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.

• We 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.

• We would ramp up our efforts to eliminate terrorist groups, while understanding that counterterrorism success will require patience and persistence for many years to come.

• We would privilege our economic, military and diplomatic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the character of China’s rise remains one of the greatest unanswered questions for the twenty-first century.

With these principles to guide us, how would pragmatic primacy work in practice in some of the key regions of the world?


Thirty years ago, a State Department official quipped, “Why is it that we define the globe as either ‘Europe’ or ‘out of area’?” Our response to this question has traditionally been neither semantic nor generational as much as it has been based on common interests and common values.

Today, it appears there is less commonality than ever. America’s allies in Europe have been undergoing wrenching changes. For some time now, Europe has been getting older, with ever fewer workers having to support an increasing number of retirees. It has been economically, politically, and socially impossible for Europe to maintain its status quo mixture of low birthrates, longer life spans, early retirement ages and generous entitlements. Old-age dependency spending has already started to overwhelm every other area of Europe’s public expenditures, including defense spending. This has led to a Europe that believed it faced no serious external threats after the Cold War and to “cheap ride” on the back of the United States, which now provides three-fourths of all NATO funding.

The eurozone crisis has exacerbated these trends. At heart, Europe is experiencing an economic trial that masks a deeper political crisis. This crisis has not simply highlighted the structural disconnect between the European Union’s monetary and fiscal policies, but it has also 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 broader reassessment.

As Europe has wrestled with ways to address these intertwined structural, political and economic trials, 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, and it is timely for Washington to raise the core questions that undergird all alliances: What is our 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; they have surveyed the neighborhood and will not substitute our threat assessment for their own. Washington can push harder to encourage greater coordination, rationalization and interoperability among European defense establishments, shortcomings exposed during the 2011 Libya operations, but our expectations should be tempered here, also. Hectoring them to ratchet up defense spending will only distract us from important tasks where we can collaborate.

A more promising area of collaboration is reinforcing deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank where, in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine requires a more resolute response to reassure the Baltics, and especially those countries in central Europe and in Russia’s “near abroad.” It does not herald a return to the days of the Cold War to acknowledge that the Obama administration’s trumpeted “reset” with Russia has failed. Meanwhile in Russia, the quality of civic life has deteriorated dramatically over the past few years, highlighted by a rigged presidential election that was characterized by overt anti-Americanism. (We should expect more of the same in the run-up to the September 2016 Duma election.) “Putinism” today stands for a kleptocratic bureaucracy that aggrandizes power and wealth while denying its citizens basic human rights and dignity. While the United States should always explore its diplomatic options, it is unlikely that we can forge a working relationship with Russia as long as Putin is in charge.

Does this mean that Russia presents an existential threat along the same lines as the Soviet Union? Hardly. To start, Putin does not have the capacity to invade western Europe. Internally, Russia’s GDP has fallen 5 percent in the last few years, taxes have been increased to compensate for lower rents from oil and natural gas exports, inflation is approaching double digits, the business climate has eroded, and capital flight has accelerated. Overall, Russia’s population continues to shrink; it now has fewer people than Bangladesh.

Ukraine continues to be a flash point in East-West relations, and we should not be shy about asserting our preferences. As a first step, the United States should insist that NATO’s declaratory policy with respect to Ukraine should be a return to the status quo ante—i.e., the removal of all Russian forces and proxies from the Donbass region, in accordance with the Minsk Protocol, and also from Crimea. (To those who argue that Russia cares more about Crimea than the West, the same argument could have been made for the Baltics, yet that did not deter us from adopting a principled position that was ultimately vindicated.) While Putin has appeared to reap short-term tactical successes, he can ill afford Ukraine’s enduring enmity. For now, he is betting on the West—and a still-determined Angela Merkel—tiring of sanctions. The next president must ensure that this is a bad bet.

Beyond Russia, 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 and do so in real time. The greater sharing of financial intelligence to root out the funding of terrorist groups also needs to be a priority. Expanded police powers, with appropriate judicial and legislative oversight, are warranted.

In the past, many European states have balked at taking, or even debating, these steps; some may continue to do so even after the recent Brussels and Paris attacks. The time is now ripe for revisiting the rules of intelligence collection and sharing in a post-Snowden environment (and there are indications that the Germans, among others, are willing to do so). This is a debate that Europeans need to have, but U.S. interests are also at stake, because of American citizens and businesses in Europe who are at risk and because of the threat that Islamic State and other terrorists pose to our allies. We have significant contributions to make, not least our unmatched intelligence assets, which our European partners deeply appreciate. We also have sophisticated border-security procedures and technologies, and the ability to convene the parties, set the agenda and help shape the terms of the public debate. The next American president has an opportunity to strengthen our ties to Europe in ways that would be most meaningful to our partners and enhance America’s security at the same time.

The Middle East

The Arab Spring represented the most significant upheaval in the Middle East since the 1952 colonel’s coup overthrew King Farouk, installed a charismatic 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; the instability across North Africa and the greater Middle East has led to millions of internally displaced persons and refugees. Traditionally, refugees returned home, relocated to a third country or were absorbed into the host state; none of that is happening today.

The consequences of instability in the Middle East are enormous, as the region contains over 410 million people, with almost half under the age of twenty-five, at least 30 percent of whom are unemployed, and which 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. Pleasing no one, the Obama administration aligned the United States with neither the idealistic young people demonstrating in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and across the region, nor with the antidemocratic leaders in charge of autocratic, if stable, regimes. Our intervention in Libya was launched with no larger plan for “the day after,” namely, how to secure the country’s lethal arsenal of advanced weapons or halt the country’s descent into tribal warfare. The result has been ongoing instability inside Libya, and the proliferation of violence around the region, extending as far as Boko Haram and its affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa.