nation-states in the order of the Westphalian system, but a historical one Basic fact of the relationship between states.

The study The great delusion. Liberal Dreams and International Realities by John J. Mearsheimer (2018) follows this tradition. It is a fundamental criticism of US foreign policy after the end of the East-West conflict,Footnote 1 At the same time, however, it is also a foundation of realistic thinking based on the essence of man, i.e. a philosophical consideration. The latter is the subject of this analysis. Many of Mearsheimer's findings, presented in simple but haunting language, are catchy and plausible. So it seems plausible that the overemphasis on liberal ideasFootnote 2 in foreign policy means that the means to achieve political goals are unbounded. As a result, liberal politics betrays its own principles and causes considerable damage in terms of foreign policy. In addition, a misunderstood liberalism can jeopardize the sovereignty of states and the associated principle of non-interference. In the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War, these principles of order were developed to contain the devastating effects of competing claims to truth. As a power-political reality, state sovereignty stood above all competing claims to truth, both religious and ideological. Open or clandestine support in favor of a theory of ideas in another state was frowned upon for pragmatic reasons. This Westphalian system shaped the international system for centuries.Footnote 3 Of course, it may be argued that it has been undermined by both the ideology of communism and the liberal hegemony of the United States criticized by Mearsheimer. CommunistsFootnote 4 and liberal hegemons have one thing in common: to have made the world a little more insecure out of a good intention (promoting world peace, enforcing human rights or the like). This is probably also due to the underlying image of man, which in both cases is based on a historical-philosophical concept of progress, in which the ultimate goal of history is known. In the case of communism, it is the classless society that asserts itself internationally and abolishes the conditions of human alienation and abolishes the state as the protective power of the conditions of alienation. In the case of liberal hegemony, it is the global implementation of comprehensive protection of human rights in democratic or democratized societies with which the forces of history have dialectically come to an end.Footnote 5

On the other hand, one does not expect any historical-philosophical speculations from a realist, and Mearsheimer does not disappoint here either. The attempt to anticipate the earthly paradise has brought as much calamity into the world as the claim to improve the starting conditions for the achievement of this goal at least once. Realists do not have an image of history in which an Irish realm of everlasting justice and love opens up at the end of the hardship. Rather, it corresponds to realistic anthropology to emphasize the openness of history, the constancy of human nature, which allows lessons to be drawn from history for wise political behavior. One of the lessons is that power must be limited and contained: through the separation of powers and law in the domestic area, through countervailing power in the area of ​​international politics. Spaces of freedom arise where this succeeds. Since man is constantly striving for power in order to be able to assert himself in a fundamentally hostile world and this dark impulse also guides the behavior of groups, power and how it is dealt with is the central interest in knowledge in politics.

Such a conflict anthropology characterizes Thomas Hobbes' image of man, and in Hobbes this image of man experiences its most extreme culmination. For him, man is an animal driven by desires, always looking for his own advantage, always at war with his own kind: Man is man's wolf, this is the doctrine, which is almost driven into social Darwinism. The social contract that, according to Hobbes, then comes about is nothing more than the knuckle of Leviathan, an artificial superman who violently tackles the taming of man in a godless world. Of course, the relationship between states continues to be characterized by anarchy, that is, by a lack of domination. They must therefore ensure their security on their own, be prepared at all times and have not only the means but also the determination to assert themselves against their enemies - and the environment of the states in the universe of Hobbes is hostile.

Anthropological foundations

It would not have been surprising if Mearsheimer had used this anthropology to justify his political realism. But he doesn't, and that is both: the strength of his approach and the weakness of his reasoning. Mearsheimer assumes a collaborative anthropology. For him it consists of two central positions: People have first the ability to use their minds, so they are reasonably gifted. Mearsheimer calls this the "capacity to reason" (2018, p. 14), which in German includes both the performance of understanding and reason. Secondly People are social beings who do not act as lone wolves - a clear distinction from Hobbes - but seek and need the company of other people.

The first assumption refers to enlightenment thinking. Man is able to open up the world in a cognitive manner; he can relate causes to effects, that is, think causally; he can recognize regularities and act on them. Even more than a historical being, he knows how to utilize experience and make it usable for targeted planning. Finally, he is able to relate the performance of the understanding to reasons of reason; Mearsheimer does not explicitly mention this, but it is entirely in line with the line of argument if one does not want to shorten people in a positivistic way.

The second basic assumption emphasizes the social dimension of the human being. This has two elements. The first is almost banal: man cannot survive without the help of other people; as a baby and toddler he needs care and attention, sometimes even as an old person. He is not born ready, but develops. This leads on to the second element: We are referred to the social in order to be able to develop in an essential way. In order to be able to use our abilities, we need the language; it facilitates cooperation. As mere atomized individuals, we would degenerate, wither; we need other people. With them we found families, form groups, form communities. Wherever we live with other people, we set rules for smooth cooperation, we set up institutions that monitor the rules and facilitate their implementation. The social nature of man is not only oriented towards survival, but towards the fulfillment of our essential destiny. That is the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Today it can be found prominently in Catholic social teaching, for example.

Both lines of tradition are not closely related to realism in international politics. The Enlightenment drew the conclusion from human reasonableness that it must be possible to build a world on the basis of republican structures in which war has been abolished.Footnote 6 In a weaker version, human reasonableness is the justification framework for the theory of democratic peace, economic interdependence and liberal institutionalism, all of which Mearsheimer sees critically. From the basic social structure of man, social doctrine has concluded that a unity of mankind and a true world authority could emerge from it, which Mearsheimer sees just as critically. So the question is: How does Mearsheimer get from basic assumptions, from which other theoretical traditions have drawn conclusions that run counter to realism, to justify his position?

The answer lies in the fact that Mearsheimer starts from a basic anthropological principle, but does not name it as such: the will to survive. The two basic assumptions are subordinate to this basic principle and have a serving function. The faculty of reason is placed in the service of survival, as is the social nature of man. The main reason for our social nature is that it is the best way for humans to survive (Mearsheimer 2018, p. 15); social nature thus becomes something conditioned, caused, and it loses its essential character. This is compounded by our ability to use our reason. Reason shows us that we can achieve our goals in cooperation with others rather than alone. But what goals can be meant here? We cooperate for selfish motives and less because we are so predisposed. Thus we miss the simplest basic rules of coexistence: the golden rule, for example, or the basic rules of fairness that result from the principle of solidarity. Mearsheimer is clear here: people cannot agree on any other imperative other than that of their own survival. Even more: the different ideas about the good life are a source of constant conflict. What is meant is that reason produces different ideas about what is necessary and central for a successful life. Is it freedom Equality? Believe, and if so, what kind? No, insists Mearsheimer: there are no universally true principles of life. Bad news for human rights, one might think, and is also confirmed by Mearsheimer (2018, p. 3): Liberalism “oversells the importance of individual rights”. If one sees just one of many universalizable ideas in liberalism, that is logical. Rights, and human rights too, are available to Mearsheimer. In an emergency (Carl Schmitt would have put it in a state of emergency) it is about the pure survival of the individual and the community, because human rights interfere with what has to be done.

So far, Mearsheimer has initially lured the reader on the wrong track with regard to the anthropological foundation of his realism and then presented a padded Hobbes: a conflict anthropology for reasons of reason and a halved concept of the human being as a social being. Liberalism is one possible choice one can make, but not the only one possible; the options are of the same value for Mearsheimer, because it is just beyond reason to be able to decide on ultimate principles. For a scientist who lives in a democracy, that seems a little little, but relativism is neither punishable nor undemocratic per se.

Power and Security Dilemma

Let us move on to the next point, the question of why groups, after solving the problem of individual security, also come into conflict with one another. First of all, there is no need for different perspectives on the first principles, unless they are forcibly imposed on other groups, which is definitely the case with hegemonic liberalism. Quasi-natural law, however, Mearsheimer seems to assume that there is a natural disposition of groups to expand, at the expense of other groups. There may be economic and ideological reasons for this, but the main reason is survival (Mearsheimer 2018, p. 40). Groups or communities thus guarantee their security and survival by trying to expand and thus becoming a threat to other communities. Here, in a sense, the natural state of Hobbes is replicated. The famous power and security dilemma arises.

Let's take a closer look at the argument. Ideological reasons exist, for example, in the politics of liberal hegemony. They are rational in that a liberal environment of a state (or an international system characterized by liberal values ​​as a whole) is more peaceful than one that is shaped by different ideologies, but even that is not certain. It is therefore an obvious strategy for a country that is liberally organized and has the means to reshape its foreign policy environment in the sense of a liberal ideology to export its ideology. This argument already plays a certain role in John Rawls (2002). In the longer term, the costs to be provided for security decrease when one is surrounded by states that share the same basic values. So liberal hegemony is a reasonable project, even if there is a residual probability that an implementation of liberal principles will not rule out war. Liberal states can, however, reduce the costs of cooperation through institutions when dealing with one another, and achieve economic growth through cooperation and economic integration.

But how can an armed conflict arise between liberal regimes? Mearsheimer (2018, p. 51) gives the following consideration: A purely liberal state has no soul, does not create an emotional bond between citizens and government. But this is necessary to hold a society together; it needs glue, and liberalism cannot provide that with its reference to the rights of the individual.Footnote 7 This is also empirically noticeable in the fact that many Americans do not see a deeper obligation to the principle of human rights. Sometimes they do not do this in their own affairs, the less it is of concern to them anywhere in the world. This is particularly noticeable when the individual is being asked to make sacrifices, even the sacrifice of his or her own life. The obligation to die for the state cannot be justified with liberalism;Footnote 8 and the close social circles (family, friends, neighbors) hardly play a role as a reason in large social groups, especially when obligations are far removed from the close social circles. In other words: as seductive as the idea of ​​liberal hegemony may be, it cannot mobilize support, especially when there is a risk that it will involve its own sacrifices. So a narrative is needed, an idea that warms the heart, that leads the individual to stand up for the community when there is no democratic or liberal virtue that would be able to achieve this out of intrinsic motivation.

This is where nationalism comes in. It does what liberalism and the idea of ​​human rights cannot do. He does this on two levels. The first is that nationalism and the welfare state are closely related. The expansion of the welfare state and the policy of opening up opportunities for people, to a certain extent, rewards the loyalty of the citizens. Even more: Politicians are almost forced to reassure themselves of this loyalty with ever new programs and promises. The result is that liberalism is developing from an idea of ​​defense against state intervention into a platform for justifying extensive state intervention.It becomes the basis for claims to the state, for example in the provision of services. The state becomes a welfare state. The second level is: Nationalism provides a narrative that is particularly suitable for emphasizing the uniqueness of the nation. At Mearsheimer, nations are characterized by six characteristics. They have a consciousness of unity, of identity, a culture that is distinguishable from other nations, a feeling of superiority, a mythical, "deep" history and a "sacred" territory. The person who is born into a nation - in the literal sense of the national - becomes part of a community of fate and internalizes the narratives that constitute the nation through socialization. There is one last point, sovereignty. Nations want to be sovereign and therefore desire their own state. But states also need the national because it helps to bring the centrifugal forces of a society together.

The motive for the obedience of the individual in the group is neither insight nor pure power, nor is it a universal project, but the fact that nationalism satisfies two basic human drives: the sense of coexistence and the material foundations. Liberalism is losing out to the power of nationalism. In other words: collective identities can only be expanded into the universal to a limited extent. This is a counter-position to the thesis of critical theory, according to which reasonable identities are possible (and desirable) (Habermas 1976).

But, it will be argued, isn't this a contradiction to Mearsheimer's basic assumption that people are rational? Shouldn't they then, if they consider their actions reflexively, free themselves from the web of national myths and make decisions based on the autonomy of reason? Isn't the enlightenment of people's exit from self-inflicted immaturity and nationalism an ideology that keeps people in immaturity? Mearsheimer seems skeptical here. By the time a person reaches the age at which their intellectual abilities are well developed, they are so thoroughly imbued with the values ​​of their nation and community that they find it difficult to make rational decisions. His imprints stand in his way. And yet: We are not the prisoners of our socialization and our dispositions, we are our own masters.Footnote 9 Anything else would also be surprising, because otherwise Mearsheimer would have to explain how, as an American, he could write a critical book about his country's foreign policy.

The finding made by Mearsheimer (2018, p. 129) that the foreign policy elites are “decidedly cosmopolitan” seems to need explanation. Either something has gone completely wrong in national socialization, or there are indeed good reasons to prefer a cosmopolitan orientation to a national one.

Let us summarize: Liberalism cannot ensure the cohesion of a society. Human rights alone do not warm. This requires nationalism as an emotional bracket. In the course of socialization, people become part of the nation and adopt the associated value system. This provides the glue between the members of society by allowing them to see themselves as a unit, as a whole and not just as the sum of different individuals. In addition, it ensures a close connection between society and the state, insofar as the state appears to represent the nation's legitimate interests. Second, the welfare state is needed as a material bracket. The welfare state levels social inequality and ensures a minimum of equal opportunities. It prevents society from becoming unstable as a result of gross economic inequality and prevents different life plans from being realized within society.


Three objections can be raised against this line of argument by Mearsheimer. The first objection is aimed at the principle of survival and the claim that this can only be guaranteed through (aggressive) growth. The second objection concerns the role of the national as a form of communalization; the third objection finally addresses the question of what constitutes security and what the major challenges for security are. Is it just the power and security dilemma between states, or are there systemic threats that go beyond that? The plausibility of Mearsheimer's theses depends not insignificantly on the answer to the question.

Can survival only be ensured through more power? In an anarchic society everyone guarantees their own survival; no higher power protects or decides conflicts authoritatively. This applies to the political space, but not to the immediate social space. In the latter, communities emerge that result from human nature. Ferdinand Tönnies (2019) used the term “essential will” to describe this, a community that is characterized by cooperation. So at the beginning there is cooperation and not conflict; thus the anthropology of conflict narrows to the realm of society, to the realm of the political, to the level of social relations outside of the original communities. In the absence of hierarchical structures, there seem to be only two basic strategies for resolving conflicts. The first strategy is that of strength. Security is only guaranteed when one's own community is stronger than others. Of course, this does not solve the problem of alliances, that is, the danger that several weaker groups will unite against a stronger one. These negative coalitions can aim at breaking up and subjugating as a strong variant, but also at containment as a weak variant of the shaping of the context of action. The strategy of strength can therefore evoke counter-strategies against which further growth or power accumulation does not help - of course, this only applies in an action context with several actors. If everything is not wrong, we experience such processes under the term of flexible multilateralism, in which flexible structures of multilateralism can also be directed against the interests of a hegemonic power.Footnote 10

The second strategy is that of cooperation. Mearsheimer is not an opponent of this. However, when it comes to the core question of security, cooperation is not a reliable guarantee, either in the form of democratic peace or interdependence and institutions. Cooperation reduces transaction costs and iteratively creates a framework for action that generates resilient and reliable communication channels, which contain conflicts and enable peaceful solutions. If one looks alone at the history of the international system over the past thirty years, it is not the number of armed conflicts that is astonishing, but the number of conflicts which, because of the cooperative attitude of the actors, did not at all reach or over the threshold of the armed conflict. When evaluating the performance of the liberal approach, the decisive factor is not where it failed, but where it was successful. In addition, Mearsheimer overlooks two arguments. On the one hand, the three areas on which the liberal theory of peace is founded must not be seen in isolation, but in their interaction. Democracies are not only inherently peaceful vis-à-vis other democracies, they usually also prefer institutional cooperation and economic interdependence to assert their interests; the United States is currently putting to the test the extent to which economic nationalism and a widespread rejection of institutional cooperation can be an alternative, promising strategy. The first preliminary assessment is, however, not very encouraging.

On the other hand, one should not understand the liberal concepts of peacekeeping as static quantities, but as a process in the course of which cooperation changes and improves. Successful cooperation has repercussions on trust in the problem-solving ability of cooperative approaches and changes the culture of cooperation. Failed cooperation, on the other hand, does not immediately lead to confrontation and conflict, especially not if there is a long series of successful solutions in the cooperative mode. The example of World War I illustrates this. The participants (with the exception of Russia) could more or less be classified as democracies, and the degree of economic interdependence was also high. Of course, there was a lack of positive examples of successful cooperation, as well as institutions or regimes in which such cooperation could have taken place. In addition, there were no established communication channels that could have absorbed the rapid escalation. In other words, Mearsheimer's argument only works if the cornerstones of a liberal international order - democratic peace, economic interdependence and institution building - are viewed separately. But it becomes much weaker if you examine all three elements in their interaction.

The second objection concerns the question of the nation. Mearsheimer is not very clear here: On the one hand, he seems to see in nations the extension of what are, as it were, natural forms of communalization, on the other hand, the national idea must be formed, because states need the national idea as an internal cement. So is the nation a natural basic disposition of the political, like the family or the clan, or is it something constructed, something accidental? Nations undoubtedly only play a role in modern state life. When the third estate declared itself a nation in the French Revolution, a new political subject entered the stage: the nation became the bearer of political decision-making. Since then, the question of the congruence of nation and state has played a certain role. But even a look at German history shows that all of this is not very clear. Although the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had the nation in its name, the question of the congruence of nation and state played no role. "To educate yourself for the nation, you hope it, Germans, in vain / educate, you can, for it more freely to human beings", it says in the Xenien by Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Schiller 1958, p. 267) . This admonishing word, written in 1797, was already under the influence of the French Revolution. But it was not until the Napoleonic Wars that a national sense of community was created as a defense against the occupation.

And yet, for almost a thousand years, German history did not need the idea of ​​a nation. Mearsheimer would argue: That is all correct, but it is about the modern state under the conditions of mobility, both locally and socially. It is not for nothing that Mearsheimer (2018, p. 72) points to the connection between nation and welfare state, admittedly with a questionable abbreviation by establishing a connection between the ability to wage total war and the development of the welfare state. Amazingly, however, the nations that have gone the furthest in the development of the welfare state - namely the Scandinavian countries - never waged an all-out war, and the argument is clearly losing its plausibility. It is certainly correct that states consolidate their national identity not only through symbols and rites, but also through a certain degree of internal social integration.Footnote 11 But of course that does not mean that social integration is tied to the ability to conduct total warfare, even if total warfare can also serve internal integration.

The nation is therefore a historically contingent phenomenon and not a natural one, quasi the highest level of freedom of being. Moreover, it is a western phenomenon and by no means universally spreadable; alternative order models are conceivable, such as the Chinese concept of Tianxia.Footnote 12 And it is also not a natural law that the nation state and cosmopolitanism are irreconcilable. Martha Nussbaum, for example, has argued convincingly that both from the point of view of the capability approach more like two sides of the same coin (Nussbaum 2019).

The western model of the sovereign state, normatively charged by the idea of ​​the nation, has prevailed in a certain historical constellation against the entanglement of rule and the universal idea of ​​a Respublica Christiana and has spread almost universally. It gave answers to pressing questions, such as the question of how to contain different claims to truth. As a result, however, it has created new problems, especially with the dilemma described by Mearsheimer that sovereign states have to ensure their own security and thereby question the security of other states. And so we come to the third objection, namely the question of whether the world made up of states in its current structure is faced with challenges to its security that go well beyond the power and security dilemma.

Mearsheimer has argued that survival is the central impulse, indeed the basic principle, of action in international politics. Survival always relates to a threat, and it is true that since the early stages of modern states, the threat has emanated from other states.Footnote 13 This is no longer the case today. A large part of the current military operations are aimed at irregular combatants, i.e. groups that operate outside of government mandates. It is almost a return to the pre-Westphalian order, which was about constituting the state as the only legitimate actor on the international stage. In this context, legitimate means: Only the state emanates legitimate violence; only the state is in a position to conclude binding treaties to regulate international politics.

Another category of threats for states emanates from globalization itself: starting with the possibility of pandemics, which are spreading at breakneck speed, to global financial crises and ending with the climate crisis. The traditional arsenal of the nation-state in the design of the world's interior does not help against any of these threats. This is where the Westphalian order reaches its limit. Pandemics, financial crises and climate change care little about questions of sovereignty. And this is where Mearsheimer's basic argument comes to a limit: If survival is the central reason of state, then the reason of state today requires a much more extensive set of instruments of action than Mearsheimer suggests. The question of survival cannot be resolved without institutions, without cooperation and without the transfer of sovereign rights - and certainly not without a rule-based system that seems to be the basic requirement for survival in the 21st century. In the end, the finding remains that Mearsheimer stopped halfway with his design - halfway from the 19th to the 21st century.


  1. 1.

    At the same time, Stephen M. Walt's work appeared with the same basic perspective The Hell of Good Intentions. America’s Foreign Policy and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018).

  2. 2.

    Mearsheimer has a very broad concept of liberalism. This includes the rights of the individual, the insight into the limits of our possibilities to formulate general truths about the good life, tolerance and the role of the state in maintaining public order. He differentiates “modus vivendi liberalism” from “progressive liberalism” (Mearsheimer 2018, pp. 45–46). The former is a liberalism of warding off state interference, the latter sees an obligation on the state to actively help its citizens to exercise their rights. Today, according to Mearsheimer, there is only the latter form of liberalism.

  3. 3.

    See Zimmer (2008).

  4. 4.

    In this article, contrary to the ZfAS standard, the masculine grammatical form is used for personal nouns. The author includes people of all sexes equally.

  5. 5.

    See above all Fukuyama (1992).

  6. 6.

    Above all, Immanuel Kant in his work on Eternal Peace. Systematically spelled out in this tradition in Höffe (2001).

  7. 7.

    In Germany there has therefore been a debate as to whether the national idea can be replaced by “constitutional patriotism” - the term comes from Dolf Sternberger.

  8. 8.

    See Walzer (1970).

  9. 9.

    A separate translation of the sentence that does not do justice to the gender-neutral language: “We do have agency” (Mearsheimer 2018, p. 31).

  10. 10.

    On the initiative of Germany and France, on the sidelines of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2019, fifty states formed an alliance for multilateralism and presented six specific projects. The US is not part of the alliance.

  11. 11.

    This is also related to the fact that the division of labor already presupposes a certain degree of cohesion (solidarity); see Durkheim (1992).

  12. 12.

    Tianxia means “everything under heaven” and claims a naturally based, relational conception of order; see Zhao (2020).

  13. 13.

    The sovereignty was preceded by the elimination of all competitors who questioned the state's monopoly of power, such as pirates; see Spruyt (1994).


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  1. German Bundestag, Platz der Republik 1, 11011, Berlin, Germany

    Prof. Dr. Matthias Zimmer

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Correspondence to Prof. Dr. Matthias Zimmer.

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Zimmer, M. A padded hobbes. On John J. Mearsheimer's image of man and history. Z Foreign security policy13, 113-124 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12399-020-00806-9

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  • realism
  • liberalism
  • nationalism
  • US foreign policy
  • Human rights


  • Realism
  • Liberalism
  • Nationalism
  • U.S. foreign policy
  • Human rights