April 15, 2019


Structural Realism Has No Clothes (PAUL D. MILLER, 4/15/19, Law & Liberty)

[M]ost of this book is not a work of international relations scholarship; it is a straightforward engagement with classical issues of political theory, focusing on the relationship between liberalism, realism, and nationalism. Mearsheimer here lays his cards on the table with admirable clarity. He is a realist and a nationalist. He enjoys liberalism at home but thinks it is ruinous when used as a guide to foreign policy. The short version is that "Nationalism is more in sync with human nature than liberalism" because nationalism "satisfies individuals' emotional need to be part of a large group with a rich tradition and a bright future."

That nations exist and command primary allegiance over human lives is important for Mearsheimer's overall argument. He is a realist because he believes we cannot arrive at a common understanding of the good life across cultural and national lines; we therefore band together in tribes or nations that serve as survival vehicles; and these national units compete with one another for power, wealth, and survival in an anarchic world. The nation "fundamentally shapes [people's] identities and behavior," he argues, elsewhere going so far as to claim that nations "help shape their essences and command their loyalties," and that "nationalism is much like a religion."

Despite the importance of the concept of the "nation," Mearsheimer spends strikingly little time interrogating it. Mearsheimer seems to think that the existence of mutually distinct and internally coherent nations is too obvious to need defense or empirical demonstration. "The human population is divided into many different nations composed of people with a strong sense of group loyalty," he says, and now that nations have acquired states, "The world is now entirely populated with sovereign nation-states."

That is an extraordinary claim because of how much evidence there is against it. Excluding micro-sovereignties, there are almost no nation-states in the world today. Virtually every state in the world today is a pluralistic, multiethnic, multilingual polity in which questions of who or what defines membership generate intense debates. Perhaps only Japan and a few smaller European countries have the strong sense of oneness and a cultural consensus that Mearsheimer says defines nations (and Europe is in the midst of a fractious debate about immigration and national identity). Nationalism--the correspondence between nations and states--has always been more aspiration than reality, in part because of the ambiguity surrounding what exactly a "nation" is.

Nationalism is better understood as internal imperialism, the rule by a majority group over minority groups under the ruling group's language, culture, or religion. As a nation's definition gains specificity--as it settles on a particular language, culture, or religion--it necessarily excludes those who do not share the nation's identity. That is why everywhere a full-bodied nationalism has actually been tried, it has rarely resulted in states that are at peace with themselves and their neighbors. Historically, nationalism has an unsettling tendency to attract racist, xenophobic, and sectarian fellow-travelers. The age of nationalism is the age of civil wars, insurgencies, terrorism, and "national" liberation movements, to say nothing of inter-national competition and war.

Posted by at April 15, 2019 4:00 AM