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

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

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.

Selective engagement, which requires a more discriminating approach to the world, has enjoyed some success in the past, primarily as an antidote to American overcommitments, such as the Vietnam War. The United States has engaged primarily in those parts of the world that contain great powers with significant military and economic strength; it is in America’s interest to either prevent them from becoming peer competitors or to enlist them as friends and allies.

Traditionally, this has meant that the United States has devoted its attention to Europe (including Russia), the Middle East (because of oil) and Asia (the fastest-growing economic region in the world). Yet it has been difficult to agree upon hard and fast rules for where and when the United States should engage overseas: Why the Balkans and not Rwanda? Why Libya and not the Congo? This has led to interventions and ensuing commitments that seem ad hoc and erratic, and which have erased any predictive value for either our allies or adversaries. This inconsistency has eroded domestic support for defending our vital interests as well. Paradoxically, it may be imprudent to draw red lines in an increasingly interconnected world; no region can be automatically written off as being unrelated to U.S. security and prosperity.

Isolationism has been a traditional temptation for America—and sometimes much more than that, as during the 1930s. Why not retreat from the world and concentrate on rebuilding our “city upon a hill” so that we can better serve as a model for others to emulate? Since there is clearly much work to be done at home, why not privilege butter over guns? Our relative strength and geographic position ensure that we face no existential threats to our national security; our nuclear arsenal deters other nuclear adversaries. International trade and financial issues could be left to the marketplace, which is more efficient than the government in promoting economic growth. And yet an isolated United States would still remain at risk; peer competitors could arise across Eurasia that could eventually threaten the United States. The international order that the United States has crafted after the Second World War could wither away without strong and sustained American leadership, thereby damaging our security, prosperity and way of life.

Given the complexity, persistence and variety of the challenges currently facing the United States, it is doubtful that any single approach is wise, or even possible, today. It is doubtful that the United States can adopt a “unified field theory” that applies U.S. power, in all of its forms, in the same way to each and every challenge we face across the world.

However, a blended approach could preserve American strength, promote American interests and win sustained domestic support. It would draw on elements of these different strategies and consolidate them in a manner that might be termed “pragmatic primacy.” Such a strategy would resist the temptation to overreach based on our current strengths, but would also not shy away from asserting our national interests and championing our values. We would prioritize our ambitions, and ensure that our rhetoric and resources are in balance with each other and are aligned with our objectives. We would discriminate between making significant commitments to defend our vital interests and using our influence to promote our preferences, and we 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 our alliances and supporting our friends around the world.

• Short of a direct attack on the United States, we 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.

• We would not impose our values on others by force of arms, but would vigorously champion respect for human rights, individual dignity and the rule of law.

• We would appreciate that while the concept of humanitarian intervention may often appeal to our compassion, it is unlikely to be grounded in our national interests or command the resources and time demanded to restore order and rebuild civil society.