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.

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 we face, how we can share the burden with allies and how we might be able to mitigate the 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.

The United States cannot bend China’s choices to fit our hopes, but we are not helpless. Our immediate task is to articulate clearly our policy preferences as to the type of responsible behavior we wish to see. Going forward, we want China to promote an international trading system based on open markets, to respect intellectual property, and to support a currency that is not kept artificially low to stimulate exports. We want China to encourage sustainable economic development and good governance in Third World countries. We want China to join with us to promote clean energy policies. We want 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 our armed services. We want China to respect the rights and dignity of its own people to speak as they wish and worship as they please.

Much 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.

However, a policy of pragmatic primacy has to acknowledge the possibility that China will not do as we prefer, but will choose another path. So we 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 our friends and allies in the region, with a forward-deployed presence in the Pacific, and consistent support for Taiwan. We need to use all elements of our power to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These venerable strategies must be supplemented by new components appropriate to our times: building new partnerships with friendly states, such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, which are not formal allies but which share our 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 given the next president the diplomatic space to enhance America’s role in the region. But we need to understand that their wariness of China will not automatically translate into 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 our 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.

One area where China and the United States can make common cause is in preventing North Korea, the only country in the twenty-first century to test nuclear weapons, from continuing to refine its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and threaten regional security. After North Korea’s repeated diplomatic snubs, ballistic missile launches, and its fourth nuclear test this past January, it appears that Pyongyang has exhausted China’s patience, but not its patronage. The North remains heavily dependent on China for food and energy—as much as 80 percent, according to some reports—and it is doubtful that the Kim Jong-un regime could last very long without it.

Although Beijing appears more willing to show its displeasure towards Pyongyang, it remains reluctant to squeeze North Korea much harder because of the fear of collapse and the uncertainty of “the day after,” which could result in millions of refugees flooding into northern China, in U.S. forces moving above the thirty-eighth parallel, and in bringing about a unified Korea allied to the United States.

South Korea has exhibited no such reluctance to take strong action. In the wake of the North’s January 2016 nuclear test, it shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South project that employed fifty-five thousand workers and provided the North with hard currency equivalent to one-tenth of its annual budget. Seoul subsequently decided to accept the longstanding U.S. offer of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system, despite Chinese objections.

While our overall goal is to change North Korea’s strategic calculus so that it negotiates the surrender of its nuclear weapons, pragmatic primacy would acknowledge that all previous attempts have failed, by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Verification and compliance issues are technically complex and politically insurmountable. The modicum of trust needed for any agreement does not exist, on either side. At the same time, the United States needs to maintain the diplomatic fiction of a North Korea without nuclear weapons because it would otherwise suggest that the United States has accepted North Korea as a nuclear power, which may trigger proliferation across the region.

Under these constraints, Washington needs to focus on its highest priorities: alliance management and nonproliferation. First, we must reassure South Korea and Japan that we will continue to deter and defend our allies. This means implementing the THAAD system in South Korea and linking it with existing missile defenses in Japan to provide a regional canopy. The United States should also conduct force demonstrations in and around the Korean Peninsula (along the lines of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises in March 2016), should undertake warhead modernization to hit underground bunkers, and should encourage more trilateral intelligence sharing and military integration with Seoul and Tokyo. (With the December 2015 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo settling the sensitive “comfort women” issue, the timing is propitious for greater security cooperation.)

Second, we need to ramp up efforts to prevent Pyongyang from selling its nuclear materials and know-how abroad. As dangerous as a nuclear-armed North Korea is, it is far more dangerous if it shares its expertise with like-minded rogue states. There is precedent here; in 2007, we learned that the North had secretly provided Syria with a plutonium production reactor. There is no reason to believe that the North has not searched for, or found, other buyers.

This means that we need to revisit the past successes of the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Illicit Activities Initiative as part of a larger interdiction and sanctions regime aimed at containing the North’s WMD activities. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our long-standing, serial sanctioning of the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing (and its human rights abuses) is that we still have sanctions left to apply. The Obama administration has belatedly cited North Korea as a country of prime money-laundering concern; we should also increase sanctions against Pyongyang for its human-rights violations, along the same lines as we do for Zimbabwe and the Congo.

It also means that we need to enlist Chinese cooperation to impose tangible costs on North Korea through the strict implementation of sanctions. Unfortunately, past practice by Beijing is not encouraging, despite China’s leverage over the North with its fuel and food supplies. So the United States needs to explain and demonstrate to China that it will pay a price for the North’s bad behavior. China’s action, or nonaction, will influence Washington’s decision to accelerate an integrated THAAD missile defense system with our two allies and our determination to sanction mainland Chinese banks that continue to enable North Korea to export ballistic missiles, narcotics and counterfeit money.


The American people are now hearing from the presidential candidates on how we can solve our foreign-policy challenges, with Donald Trump proclaiming 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 American greatness rests on understanding that our challenge is akin to a marathon, not a sprint, that our resources are not endless, and that the American people will not underwrite foreign conflicts unless our vital interests are at stake. It rests on exercising restraint, on choosing our 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 we cannot be all things to all people.