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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > Get real

Get real

As Washington gears up for a new conflict with China, the US needs to stop and reflect on how its efforts to spread liberal democracy through bombs and bombast have led to nothing but ruin

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.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.