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.

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 where we have few willing allies, we need to make the most of what we have. 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 of our actions. Afghanistan is only one front in what Islamic extremists view as a global war. They achieved a huge propaganda victory when the mujahideen drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in defeat and disgrace, precipitating, they believed, the subsequent demise of the Soviet empire. Should our 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, we will struggle to realize even limited goals in Afghanistan without widening the aperture of our policy to include a diplomatic process with all the neighbors that have a stake in stability in Afghanistan. In this context, Pakistan represents a special challenge, combining the “perfect storm” of failing institutions, nuclear weapons and terrorist groups. The Obama administration has mismanaged this delicate, complex and important relationship, being unable to either find common ground or coerce Islamabad into good behavior.

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. This support for the Afghan Taliban, who comprise the greatest threat to U.S. troops and the Kabul government, has moved beyond originally being a hedge against the failure of the Karzai regime to becoming a device for ensuring that Afghanistan remains perpetually deferential and subordinate to Pakistan.

The Obama administration’s attempts alternatively to befriend Pakistan’s military leadership by generous aid packages, to publicly rebuke it for its selective counterterrorism efforts, or to ignore it altogether in carrying out drone strikes over Pakistani territory have not had much 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 of what we can expect Pakistan to deliver for us in the war on terror and in stabilizing an independent, representative Afghanistan. A genuine strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan will remain beyond reach for some time to come. However, it is possible for the two countries to craft a more limited relationship where our ambitions are more modest and our 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 specifically targeted counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. (The Pentagon’s recent decision to withhold $300 million in military assistance because of Islamabad’s unwillingness to take sufficient action against the Haqqani terrorist network is a step in the right direction.) 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.

Nothing in Southwest Asia will come quickly or easily. But the challenges transcend any single country and can best be addressed in a regional format with key stakeholders. Establishing a diplomatic framework with these countries offers the greatest chance of stabilizing the region, eliminating terror groups and promoting economic development.

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 Guantánamo Bay. As important as our tactical victories have been in the war on terror, however, they do not constitute an organizing principle for the conduct of our foreign policy or operational concept for U.S. leadership in the world.

Dangers still abound and are growing, ranging from the jungles of the Philippines to the deserts of North Africa. History suggests that religious-based terror groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are far more enduring and less prone to compromise than more secular groups, which means that they will present an ongoing threat to the United States, and our friends and allies, for some time to come. We should take some comfort 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). We need to continue to employ a layered strategy based on defense of the homeland and first-rate intelligence work. But as good as our capabilities are, we cannot be as good as local actors working with local knowledge. This means that the next president needs to ramp up our 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 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 of our allies and friends in Asia fear that Beijing is on course to undermining its own security, thanks both to its still strongly state-managed economy and, more importantly, to its growing military capabilities. One of the most important unanswered questions in international relations in the coming decades is whether a rising China can be successfully integrated into a liberal international order or whether it will work to subvert that order.

A rising China is not new. It has been predicted, and feared, at least since the times 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 our 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.

As we know, 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.

Will this fourth hope come to pass? Will the Chinese become responsible stakeholders, creating public goods and placing their power in service to the global community? Or will China remain an outlier or even work to undermine the existing structures of global governance and reshape them to better suit its needs and wants? Will this fourth American hope lead to disappointment and bitterness as before? Or will it lead to something far worse: armed confrontation and conflict?

The truth is that the United States simply doesn’t know today which path China will choose. But we do know that the answer will be revealed in the coming years as we watch carefully the decisions the Chinese take on supporting the international financial system, preventing nuclear proliferation and pandemics, and resolving disputes peacefully.

China’s remarkable economic growth over the past three decades has led this region-wide phenomenon. China’s rise has also underwritten its growing military capabilities and greater assertiveness, which in turn has created anxiety among its neighbors who fear for their security and autonomy. Specifically, Beijing’s artificial “creation” of 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.