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Abandon the Pursuit of Primacy Before It's Too Late
Even though the pursuit of primacy keeps leading the U.S. into one ditch after another, the pursuit continues because its supporters cannot imagine giving it up.
Stephen Wertheim makes a compelling case that the Iraq war was the result of pursuing a strategy of primacy, and the U.S. has still not abandoned that pursuit:
After the 9/11 attacks, the architects of the invasion sought to shore up U.S. military preeminence in the Middle East and beyond. By acting boldly, by targeting a galling adversary not involved in 9/11, the United States would demonstrate the futility of resisting American power.
As “shock and awe” gave way to chaos, insurgency, destruction, and death, the war should have discredited the primacist project that spawned it. Instead, the quest for primacy endures. U.S. power is meeting mounting resistance across the globe, and Washington wishes to counter almost all of it, everywhere, still conflating U.S. power projection with American interests, still trying to overmatch rivals and avoid curbing U.S. ambitions. The results were damaging enough during the United States’ unipolar moment. Against major powers armed with nuclear weapons, they may be much worse.
When the U.S. has waged disastrous, unnecessary wars in the decades since WWII, supporters of primacy will later dismiss the wars as “mistakes” that tell us nothing about the larger strategy that they were serving. These wars have been written off as unfortunate aberrations rather than the predictable results of pursuing dominance. Though they were once promoted by the government as central to the strategy of their time, wars in Vietnam and Iraq in particular are now conveniently remembered as blunders that have no implications for the larger U.S. role in the world. This works out nicely for defenders of the status quo, since they don’t have to revisit any major assumptions and they feel no need to make adjustments to the strategy. Even though the pursuit of primacy keeps leading the U.S. into one ditch after another, the pursuit continues because its supporters cannot imagine giving it up.
One reason why so many policymakers and analysts refer to the Iraq war as a mistake rather than calling it a crime is that they don’t really believe that the U.S. is or should be bound by the same rules that constrain others. According to this view, other states may wage aggressive wars that demand universal condemnation, but the U.S. only ever makes “mistakes” while “leading” the world. As far as its supporters are concerned, a strategy of primacy can’t be discredited because it is deemed necessary for the sake of world order. The fact that it routinely produces instability and disorder does not trouble them. Primacists take it as an article of faith that the world would fall into chaos if the U.S. abandoned the strategy. However much harm it causes to the U.S. and the world, that is viewed as the cost of doing business.
This bodes ill for the future, as the U.S. has not given up on the strategy that produced past disasters. Wertheim writes:
The pathologies of primacy made war appear necessary and worth the price, and those pathologies continue to put the United States on a collision course with other countries.
One pitfall of primacy is that it eventually produces conflict, since there are many other states that will resist the dictates of the preeminent power and some of these states will tend to band together in opposition. The preeminent power takes that resistance as a threat to its position and seeks to break it, and that in turn will often generate more hostility and opposition. Because the U.S. tends to view a challenge anywhere as potentially undermining its position everywhere, it will overcommit itself around the world and eventually exhaust itself. The U.S. can’t afford to keep chasing the high of the late ‘90s-early 2000s “unipolar moment,” but its current strategy is to do exactly that.
Wertheim is far from alone in diagnosing what ails U.S. foreign policy. Daniel Bessner made much the same argument last year, warning about the dangers that the continued pursuit of primacy would create for the U.S. in Asia: “If the two wars with Iraq were destructive, then, a war with China would be catastrophic. The value of continued U.S. primacy in East Asia is insufficient to justify the enormous cost of such a conflict.” Van Jackson has also sounded the alarm about how the pursuit of primacy in Asia will come at the expense of the Asian peace: “Washington can support regional peace or pursue regional primacy, but it cannot do both.”
Current U.S. strategy is destabilizing and it is making unnecessary conflict more likely in several places. As Jackson says:
What maintaining U.S. primacy will instead do is menace the Asian peace. The massive military investments needed to ensure the United States remains the Indo-Pacific’s dominant power require outarming China in areas of its highest capability, close to Chinese shores and far from the U.S. homeland. It is an impossible task.
It is also a fruitless one. What does the U.S. gain from this pursuit of primacy? It mostly gains greater risks and burdens that have nothing to do with protecting its own territory and security. As Jackson has said on his podcast, “We're talking about people in Washington using the Taiwan impossible standard to do what C. Wright Mills called the idiot's race. We're talking about pure militarism.”
There are many people in Washington that claim to believe that more militarism will somehow preserve peace and stability, and so they insist that every new increase of military spending and every new deployment is bolstering deterrence without asking why it is really needed or why the U.S. should be the one to do it. The truth is that it isn’t needed if preserving peace in Asia is the priority, and the only reason to do it is if pursuing primacy is more important than peace. We have seen over the last twenty years what happens when policymakers privilege primacy over peace, and it is terrible for both U.S. interests and the rest of the world. If the U.S. continues down this road in Asia, it will be ruinous for everyone concerned.