We need to get real about Russia and China—or risk being led into another disastrous warby Anatol Lieven / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
Realism, as a theory of foreign policy, has been linked in the popular mind of the west both to cynical Realpolitik—in the mould of Henry Kissinger—and to a propensity to wage war. The first charge has a superficial validity. The second is seriously wide of the mark as far as the United States is concerned. Over the past generation, it has been above all proponents of purportedly idealistic intervention who have advocated war, while Realists have urged prudence and restraint. Partly as a result, the US has been at war for two out of every three years since the Cold War ended—mostly to no good effect.
American democratic idealism has never triumphed completely in the making of US foreign policy; it has always been more-or-less qualified by Realist considerations of power and interests. Nonetheless, idealism combined with nationalism has had a number of effects: it has encouraged a type of self-satisfaction and hubris of which the great American Realist thinkers Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau warned during the Cold War. It has also encouraged the pursuit of megalomaniac goals. It has discouraged our understanding of states with undemocratic systems, instinctively seen in the US as unworthy of respect. It has contributed to a number of unnecessary adventures. And the way in which it has been mixed up with national interests has created a perception of the US as not only aggressive but hypocritical.
Perhaps most importantly, by suggesting to other great powers that the US wants to destroy them, it has introduced an element of existential conflict to what might otherwise be manageable rivalries. While in other areas Donald Trump has made the most overt break with US idealism of any president since the 1920s, when his administration moved to ramp up pressure on China, it accompanied attacks on Chinese trade and foreign policies with rhetoric about spreading democracy and freedom.
Thus in a speech to the Hudson Institute in October, Vice President Mike Pence set out the Trump administration’s overall policy towards China. This combined a Trumpian (and by no means wholly unjustified) attack on Chinese unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft with two elements inherited…