In Defense of Primacy

In Defense of Primacy

Mini Teaser: Contrary to what Christopher Layne said in the last issue, the world is a long way away from seeing the end of U.S. primacy.

by Author(s): Bradley A. Thayer

The midterm elections this November mark the unofficial commencement of the 2008 presidential campaign, and over the next two years, Americans will begin to contemplate and debate the legacy of George W. Bush. Among the more contentious elements of the Bush legacy has been the conduct of foreign policy. While some have focused on the operational mistakes of the Bush Administration, others have argued that its overall orientation-what I would describe as the maintenance of American primacy-is itself flawed and counterproductive to long-term American national interests.

A grand strategy based on American primacy means ensuring the United States stays the world's number one power-the diplomatic, economic and military leader. Those arguing against primacy claim that the United States should retrench, either because the United States lacks the power to maintain its primacy and should withdraw from its global commitments, or because the maintenance of primacy will lead the United States into the trap of "imperial overstretch." In the previous issue of The National Interest , Christopher Layne warned of these dangers of primacy and called for retrenchment. 1

Those arguing for a grand strategy of retrenchment are a diverse lot. They include isolationists, who want no foreign military commitments; selective engagers, who want U.S. military commitments to centers of economic might; and offshore balancers, who want a modified form of selective engagement that would have the United States abandon its landpower presence abroad in favor of relying on airpower and seapower to defend its interests.

But retrenchment, in any of its guises, must be avoided. If the United States adopted such a strategy, it would be a profound strategic mistake that would lead to far greater instability and war in the world, imperil American security and deny the United States and its allies the benefits of primacy.

There are two critical issues in any discussion of America's grand strategy: Can America remain the dominant state? Should it strive to do this? America can remain dominant due to its prodigious military, economic and soft power capabilities. The totality of that equation of power answers the first issue. The United States has overwhelming military capabilities and wealth in comparison to other states or likely potential alliances. Barring some disaster or tremendous folly, that will remain the case for the foreseeable future. With few exceptions, even those who advocate retrenchment acknowledge this.

So the debate revolves around the desirability of maintaining American primacy. Proponents of retrenchment focus a great deal on the costs of U.S. action-but they fail to realize what is good about American primacy. The price and risks of primacy are reported in newspapers every day; the benefits that stem from it are not.

A grand strategy of ensuring American primacy takes as its starting point the protection of the U.S. homeland and American global interests. These interests include ensuring that critical resources like oil flow around the world, that the global trade and monetary regimes flourish and that Washington's worldwide network of allies is reassured and protected. Allies are a great asset to the United States, in part because they shoulder some of its burdens. Thus, it is no surprise to see nato in Afghanistan or the Australians in East Timor.

In contrast, a strategy based on retrenchment will not be able to achieve these fundamental objectives of the United States. Indeed, retrenchment will make the United States less secure than the present grand strategy of primacy. This is because threats will exist no matter what role America chooses to play in international politics. Washington cannot call a "time out", and it cannot hide from threats. Whether they are terrorists, rogue states or rising powers, history shows that threats must be confronted. Simply by declaring that the United States is "going home", thus abandoning its commitments or making unconvincing half-pledges to defend its interests and allies, does not mean that others will respect American wishes to retreat. To make such a declaration implies weakness and emboldens aggression. In the anarchic world of the animal kingdom, predators prefer to eat the weak rather than confront the strong. The same is true of the anarchic world of international politics. If there is no diplomatic solution to the threats that confront the United States, then the conventional and strategic military power of the United States is what protects the country from such threats.

And when enemies must be confronted, a strategy based on primacy focuses on engaging enemies overseas, away from American soil. Indeed, a key tenet of the Bush Doctrine is to attack terrorists far from America's shores and not to wait while they use bases in other countries to plan and train for attacks against the United States itself. This requires a physical, on-the-ground presence that cannot be achieved by offshore balancing.

Indeed, as Barry Posen has noted, U.S. primacy is secured because America, at present, commands the "global commons"-the oceans, the world's airspace and outer space-allowing the United States to project its power far from its borders, while denying those common avenues to its enemies. As a consequence, the costs of power projection for the United States and its allies are reduced, and the robustness of the United States' conventional and strategic deterrent capabilities is increased. 2 This is not an advantage that should be relinquished lightly.

A remarkable fact about international politics today-in a world where American primacy is clearly and unambiguously on display-is that countries want to align themselves with the United States. Of course, this is not out of any sense of altruism, in most cases, but because doing so allows them to use the power of the United States for their own purposes-their own protection, or to gain greater influence.

Of 192 countries, 84 are allied with America-their security is tied to the United States through treaties and other informal arrangements-and they include almost all of the major economic and military powers. That is a ratio of almost 17 to one (85 to five), and a big change from the Cold War when the ratio was about 1.8 to one of states aligned with the United States versus the Soviet Union. Never before in its history has this country, or any country, had so many allies.

U.S. primacy-and the bandwagoning effect-has also given us extensive influence in international politics, allowing the United States to shape the behavior of states and international institutions. Such influence comes in many forms, one of which is America's ability to create coalitions of like-minded states to free Kosovo, stabilize Afghanistan, invade Iraq or to stop proliferation through the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Doing so allows the United States to operate with allies outside of the UN, where it can be stymied by opponents. American-led wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq stand in contrast to the UN's inability to save the people of Darfur or even to conduct any military campaign to realize the goals of its charter. The quiet effectiveness of the PSI in dismantling Libya's WMD programs and unraveling the A. Q. Khan proliferation network are in sharp relief to the typically toothless attempts by the UN to halt proliferation.

You can count with one hand countries opposed to the United States. They are the "Gang of Five": China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Of course, countries like India, for example, do not agree with all policy choices made by the United States, such as toward Iran, but New Delhi is friendly to Washington. Only the "Gang of Five" may be expected to consistently resist the agenda and actions of the United States.

China is clearly the most important of these states because it is a rising great power. But even Beijing is intimidated by the United States and refrains from openly challenging U.S. power. China proclaims that it will, if necessary, resort to other mechanisms of challenging the United States, including asymmetric strategies such as targeting communication and intelligence satellites upon which the United States depends. But China may not be confident those strategies would work, and so it is likely to refrain from testing the United States directly for the foreseeable future because China's power benefits, as we shall see, from the international order U.S. primacy creates.

The other states are far weaker than China. For three of the "Gang of Five" cases-Venezuela, Iran, Cuba-it is an anti-U.S. regime that is the source of the problem; the country itself is not intrinsically anti-American. Indeed, a change of regime in Caracas, Tehran or Havana could very well reorient relations.

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