Pragmatic Primacy: How America Can Move Forward in a Changing World

A sailor directs an EA-6B Prowler aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. Flickr/U.S. Navy

The United States cannot be all things to all people.

Editor’s Note: An abridged version of the following article appeared in the September-October 2016 print edition and can be found here.

How will the next president of the United States secure and promote greater security, greater prosperity and greater freedom for the United States, and for our friends and allies around the world? How will he or she use American power and influence to shape the global system, strengthen international institutions and affect state behavior? How will the next president choose to lead? These questions lie at the core of America’s foreign policy and its purpose.

Looking to 2017, the next administration will confront the paradox of American power: unparalleled strength, but a deep disinclination to exercise leadership. It remains true that the next president will benefit from certain enduring advantages. No competing world power threatens our security. The United States remains the undisputed global leader in military, economic and diplomatic terms, and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Our influence is enhanced by a set of international institutions, largely of our own creation, that favor the rule of law, the free market and representative democracy, and a network of formal and informal alliances with many of the world’s most powerful countries. Unlike the period of the Cold War, we face 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 our place in it are less certain than before. The inward focus of our European allies has weakened our most important alliance. The eruptions throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have brought new misery across the region. A post–World War II record of 65 million people are refugees or internally displaced persons, with half being children. Three powers, China, Russia and Iran, are trying to revise the order in their regions by subversion and even military force, intimidating our friends and allies and undermining U.S. credibility. A fourth, North Korea, continues to improve its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile capabilities unabated. The proliferation of terrorists, insurgents and other nonstate actors, some with global reach, has undermined 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. Twenty-five years ago, America’s “unipolar moment” metastasized into a “unilateral movement,” while in response our oldest allies invoked a cult of multipolarity, as if the world only encompassed the transatlantic relationship. While the unilateral-multipolar debate has long ebbed, it has been replaced by 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 our expensive and highly unsatisfying wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The sequester that constrains our defense budget (supported by Republicans as well as Democrats) is a result of this domestic reality and perpetuates its continuation. 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?

The answer is far from obvious. For example, it seems unlikely that we can sustain our current hegemonic edge indefinitely. While our preponderance of economic, diplomatic and especially military strength may not automatically cause our adversaries to balance against us, it has disincentivized our friends and allies from making more significant contributions to regional and global security. While we proudly believe that human rights and democracy are universal values, we have seen that “proselytizing by force” has severe limitations. And a true hegemonic strategy would require that we increase our military spending to levels that would break the budget, fuel inflation and be unsustainable domestically. There has to be a better match between our ambitions and our resources, which, although generous, are still limited.

Cooperative security also has its shortcomings. In a world where our security is indivisible from the security of other states, there are incentives for us to act more cooperatively with friends and allies, and in accordance with international organizations, laws and norms. Yet international institutions and alliances are means, not ends. Alone, they are insufficient to address today’s challenges. They lack authority to address threats to regional and global peace, especially military threats; they lack governance structures to allow them to respond quickly to tackle inchoate threats before they bloom into crises; and they often lack coercive military power.

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