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 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.