THE NEXT administration will confront the paradox of American power: unparalleled strength, but a deep disinclination to exercise leadership. This strength will allow the next president to inherit certain enduring advantages. No competing world power threatens American security. The United States remains the undisputed global leader in military, economic and diplomatic terms, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. U.S. influence is enhanced by international institutions largely of America’s own creation that favor the rule of law, the free market and representative democracy, and a network of alliances with many of the world’s most powerful countries. The United States faces no global ideological rival that offers a more appealing alternative to a social contract based on individual freedom, economic opportunity and human dignity.
At the same time, the world today and America’s place in it are less certain than before. Europe’s inward focus has weakened Washington’s most important alliance. The eruptions throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have spread new misery across the region. The ranks of refugees and internally displaced persons have swollen to a post–World War II record of sixty-five million, half of whom are children. Three powers, China, Russia and Iran, seek to revise their regions through subversion and military force, intimidating U.S. friends and allies and undermining American credibility. A fourth, North Korea, continues to improve its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile capabilities unabated. The proliferation of terrorists, insurgents and other armed nonstate actors, some with global reach, have undercut the traditional state monopoly on the use of force. For the past decade or more, there has also been a menu of “new” security issues, led by cyberwarfare, but including climate change, infectious diseases, narcotics and human trafficking, and increasingly, natural resources, especially water.
Any choice on how best to promote security, prosperity and liberty is complicated by U.S. domestic opinion. There is a loss of confidence in Washington’s ability to lead, reinforced by public skepticism about an activist American role in the world and an increasingly polarized political process in Washington. Casting an especially long shadow are the expensive and highly unsatisfying wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the hallmark of a successful foreign policy is its ability to win domestic support, the application of sustained U.S. military force abroad—i.e., significant numbers of “boots on the ground”—seems to have priced itself out of the market.
In this threat environment, with these inherent strengths and stubborn constraints, what national-security strategy would best advance U.S. interests? We believe that a blended approach that draws upon elements of traditional strategies—hegemony, cooperative security and selective engagement—could preserve American strength, promote American interests and win sustained domestic support. These elements would be consolidated in a manner that might be termed “pragmatic primacy.” Such a strategy would resist the temptation to overreach based on America’s current strengths, but would not shy away from asserting its national interests and championing its values. It would prioritize ambitions, and ensure that rhetoric and resources are in balance with each other and are aligned with objectives. It would discriminate between making significant commitments to defend vital interests and using influence to promote preferences, and it would have the wisdom to tell the difference.
Pragmatic primacy would be based on the following principles:
America would not enter into new international commitments, but would honor existing ones, investing more time and resources into reinvigorating alliances and supporting friends around the world.
Short of a direct attack, America would not be the lead actor in any military conflict, but would deploy and sustain military force in supporting roles, working patiently with like-minded allies to counter insurgencies and preserve hard-won gains.
America would not impose its values on others by force of arms, but would vigorously champion respect for human rights, individual dignity and the rule of law.
America would appreciate that while the concept of humanitarian intervention may often appeal to its compassion, it is unlikely to be grounded in national interests or command the resources and time demanded to restore order and rebuild civil society.
America would continue to defend the global commons, especially freedom of navigation on the high seas, overflight rights, access to the Arctic and the demilitarization of outer space.
America would ramp up efforts to eliminate terrorist groups, while understanding that counterterrorism success will require patience and persistence for many years to come.
America would privilege its economic, military and diplomatic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the character of China’s rise remains one of the greatest unanswered questions of the twenty-first century.
With these principles in mind, how would pragmatic primacy work in practice in some of the key regions of the world?
AT HEART, Europe is experiencing an economic trial that masks a deeper political crisis. This crisis has raised fundamental questions over a shared European identity and common values that threaten the decades-long experiment in continent-wide integration. Brexit is but the latest example of this challenge.