Pragmatic Primacy

August 11, 2016 Topic: Security Region: United States Tags: SecurityDefenseUS Foreign PolicyPrimacy

Pragmatic Primacy

It's not a miracle cure, but provides the best chance to reestablish America's purpose in a complex world.

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.

As Europe has wrestled with ways to address the intertwined structural, political and economic challenges, a process that will take years to fully unfold, it has been hit by waves of refugees and immigrants escaping the violence and lack of opportunity in North African and Middle Eastern societies. This humanitarian crisis exposed the clumsiness of the EU’s consensus-driven decisionmaking and the inability to craft a common, EU-wide policy. At the same time, this influx has fueled a revival of xenophobia and right-wing nationalism, especially in those European states hardest hit by austerity measures. The United States has largely stood apart while these serial crises have unfolded.

A policy of pragmatic primacy would start by recognizing that NATO remains one of the most important military alliances in the world, that the French, British and Germans have significant military assets, and that the alliance needs America’s energy, ideas and leadership. But alliances change. It is time for Washington to raise the core questions that undergird all alliances: What is the common purpose? What special obligations do members owe each other?

As a practical matter, the members’ different threat perceptions make it unlikely to arrive at a consensus on a common purpose anytime soon. It is unrealistic for the United States to expect that Europe will reverse its decades-long decline in defense spending; it has surveyed the neighborhood and will not substitute America’s threat assessment for its own. Washington can push harder to encourage greater coordination, rationalization and interoperability among European defense establishments, shortcomings exposed during the 2011 Libya operations, but expectations should be tempered here, also. Hectoring them to ratchet up defense spending will only distract from important areas where collaboration is possible.

Europe’s most pressing need is counterterrorism assistance. European counterterrorism efforts need to be much better funded and more centralized, and the parties need to share more information, including financial intelligence, and do so in real time. Expanded police powers, with appropriate judicial and legislative oversight, are warranted. U.S. interests are at stake because of American citizens and businesses in Europe who are at risk and because of the threat the Islamic State and other terrorists pose to allies. The next American president has an opportunity to strengthen ties to Europe in ways that would be most meaningful to U.S. partners and enhance America’s security at the same time.


THE ARAB SPRING represented the most significant upheaval in the Middle East since the 1952 Free Officers’ coup overthrew Egypt’s King Farouk, installed Gamal Abdel Nasser and ushered in an era of militant Arab nationalism. Yet its initial promise has all but evaporated. The region is now home to more misery than at any time in living memory. Traditionally, refugees return home, relocate to a third country or are absorbed into the host state. None of that is happening today.

The consequences of instability in the Middle East are enormous. The region contains over 410 million people, with almost half under the age of twenty-five, at least 30 percent of whom are unemployed. It is the source of most of the world’s violent religious extremism. Not surprisingly, terrorism has metastasized in the Arab Spring’s aftermath. Islamic State volunteers in Iraq and Syria increased 300 percent in 2015 over the year before. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that almost forty thousand foreign fighters have flocked to the region, representing at least 120 different countries. Each day, the probability increases that they will return home, armed with new skills and presenting a far more sophisticated danger.

The past few years of American diplomacy across the Middle East are littered with opportunities missed, roads not taken, and errors in both judgment and execution. Syria is a great example of policy adrift. There has been a serious disconnect between U.S. declaratory policy and actions; commitments have not matched rhetoric. The Obama administration called upon Assad to cease the violence, yet failed to mobilize adequate pressure on Damascus. Many of the options the United States had during the Syrian uprising were eliminated after the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the intervention of Russia, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah; an estimated four hundred thousand Syrians have died so far. (One unanticipated consequence of U.S. policy has Russia reasserting itself as a major actor in the Middle East, a role it abdicated when Sadat kicked it out of Egypt in 1972.) It is no longer a question of what America wants (“Assad must go”). Rather, the issue is: How best can the United States promote its core goals within existing constraints?

Today Syria is a conflation of four distinct, but interrelated, challenges: the brutal regime headed by Bashar al-Assad and supported by Moscow and Tehran; ISIS, which has seized and held territory, terrorized the local population and seduced tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims; a humanitarian crisis (with an estimated eleven million refugees or internally displaced persons) that has overwhelmed Syria’s neighbors and is now disrupting Europe; and a diplomatic challenge for the United States in managing its relations with friends and allies in the region, especially the “frontline” states of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

A policy of pragmatic primacy would seek to save Syrian lives, defeat ISIS and remove Assad, in that order. ISIS poses the greater danger to the Syrian people, to neighboring states and to Europe; according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, ISIS is today “the preeminent global terrorist threat.” It cannot be deterred; it must be defeated. This means committing more U.S. forces to the fight in a supporting role (perhaps as few as two U.S. brigades), but only if Washington can leverage its Arab friends and partners to send their soldiers to fight as well. Specifically, the objective is not for the United States to defeat ISIS, but to help the Sunni states do so themselves.

This approach means leaving Assad in power, perhaps for some time to come. This is not an ideal outcome, but the hard truth is that the United States cannot secure the ends (Assad’s removal) if it is unwilling to muster the means (deployment of forces sufficient to remove him). It is unrealistic for any administration to commit U.S. forces in the numbers needed to defeat ISIS and topple the Assad regime. This is the culmination of policy choices made, or discarded, years ago, and of the new realities that Iranian and especially Russian arms and advisers have made on the ground.

Until ISIS is defeated, Syrians will remain at risk, even if they are housed in refugee camps inside Syria. The next president should instead persuade Turkey to establish refugee camps along its common border with Syria. The EU and the United States should help underwrite these costs. This would provide greater safety and security for civilians, would be easier to administer and supply than camps inside Syria, would be more firmly rooted in law and would be better able to halt unplanned migrant flows.

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s occupying the West Bank. Even without the turmoil on Israel’s borders, current trends do not favor an Israeli-Palestinian peace anytime soon. The Palestinian Authority is paralyzed, caught in a transition from an exhausted older leadership to a younger generation that has not yet assumed power. Hamas shows no signs of relinquishing its stranglehold on the Gaza Strip.

What, then, is the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish society? The past provides a guide to the role the United States should play. The lesson of the Oslo peace process was that the two parties are capable of hammering out agreements; Washington needs to encourage them to do so. The lesson of Camp David is that Israel has the courage to take risks for peace, but only if it has confidence that the United States is a firm ally. Here is where the next administration has much work to do—restoring greater trust and confidence between Washington and Jerusalem.

Promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors has been a long-standing U.S. foreign-policy goal in the Middle East, along with ensuring the free flow of oil to global markets and preventing any single power from dominating the region. The present leadership in Iran places all three American objectives at risk.

It is against this regional context that the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was negotiated. Serious questions remain about compliance, verification, and the ability of the United States and the international community to reimpose sanctions should Iran be caught cheating. The nuclear deal’s promise is to constrain Iran’s nuclear-weapons activities for the next decade in the hope that relaxing sanctions will expose the Iranian people to the outside world and transform the regime into a more liberal, representative government that respects human rights and lives in peace with its neighbors. The goal, in other words, is an Iran that is willing to peacefully negotiate adjustments to the regional order, not subvert it by force.

Yet there is no strategy for how the United States might “shape the battlefield” to coerce or incentivize Iran to liberalize its government and fulfill this hopeful vision. There are no plans for ramping up Radio Farda so that more outside news is beamed into Iran. There is no social-media appeal to the 60 percent of the Iranian population under the age of thirty. There is no support for dissident voices and human-rights advocates. More can be done to sanction individuals and organizations that support Iran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. In short, the next president needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that will reassure U.S. friends and allies around the Gulf and promote regime change inside Iran.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration appears to have lost the strategic purpose of fighting. Priorities should be ensuring that the country can never again be used as a safe haven by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups with global reach, preventing violent disorder in Afghanistan from spilling over the border and further destabilizing Pakistan, and preserving America’s reputation for reliability in the region and beyond.

Instead, the White House failed to address the tension between its two stated policy preferences: ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and counterterrorism. In mid-2014, Obama announced in the Rose Garden that he would draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to one thousand troops by the end of 2016 and return to a “normal embassy presence.” The following day, he spoke at West Point about establishing a series of counterterrorism nodes around the globe to combat transnational threats; Afghanistan went unmentioned.

Shortly after Gen. John Campbell became the ISAF commander in August 2014, he lobbied the White House to ramp up the number of troops to 9,800 and have them stay in Afghanistan for as long as possible. This presence would have two primary missions: to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, and to target Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In October 2015, Obama announced that he would keep the 9,800 soldiers through the end of 2016, but then reduce the number to 5,500 by January 1, 2017. Once at this lower number, the primary mission would be counterterrorism aimed at Al Qaeda. This was consistent with previous policy statements, since the president had earlier declared the end of “combat operations” in Afghanistan and unilaterally stated America was no longer at war with the Taliban. Significantly, the president withdrew all authority from the military to target the Taliban.

In June 2016, the White House announced a split-the-difference adjustment to 8,400 troops, and allowed greater leeway for U.S. forces to support Afghan troops in targeting the Taliban. Yet the overall signal remains that America is leaving and that the president’s political timetable, not the facts on the ground, is driving policy.

The Taliban has not gone away, having retaken territory despite going through a contentious leadership succession following the death of Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Afghans are in a very serious fight, and taking significant casualties. Complicating matters further has been the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, which announced an escalation of deadly violence in a suicide attack in Kabul in July. On the plus side of the ledger, the United States now has a partner in Ashraf Ghani, who wants to work with Washington and who allows U.S. forces to carry out counterterrorism operations in a very difficult part of the world.

It is important to understand that this part of the world has been a source of violent extremism and terrorism for decades—and likely will be for decades to come. This region will continue to pose a threat to the homeland. Afghanistan will never be ideal, but in this part of the world, with few willing allies, the United States needs to make the most of what it has. A relatively small investment of U.S. soldiers, supporting a willing Afghan government, will be worth the risks involved.

As the Obama administration has meandered strategically in Afghanistan, it has not demonstrated any sensitivity to controlling the larger narrative. Should America’s exit from Afghanistan be viewed as a hasty, dishonorable retreat, few blows would be more harmful to American prestige and reliability, and more advantageous to Al Qaeda’s cause.

Finally, the United States will struggle to realize even limited goals in Afghanistan without widening the policy aperture to include a diplomatic process with all the neighbors that have a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. In this context, Pakistan represents a special challenge, combining the “perfect storm” of failing institutions, nuclear weapons and terrorist groups. The core dilemma is that Pakistan has selectively targeted terrorist groups (what has been termed “managed jihadism”), cracking down on Al Qaeda and domestic terror groups that threaten the state, but supporting those groups, aligned with the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, that bleed India in Kashmir. Further, Pakistan has made a strategic decision to leave undisturbed the Afghan Taliban, many of whom have found sanctuary along the border areas between the two countries. The Obama administration’s attempts alternatively to befriend Pakistan’s military leadership by way of generous aid packages, to publicly rebuke it for its selective counterterrorism efforts and to ignore it altogether in carrying out drone strikes over Pakistani territory have had little impact in forcing Islamabad to reassess its approach to the Afghan Taliban or its collaboration with Washington.

The United States needs to shed any illusions over what Pakistan can deliver in the war on terror and in stabilizing an independent, representative Afghanistan. A genuine strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan will remain beyond reach for some time. It is possible, however, for the two countries to craft a more limited relationship where ambitions are more modest and goals more realistic.

A less romantic, more clear-eyed pragmatic primacy approach would include terminating all conventional arms transfers and assistance to Pakistan that are unrelated to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. It would include supporting civilian institutions and good-governance initiatives through tailored assistance to specific NGOs rather than through Islamabad. And it would tie civilian assistance to Pakistan’s internal economic reforms, support for opening up its markets and promoting economic integration with its neighbors in the region.

In contrast to much of his foreign policy, Obama’s counterterrorism policy has enjoyed success. Much of this success has rested on the legal and regulatory foundation the Bush administration constructed for the war on terror. And it has been achieved despite the president’s initial opposition to many of the counterterrorism programs that have kept America safe since 9/11: the long-term detention of suspected terrorists, trial by military tribunal, the Patriot Act, the executive authority to kill American citizens overseas engaged in terrorism, drone strikes and the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

However, dangers still abound and are growing, ranging from the jungles of the Philippines to the deserts of North Africa. Religious-based terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are far more enduring and less prone to compromise than secular groups, which means that they will present an ongoing threat to the United States and its allies for years to come. Some comfort can be taken from the fact that the ideology of many of these groups is rooted in a nihilistic death cult that, over time, is unlikely to rally many people to the cause (and there is already some data to suggest that fewer young people are attracted than in the recent past). The United States needs to continue to employ a layered strategy based on defense of the homeland and first-rate intelligence work. Every U.S. embassy needs to have a rapid-response unit on social media that should state the facts about U.S. policy, aggressively rebut lies and half-truths, and stay connected to the generation that will one day inherit power. America also needs to recognize that as good as its capabilities are, local knowledge is priceless. So the next president will need to ramp up cooperation and training with foreign intelligence and counterterrorism units around the world.


OVER THE past few decades, the United States has admired much of China’s rise, as more than five hundred million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China is now a major actor on the world stage, a leading consumer of raw materials and a leading provider of foreign investment in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There is much good that the United States and China can do together to promote global economic growth and deal with security challenges like nuclear proliferation and failed states.

But many U.S. allies in Asia fear that Beijing is on course to undermine regional security, thanks to both its growing military capabilities and the ways in which they are being deployed. The most important unanswered question in international relations is whether a rising China will integrate into, or subvert, a liberal international order.

A rising China is not new. It has been predicted, and feared, at least since the time of Napoleon. In the United States, China has long been a repository of hope for those who thought that America could shape China to meet its preferences. During the twentieth century, these hopes found expression in three separate areas. China was viewed as a lucrative market for American goods, a source of pagans waiting to be converted to Christianity and a potentially thriving democracy.

None of these three hopes fully came to pass, at least according to the American plan or timetable. A fourth hope was recently added to this record of wishful thinking: that China will become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, a term first coined in September 2005 by then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. He predicted that China would continue to rise, with ever-greater power and influence in the world. The pertinent question was how China would use its new power and influence as it grew. The hope was that China would work constructively and cooperatively with the United States and others not only to advance its own interests, but also to strengthen the system that sustains its prosperity and security.

China’s remarkable economic growth over the past three decades has underwritten its growing military capabilities and assertiveness, which in turn has created anxiety among its neighbors who fear for their security and autonomy. Specifically, Beijing’s creation of artificial reefs and its unilateral assertion of a “nine-dash line” have no basis in international law and impinge on the territorial claims of its neighbors (as recently confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration). Further, as China’s economy slows, with increasing capital flight, with almost half of all new loans being used to pay off the interest on existing loans and with cash reserves being exhausted to prop up its currency, President Xi Jinping may be tempted to distract domestic unrest by stoking nationalism and xenophobia against foreign enemies.

In response to China’s rise, the Obama administration’s much-heralded “pivot to Asia” has been more rhetorical than real. It has not been informed by any rigorous assessment of the security environment, the risks America faces, how it can share the burden with allies and how it might be able to mitigate these risks through diplomacy and other means. It has been a strategy drafted by accountants and designed for savings, not driven by success. The result is an unstable balance of power in Asia marked by the presence of two rising giants, China and India, two critical allies—Japan and South Korea—trapped between rising Chinese strength and an erratic North Korea, as well as several smaller Southeast Asian states who look more intently than ever to the United States because of their fear of Chinese belligerence. These problems of regional order are exacerbated because there is no well-established arrangement for promoting collective security among strategic competitors.

Washington cannot bend China’s choices to fit its hopes, but it is not helpless. America’s immediate task is to articulate clearly its policy preferences as to the type of responsible behavior it wishes to see. Going forward, it wants China to promote an international trading system based on open markets and respect for intellectual property rights. Washington wants Beijing to encourage sustainable economic development and good governance in Third World countries. It wants China to collaborate in promoting clean-energy policies. It wants the peaceful resolution of boundary and maritime disputes, especially in the South China Sea, and greater transparency in PLA modernization plans and doctrine, including meaningful discussions with senior members of America’s military. It wants China to respect the rights and dignity of its own people to speak as they wish and worship as they please.

A lot is riding on China’s evolution. It is no exaggeration to say that the regional, and perhaps even the international, order for the coming decades, and perhaps longer, will depend on which pathway it selects. A policy of pragmatic primacy has to acknowledge the possibility that China will not do as America prefers, but will choose another path. So Washington must continue to support those policies that have maintained the peace in East Asia for decades. These include a robust defense of freedom of navigation and overflight rights. They also require funding a military—and a larger navy—that can maintain a balance of power that reassures friends and allies in the region, with a forward-deployed presence in the Pacific, and consistent support for Taiwan. The United States needs to use all elements of national power to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These venerable strategies must be supplemented by new components appropriate for the times: building new partnerships with friendly states, such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, which are not formal allies but who share U.S. aims with respect to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s bullying behavior has created a backlash among the East and Southeast Asian states and gives the next president the diplomatic space to enhance America’s role in the region. But their wariness of China will not automatically translate into overt support for the United States. Many of these states would prefer not to be forced to choose sides; they look to the United States to manage its competition with China to avoid a crisis, and certainly a conflict. This will require a nuanced diplomatic strategy for the region. But deepening relations with these states—as a complement to America’s existing alliances—will over time create structural constraints that can discourage Beijing from abusing its growing power and help maintain the necessary cushion that prevents China from exploiting its economic gains to increase the geopolitical risks to the larger region.


HOW WILL the next president promote greater security, prosperity and freedom for the United States, and for its friends and allies around the world? How will the next president choose to lead the country and the world?

The American people are now hearing from the presidential candidates on their foreign-policy visions. Donald Trump proclaims a “philosophy” of authoritarian nationalism (“Make America Great Again”), while Hillary Clinton appears armed with itemized lists of malleable talking points, but little vision. Neither offers a realistic and sustainable strategy for the United States in the twenty-first century.

Promoting and sustaining true American greatness rests on understanding that the challenge is akin to a marathon, not a sprint, that resources are not endless and that the American people will not underwrite foreign conflicts unless vital interests are at stake. It rests on exercising restraint, on choosing commitments carefully, on appreciating that not all humanitarian crises implicate U.S. national security and that not all conflicts have military solutions. It rests on understanding that the United States cannot be all things to all people.

For the past seven and a half years, the United States has had a president skeptical of American exceptionalism, doubtful of its ability to act as a force for good in the world and uncertain that its values are shared and envied by millions of people around the world. The good news is that American leadership is still cherished by many friends and allies; the better news is that they want more, not less, of it. Pragmatic primacy is not a miracle cure, but provides the best chance to reestablish America’s purpose in a complex world.

Barry F. Lowenkron is the former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, 2005–07. Mitchell B. Reiss is the former director of Policy Planning at the State Department, 2003–05.

Image: “As green and purple smoke conceals them, U.S. Army Soldiers, the Iron Troop, with 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, stationed out of Vilseck, Germany, set up their positions behind a berm to fire at enemy targets during a live fire exercise at Tapa Training Area, Estonia, Mar. 8-11, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Steven M. Colvin).”