The Great Delusion

Liberal Hypocrisy and Realities

Akash Barua

Post the disintegration of the Communist bloc in 1991, the United States was liberated to secure its foreign policy objectives without much resistance. With a wobbly Russia, and China still an insignificant factor in foreign affairs, United States’ hegemony in the new global order was undisputed; the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya stands tall of that conviction. One of its paramount aspirations, as it asserts, was to uphold ‘democratic’ institutionalism, and endorse ‘legitimate liberal standards’. While the extension of the European Union was a decisive advancement in chartering friendship and balance, the augmentation of NATO was an American proposition to bolster its strategic significance in the region. The prevailing geo-political friction in Ukraine is the eventuality of that ‘liberal extrapolation’, which one way or another, still attains validity in the present-era.

The ‘Liberal International Order’ cannot be better articulated than IR scholar John Mearshiermer, in his book, ‘The Great Delusion: The Liberal Dreams and International Realities’. After the dissolution of the USSR, it was widely believed and anticipated that the ‘West’, usually the United States, should consign ‘liberal’ democracies across the globe, push for ‘open economies’, and support ‘all-embracing’ institutions, that would aggravate democratic ethos. The transmutation from a bi-polar alignment, to disseminations of nation-states enjoying proportionate status would obligate safeguarding human rights, advocating global peace, and ratifying democratic establishments. Yet instead, it has been observed that the United States has ended up confronting distinctive regimes, fighting wars that sabotage all of the above.

While political philosophers, mostly from the West, would deem that it is a ‘moral duty’ to intercede, wherever self-determination of nation-states is jeopardised by intrusions or human right transgressions, IR scholars have often refrained from conferring such moralistic judgements, and have better interpreted conflicts as; contestation between nation-states within an anarchical global structure. However, foreign-policy pundits have acknowledged introspections from both the disciplines. The United States’ government has justified armed intervention under the garb of ‘humanitarian’ contentions. By way of diplomacy, it has championed ‘liberal’ scruples, and wherever it has been ineffectual, has induced military resolutions through doctrines that it claims to be ‘universal’. This in-dwelling inconsistency between realism and liberalism has been diluted by foreign-policy makers; the underlying contradictions are often layered or purposively concealed. While most Western theorists accede to the ‘universal-liberal’ principles, they often adumbrate the power-politics amongst nation-states, camouflaged under quixotic aphorism.

This analysis does not in any way tackle the liberal dilemma of whether state interventions are virtuous or wrong, nor does it attempt to rationalise past illegalities to justify present contraventions. Main concern here is to revisit the propositions, and ascertain whether its consigners have stood by those premises, and ingeniously expanded them across time and space. The westbound 'liberal' narration of universality for a ‘global doctrine’ is often traced back to ‘The Treaty of Westphalia’ in 1648, concluding the ‘Thirty Years War’ in Europe, and establishing truce in the Holy Roman Empire. Although most IR academics eulogise the treaty as the inaugural deed towards an ubiquitous armistice, its estimation should not be mistaken for characterisations of actuality. It is repeatedly hypothesised that the Peace of Westphalia culminated in a universal acceptance of the exclusive sovereignty of each litigant over its lands, people, and agents overseas.

Modern European History has been testimony to the fact that Westphalian Sovereignty, rather than inflicting reconciliation amongst nations, has further codified the consolidation of power and repression through centralised bureaucracy. The convention has been capitalised by the victors of war, to secure a status quo, which corresponds to a conducive form of global domination. The United Nations Organisation has further encouraged nation-states and endorsed its prevailing institutional structure, to be the legitimate outcome of a post-war ‘universal consensus’. This was one of the first occasions, where the abuse of Westphalian Sovereignty was juridically incorporated through diplomatic manipulations. The very framework of the organisation grants its five permanent members in its Security Council to restrict the passage of substantive resolutions through veto power. It has been one of the preeminent explanations of inaction on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Cold War validated another distinctive form of articulation by Western scholars. They bestowed the threats of Communism, to contrive arguments in support of ‘satellite states’ and state interventions, through overt or covert operations. Global politics branched into two camps post the Second World War; the Capitalist, or the ‘free’ nations, led by the United States; and the Communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) authorised the formation of a military bloc, to counter Soviet dominance in Europe; an attack on one was considered an attack on all. Similarly, the Warsaw Pact was formed by the Soviet Union to counter the America-led alliance. The newly decolonised ‘third-world’ nations were compelled to embrace either of the two groups. The promise of Westphalian sovereignty to these nations were buried deep under the semblance of geo-political compulsions. While one promised rapid industrialisation, compromising individual freedom; the other promised autonomy, once the 'illiberal forces' were conquered.

As the world witnessed the triumph of American ‘liberalism’ post the dissolution of the Soviet Union, liberals rejoiced; some even labeled the moment to be the ‘end of history’. In the absence of any significant opposition, Western scholars now envisaged the United States to catapult ‘liberal’ utopias into operations. The ‘liberal project’ was launched with the US declaring a ‘War on terror’, post 9/11. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown from power in 2001. The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussain was vanquished in 2003, in the pretense of harbouring Weapons of Mass Destructions. Libya’s leader Gaddafi was defeated with support of NATO forces, attributing it to be a ‘humanitarian intervention’. While the general principles of liberalism endeavours to effectively de-segragate societies through economic association, and subsequently trivialise government interpositions, United States’ ‘War on Terror’ decriminalised Western intrusion, further imposing its dictum on global and domestic affairs of sovereign nation-states.

The European Union project, which is often championed as a ‘democratic’ success, has delivered political stability to the continent, for which it has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The Union is unique in the sense that it claims to offer sovereignty, despite cherishing a unified market, a centralised Bank, and a common European parliament. While a few of its leaders have further solicited for a unified ‘European Army’, this would not only subvert territorial sovereignty of member states, but contradict its own doctrine of ‘autonomous states with the unified goal for peace’. Regardless, many have contemplated NATO to be the de-facto military arm for the Union. Some analysts claim that Russia continues to be a threat for global peace. Despite the assurances given to Gorbachev in 1990, that NATO would not bolster its footholds further east, it has continued to incorporate former Soviet republics. It is pertinent to interrogate the objectives of the organisation after the collapse of communism in Europe.

The ‘Liberal International Order’, which was envisioned under the alibi of ‘liberal’ principles, has always been the naked business of power-politics among nation-states. Do such principles hold much virtue, despite hypocritical interventions which are often justified under the pretext of its ennoblement? Global citizens must be vigilant of their governments claiming to protect such ideals. Rather than being ‘protected’, liberal doctrines need to be ‘realised’; it is essential to acknowledge the distinction. Nation-states are not harbingers of such ‘universal’ dictums. They have used its tenets to justify subjugation, further to protect their existence as ‘the sovereign’. Prevailing global structures are not suited to accomplish such chastity, where power-politics persist as the inherent character of its existence. While some philosophers have termed this realism to be the ‘state of nature’, some are optimistic for a better alternative. Nation-states are not divine approbations, but manifestations of the evolutionary process of collective human existence. It’s time the people acknowledge the camouflaged layers within popular narratives, which are propagated as ‘pious objectives’.

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Vol 54, No. 42, April 17 - 23, 2022