American Primacy in a Multiplex World

The U.S. flag flown during a promotion and re-enlistment ceremony at Barclay Training Center, Monrovia, Liberia. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

The principal challenge to American primacy comes not from multipolarity, or the rise of new powers, but from the rise of new threats.

The emerging world is better described as a multiplex world: a world of multiple actors, culturally and politically diverse but economically interdependent, facing complex global threats against which the authority and role of the big multilaterals are challenged by a messy multitude of institutions and networks, large and small, public and private. As in a multiplex cinema, the world today has multiple actors, plots, producers and directors. No single power dominates across all three indices of power — economic, military and soft. Primacy—whether absolute hegemony or relative preponderance of a single nation in all of Nye’s three kinds of power resources—is not feasible.

How can the United States cope with a multiplex world? To start, it must replace the old-fashioned notion of primacy and embrace shared leadership. In his West Point speech in 2014, President Obama declared, “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will.” Such hyperbole is unrealistic for America and unhelpful for world order. It stokes a free-riding mentality even among America’s capable allies. Not only does the United States lack the interest and resources, it also lacks the domestic support to lead in diverse areas where collective action is needed. As David Rieff argues, in some areas, the United States will lead, while in others, it will be on the sidelines and be prepared to be led. For America’s allies, it’s time to take initiatives in areas of global and regional interest.

A multiplex world requires more attention to regional orders. Henry Kissinger argues that, “The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions and to relate these regional orders to one another.” The United States needs to decenter, prioritize and regionalize its grand strategy, encouraging middle powers, regional powers and regional organizations, many of which share America’s strategic goals if not its means. This would mean going beyond its traditional alliances or like-minded groups such as G-7, the TPP and TTIP. Supporting and working through inclusive regional institutions, such as ASEAN and the African Union, will be critical to managing regional issues.

The multiplex world will not be entirely peaceful. But absolute peace is illusory. The goal should be relative stability, preventing major power war, genocide, and managing regional conflicts resulting in acute human suffering. Strategic decentering, shared leadership and consensual reform of global governance will go a long way in realizing that goal.

Amitav Acharya is the Boeing Company Chair in International Relations Schwarzman Scholars Program, Tsinghua University, Beijing and Distinguished Professor of International Relations, & The UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance, School of International Service, American University, Washington D.C.

Image: The U.S. flag flown during a promotion and re-enlistment ceremony at Barclay Training Center, Monrovia, Liberia. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

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