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Our Addiction to Global Primacy

Steven Metz warns [1] against America’s unsustainable pursuit of primacy in the world:

America’s fixation with primacy and military dominance, while now the orthodoxy, is a relatively recent thing. It was initially intended as a temporary expedient to help stave off the Soviet Union as Europe and other regions rebuilt after World War II and dozens of new nations emerged out of the former European colonial empires. But during the course of the Cold War, the United States somehow became addicted to primacy, no longer seeing it as a temporary expedient but as the new normal [bold mine-DL].

It didn’t have to be this way. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States might have considered its global mission complete, disengaged from all but the most vital parts of the world, and undertaken a major military demobilization. Instead, political leaders opted for a smaller but even more advanced and adept military, seeking to “overmatch” any potential adversary. Along the way, the use of armed force became the tool of first resort in American statecraft, supplanting the balanced mix of military, diplomatic and economic power that characterized America’s Cold War strategy.

Metz makes a strong case that continuing a strategy of primacy is both unsustainable and unnecessary. Like our sanctions [2] and regime change [3] addictions, our addiction to primacy is harmful to both the United States and the world. It causes us to assume more costs and burdens than our security requires, and it drives us toward reckless confrontations with other states that we don’t need to have. Our political leaders often use our preeminent position in the world as a license to take aggressive actions that end up needlessly costing lives and money in wars that devastate the affected countries and create more enemies than we had before.

The pursuit of primacy has become such an ingrained habit that it never occurs to our policymakers that there could ever be any other way of doing things, and they are quick to denounce proposals that the U.S. settle for something less than predominance. Supporters of the current strategy lean heavily on exaggerating threats and stoking fears to make primacy seem like the only valid alternative. Metz notes that their claims don’t withstand scrutiny:

For instance, advocates assume that without U.S. military dominance, the global system—or at least some parts of it—will devolve into conflict or fall under the control of hostile nations that might keep the United States out of the regions they monopolize. That was a valid concern during the Cold War when America faced an expansionistic Soviet Union bent on world domination. But it no longer is.

The other thing that primacists miss or deliberately ignore is that those parts of the world where the U.S. has exercised “leadership” most forcefully and most often are the places that are wracked by conflict. Our role in these places is not a stabilizing one and hasn’t been for at least the last two decades. If the U.S. moved from a strategy of primacy to one of restraint, it would put an end to our repeated destabilizing forays.

Metz adds that there is virtually no debate about changing the strategy:

Yet the idea that America’s economic health depends on primacy and military dominance has been repeated so often that it is an article of faith among mainstream policy experts and political leaders.

If Metz is right that primacy is unsustainable, and I think he is [4], it is crucial that Americans begin thinking about how to replace a strategy of primacy while we can do so on our terms rather than waiting until the change is forced upon us. Put more bluntly, we need to get help for our primacy addiction before it kills us.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Our Addiction to Global Primacy"

#1 Comment By Chris Atwood On December 3, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

Peter Beinart’s idea of American foreign policy being “insolvent” is along the same lines. Other writers have recently made this point as well.



I wonder if a discussion of these views might be helpful.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2018 @ 8:09 pm

Unfortunately, imperialism is to die for.

#3 Comment By BasileosPetros On December 3, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

We should not be so willfully ignorant to imagine that a nation, without compulsion, will ever surrender power that it holds, even if gained by accident.

Hell, Rome conquered the entire Mediterranean and beyond over centuries of “defensive” wars, and held onto it until tribesmen wrested it from their grips.

#4 Comment By Clyde Schechter On December 3, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

Well said, Mr. Larison.

#5 Comment By Ray Woodcock On December 4, 2018 @ 7:44 pm

For me, the big word in this topic is China. I agree with much of the argument about regime change and random interventions. But what’s missing is where we draw a line in the Pacific and/or Asia, or whether we even could or would draw such a line.