Will the Next President Restore U.S. Primacy?

A pilot awaits in an F/A-18C Hornet taxis across the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy

America can no longer do whatever it wants, wherever it wants.

Assuming Hillary Clinton wins in November (if Donald Trump wins, all bets are off for we will be in uncharted territory, perhaps even the Bermuda Triangle, in both domestic and international policy), the issue of U.S. primacy will reappear with a vengeance. To her credit, both as secretary of state and as a presidential candidate, Mrs. Clinton has not made much of her foreign-policy differences with Barack Obama. But it is fairly obvious what she would have done differently, most notably: intervened aggressively in Syria, built up U.S. forces in Iraq far more quickly than Obama did, and been much more confrontational with Russia over Ukraine and the Baltic states. In contrast, given that Obama succeeded in getting his universal health-care plan through Congress, which had been Mrs. Clinton’s “signature” issue in the first two years of her husband’s first term, there are not many major reforms that she can undertake (gun control, the most obvious one, remaining in my view a political nonstarter). Whether she will keep her word to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is nothing in her past to suggest that she is any less of a liberal interventionist than she has been since the mid-1990s.

The “national greatness” conservatives such as Robert Kagan and Max Boot who have already endorsed her see this clearly. So Mrs. Clinton will come into office with virtually the entire U.S. foreign-policy elite, liberal interventionist and neoconservative alike, having strongly backed her. The differences between the two wings of the policy establishment were never as pronounced as it sometimes appeared during George W. Bush’s first term. Though even while Mrs. Clinton has acknowledged that she was wrong to back the invasion of Iraq in 2003, if not quite Blairite, her support was certainly enthusiastic. And if she has changed her views since, and become more cautious about what foreign wars in the name of democracy can achieve, well, so have many of the neoconservatives who have come round to supporting her.

Indeed, if noninterventionists, or at least those who, rather like Bill Clinton’s stance on abortion during his presidency—that it should be “legal, safe and rare”—have a friend in this race, it unfortunately is not Mrs. Clinton but Donald Trump. He speaks of “stupid” expeditionary wars in the Islamic world that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and left the region more, not less, unstable. Whether Trump’s anti-interventionism has anything to do with that of critics both on the left and the right of such adventures is an open question. And in any case, to put it charitably, Trump’s erratic approach to all his policy positions, international and domestic alike, does not inspire confidence. His shifting stances help explain why so many anti-interventionist policy analysts and thinkers support Mrs. Clinton even as they dread what they rightly view as her hawkish analysis of what U.S. military power can and should do in the world. The old psychoanalytic joke would seem to apply here: when the right person does the wrong thing it’s right, but when the wrong person does the right thing it’s wrong.

It seems safe to say that Mrs. Clinton will come into office believing that America’s global primacy will last for many more years, even decades. As the very similarly minded Richard Holbrooke used to say, “the world works best when America leads.” And like Holbrooke, Mrs. Clinton may be characterized, with apologies to Bill Kristol and to Robert Kagan, as a “national greatness liberal.” The obvious question is whether this is actually true or—much like American exceptionalism, to which of course it is linked historically—it is largely a narcissistic exercise in wishful thinking.

At the very least, the American primacy Mrs. Clinton will likely want to assert will be constrained, depending on one’s views of how John Kerry’s State Department conducted itself. The last fifteen years have demonstrated that the Islamic world is in crisis and that outside powers, first and foremost the United States, can do a great deal to make this crisis worse, but little to make it better. The most savage by-product of this civilizational and sectarian convulsion, jihadi terrorism, is something that at best can be minimized. Unfortunately, the suburbs of the great European cities are serving as, with apologies to Chairman Mao, the sea in which the terrorist fish can swim. Things are likely to get far worse before they improve.

The picture in East Asia is not much more promising as a field for the vigorous exercise of American primacy. Short of war, the United States has little leverage available to curb Beijing’s further intention to transform parts of the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. In any case, America remains bogged down in Afghanistan. That quagmire is unlikely to change for the better during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure in the White House. Moving back to Europe, President Obama was widely and harshly criticized for not having done more to blunt Russia’s moves in Ukraine and the Baltics. But again, short of war, what in practical terms does American primacy mean? President Obama’s critics tend to get a little fuzzy at that point, as if the fact that Vladimir Putin has no intention of backing down was some sort of offense against the natural order of things.

Pages