Blogs: The Skeptics

The Era of American Primacy Is Far from Over

The Skeptics

Undoubtedly sitting atop the list of those challenges is the return of great-power competition. Major regional powers like Russia and China—which never really accepted a post-Cold War order dominated by the United States—are now using their power and capabilities to push back against that order. They are seeking to dominate their “near abroads”; they are testing American alliances along the periphery of U.S. power. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that U.S. global military primacy remains intact, these countries are developing and deploying capabilities that increasingly menace America’s ability to project that power into East Asia and Eastern Europe. Regional military balances are therefore shifting in adverse ways, confronting the United States with military and geopolitical challenges unlike any it has faced since the end of the Cold War.

American primacy is being tested in other ways, as well. The “end of history” has now ended—the world ideological climate is becoming more contested as the spread of democracy has stalled, and authoritarianism seems to be making a modest comeback. The exploits of the Islamic State, which has utterly destabilized a key region, and North Korea, which is reportedly working toward an ICBM capability to complement its growing nuclear arsenal, demonstrate that the challenge posed by “rogue” actors is probably greater than at any time since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. U.S. allies have become relatively weaker in terms of their shares of global GDP and defense spending over the past fifteen years; the European allies have systematically divested themselves of many key military capabilities. And within the United States, partisan gridlock and polarization have played havoc with the Pentagon’s force structure, modernization programs, and readiness over the past half-decade, amid broader questions about whether Americans care to sustain an ambitious global project any longer. It is still not time to panic about the state of American primacy, then, but there is real cause for concern.

So what is America to do? Advocates of restraint often argue that Washington should roll back many of the alliance commitments and forward deployments that have long characterized U.S. strategy, and fall back to a far more austere international posture. Yet as discussed previously, this position overstates the degree of American relative decline, for America’s primacy has not yet eroded to the point where it lacks options other than dramatic retrenchment. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere at greater length, proposals for “offshore balancing” or other retrenchment-minded strategies rest on highly precarious assumptions about whether the world would remain stable and congenial following a major geopolitical retreat. In other words, if you think that the world seems dangerous and unstable now, just wait and see what it looks like without U.S. engagement and presence as we have known it for the past seventy years.

What is true enough, however, is that Washington will undoubtedly have to work harder—and invest more—to maintain an acceptable degree of primacy, and the benefits it has long provided. During the post–Cold War era, America has essentially been able to enjoy primacy on the cheap. It has spent as little as 3 percent of GDP on defense during this period, while also deferring hard choices about deficits, ballooning domestic spending, and other critical long-term fiscal issues. There will be no such luxury in the coming years.

The United States will need to make the medium- and long-term investments in defense necessary to shore up contested regional balances against Russian and Chinese challenges, and so it will have to address domestic spending and revenue issues in a more serious way. It will need to develop innovative capabilities and operational concepts that will allow U.S. forces to operate in more contested environments. More broadly, American officials will need to work creatively to get more out of the country’s existing alliances (by encouraging allies to adopt more cost-effective defense postures, for instance), while also diversifying those alliances and partnerships as a way of shoring up the foundation of the existing international order. And while doing all this, the United States will also have to maintain strategic discipline in how it uses its power, by steering clear of Iraq-like missteps that might sap its energies and undercut political support for a primacist posture.

This point touches on a final imperative, which is that American leaders will need to strengthen the political base of American primacy, by better articulating the case for why it is worth preserving. To do so, they will need to remind Americans that their country’s leadership and primacy has helped produce an international order that has actually been fairly exceptional in its stability and liberalism over the past seventy years, and that the costs of preserving that primacy may ultimately be minor compared to the costs of dealing with the more dangerous and unstable world that might ensue in its absence. For all the challenges it faces, the United States is still in a fundamentally favorable international position. How long it stays that way will depend as much on public sentiment at home as it will on events abroad.

This is the eighth in a series of essays on the future of American primacy. You can read the previous essay, “Can America Be the World's Umpire?” by Christopher A. Preble, here.

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South Korean Nukes: Less Risky to America than Extended Deterrence

The Skeptics

Undoubtedly sitting atop the list of those challenges is the return of great-power competition. Major regional powers like Russia and China—which never really accepted a post-Cold War order dominated by the United States—are now using their power and capabilities to push back against that order. They are seeking to dominate their “near abroads”; they are testing American alliances along the periphery of U.S. power. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that U.S. global military primacy remains intact, these countries are developing and deploying capabilities that increasingly menace America’s ability to project that power into East Asia and Eastern Europe. Regional military balances are therefore shifting in adverse ways, confronting the United States with military and geopolitical challenges unlike any it has faced since the end of the Cold War.

American primacy is being tested in other ways, as well. The “end of history” has now ended—the world ideological climate is becoming more contested as the spread of democracy has stalled, and authoritarianism seems to be making a modest comeback. The exploits of the Islamic State, which has utterly destabilized a key region, and North Korea, which is reportedly working toward an ICBM capability to complement its growing nuclear arsenal, demonstrate that the challenge posed by “rogue” actors is probably greater than at any time since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. U.S. allies have become relatively weaker in terms of their shares of global GDP and defense spending over the past fifteen years; the European allies have systematically divested themselves of many key military capabilities. And within the United States, partisan gridlock and polarization have played havoc with the Pentagon’s force structure, modernization programs, and readiness over the past half-decade, amid broader questions about whether Americans care to sustain an ambitious global project any longer. It is still not time to panic about the state of American primacy, then, but there is real cause for concern.

So what is America to do? Advocates of restraint often argue that Washington should roll back many of the alliance commitments and forward deployments that have long characterized U.S. strategy, and fall back to a far more austere international posture. Yet as discussed previously, this position overstates the degree of American relative decline, for America’s primacy has not yet eroded to the point where it lacks options other than dramatic retrenchment. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere at greater length, proposals for “offshore balancing” or other retrenchment-minded strategies rest on highly precarious assumptions about whether the world would remain stable and congenial following a major geopolitical retreat. In other words, if you think that the world seems dangerous and unstable now, just wait and see what it looks like without U.S. engagement and presence as we have known it for the past seventy years.

What is true enough, however, is that Washington will undoubtedly have to work harder—and invest more—to maintain an acceptable degree of primacy, and the benefits it has long provided. During the post–Cold War era, America has essentially been able to enjoy primacy on the cheap. It has spent as little as 3 percent of GDP on defense during this period, while also deferring hard choices about deficits, ballooning domestic spending, and other critical long-term fiscal issues. There will be no such luxury in the coming years.

The United States will need to make the medium- and long-term investments in defense necessary to shore up contested regional balances against Russian and Chinese challenges, and so it will have to address domestic spending and revenue issues in a more serious way. It will need to develop innovative capabilities and operational concepts that will allow U.S. forces to operate in more contested environments. More broadly, American officials will need to work creatively to get more out of the country’s existing alliances (by encouraging allies to adopt more cost-effective defense postures, for instance), while also diversifying those alliances and partnerships as a way of shoring up the foundation of the existing international order. And while doing all this, the United States will also have to maintain strategic discipline in how it uses its power, by steering clear of Iraq-like missteps that might sap its energies and undercut political support for a primacist posture.

This point touches on a final imperative, which is that American leaders will need to strengthen the political base of American primacy, by better articulating the case for why it is worth preserving. To do so, they will need to remind Americans that their country’s leadership and primacy has helped produce an international order that has actually been fairly exceptional in its stability and liberalism over the past seventy years, and that the costs of preserving that primacy may ultimately be minor compared to the costs of dealing with the more dangerous and unstable world that might ensue in its absence. For all the challenges it faces, the United States is still in a fundamentally favorable international position. How long it stays that way will depend as much on public sentiment at home as it will on events abroad.

This is the eighth in a series of essays on the future of American primacy. You can read the previous essay, “Can America Be the World's Umpire?” by Christopher A. Preble, here.

Pages

Pages