The Price of Primacy
Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World
By Stephen Wertheim March/April 2020
The collapse of the Soviet Union revealed the bankruptcy of international communism. In time, the absence of a Cold War foe also exposed the bankruptcy of Washington’s global ambitions. Freed from major challengers, the United States had an unprecedented chance to shape international politics according to its wishes. It could have chosen to live in harmony with the world, pulling back its armed forces and deploying them only for vital purposes. It could have helped build a world of peace, strengthening the laws and institutions that constrain war and that most other states welcome. From this foundation of security and goodwill, the United States could have exercised leadership on the already visible challenges ahead, including climate change and the concentration of ungoverned wealth.
Instead, Washington did the opposite. It adopted a grand strategy that gave pride of place to military threats and methods, and it constructed a form of global integration that served the immediate interests of a few but imperiled the long-term interests of the many. At best, these were mistaken priorities. At worst, they turned the United States into a destructive actor in the world. Rather than practice and cultivate peace, Washington pursued armed domination and launched futile wars in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and in Libya in 2011. These actions created more enemies than they defeated. They killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and overextended a generation of U.S. service members. They damaged laws and institutions that stabilize the world and the United States. They made the American people less safe.
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As the United States inflated military threats and then poured resources into countering them, it also failed to provide for the global common good. Although it has led some laudable efforts to address the AIDS pandemic and climate change, the overall record is grim. Since 1990, the United States, despite having only four percent of the global population, has emitted about 20 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change. Although China is now the world’s top emitter, the United States’ emissions per capita remain more than twice as high as China’s. American leaders have alternated between denying the problem and taking insufficient steps to solve it. It remains unclear whether humanity can prevent the overall global temperature from rising to between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels; if not, the damage may prove irreversible, and fires, droughts, and floods may proliferate.
Meanwhile, the economic growth that has contributed to climate change has not benefited enough people. True, extreme poverty has plummeted globally since the early 1990s. This spectacular achievement is substantially the result of growth in China and India, on terms accepted but hardly defined by the United States. In the same period, however, the share of income accruing to the wealthiest one percent of the world’s population has steadily climbed, whereas that of the bottom 50 percent has stagnated. The rest of the world, including the vast majority of Americans, has actually lost ground. Wealth is now concentrated to the point that an estimated 11.5 percent of global GDP lies offshore, untaxed and unaccountable. The populist revolts of the past few years were a predictable result. And American leaders bear direct responsibility for these outcomes, having spearheaded an economic order that puts capital first.
U.S. President Donald Trump often portrays himself as breaking with the basic pattern of recent American foreign policy. Many of his detractors also see him that way. In truth, Trump has carried forward and even intensified the post–Cold War agenda of his predecessors: spare no expense for military hegemony, and find little to spare for the earth’s climate or the well-being of anyone who is not wealthy. Trump stands out chiefly because he describes this agenda as national aggrandizement rather than farsighted international leadership. In this regard, he has a point.
Washington’s post–Cold War strategy has failed. The United States should abandon the quest for armed primacy in favor of protecting the planet and creating more opportunity for more people. It needs a grand strategy for the many.
THE WAR MACHINE
Both champions and critics of U.S. grand strategy after the Cold War have christened the project “liberal hegemony.” But American objectives and methods were always more hegemonic than liberal. Despite diverging over whether and how to promote liberalism, U.S. policymakers have for nearly three decades converged around the premise that Pentagon planners set forth in 1992: the United States should maintain a military superiority so overwhelming that it would dissuade allies and rivals alike from challenging Washington’s authority. That superiority quickly became an end unto itself. By seeking dominance instead of merely defense, the strategy of primacy plunged the United States into a downward spiral: American actions generated antagonists and enemies, who in turn made primacy more dangerous to pursue.
For most of the 1990s, the costs of this strategy remained somewhat hidden. With Russia flattened and China poor, the United States could simultaneously reduce its defense spending and expand NATO, launch military interventions in the former Yugoslavia and for the first time station tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East. Yet by the end of the decade, U.S. dominance had begun to generate blowback. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist group declared war on the United States in 1996, citing the U.S. military’s presence in Saudi Arabia as their top grievance; two years later, al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people. U.S. policymakers, for their part, were already exaggerating the threat posed by weak “rogue states” and gearing up for ambitious military interventions to promote democracy and human rights. These pathologies shaped Washington’s overly militarized reaction to the 9/11 attacks, as the United States entered into successive conflicts in which its capabilities and interests did not exceed those of local actors. The result was endless war.
Now, as the United States struggles to extricate itself from the Middle East, China is growing into an economic and political powerhouse and Russia is asserting itself as a spoiler. That outcome is exactly what primacy was supposed to prevent. The rise of a near-peer competitor does not necessarily pose a grave danger to the United States, whose nuclear deterrent secures it from attack. But clinging to the dream of never-ending primacy will ensure trouble, mandating the containment of rivals and provoking insecurity and aggression in return. China has yet to undertake a costly bid for military dominance in East Asia, let alone the world, but U.S. actions could push Beijing in that direction.
BEARING THE COSTS
Primacy has not merely failed to provide security as it is narrowly defined. It has also damaged the environment, undercut the economic interests of most Americans, and destabilized democracy. The U.S. military consumes more oil and produces more greenhouse gases than any other institution on earth, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. In 2017, the U.S. military’s emissions exceeded those of entire industrialized countries, such as Denmark and Sweden.
Nor does primacy offer a net economic benefit. From the 1940s through the 1960s, U.S. military preponderance lubricated international capitalism by containing communism and facilitating the expansion of the dollar, to which all other currencies were pegged. But after the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system and then of the Soviet Union, currencies were floated, and global markets were integrated. As a result, U.S. military strength became largely detached from the international economic order. Today, the status of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency, which allows Americans to borrow cheaply, rests largely on path dependence, the currency’s stability, and the dearth of attractive alternatives—factors that no longer rely on the global projection of U.S. force that helped usher them in originally. And the quest for primacy is now leading the United States to erode its own financial position by maintaining unnecessary hostilities with states such as Iran, imposing crippling sanctions on them and forcing third parties who use the dollar to follow suit. These actions have compelled European states to seek alternatives to the dollar and have driven down the dollar’s share in global foreign exchange reserves.
The U.S. military is costlier than the next seven largest armed forces combined.
The U.S. military contributes to global commerce by protecting the sea-lanes through which goods (including oil) flow. But doing so does not require globe-spanning dominance; it requires effective local partners to handle day-to-day tasks, with a light U.S. air and naval presence that can be reinforced if and when those partners cannot overcome a genuine challenge to maritime security. Whatever economic benefits primacy may indirectly yield, what is certain is that year after year, the United States spends half of its federal discretionary budget to fund a military that is costlier than the next seven largest armed forces combined. Military spending is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs, ranking behind tax cuts and spending on education, health care, infrastructure, and clean energy. The estimated $6.4 trillion poured into the “war on terror” so far could have rebuilt communities across the United States that were devastated by the financial crisis and the recession that followed. Now, many members of those communities resent the political elites who allowed them to crumble.
Primacy has also corroded the U.S. political system, which has in turn produced irresponsible leaders to wield primacy’s power. During the Cold War, the need to counter a threatening adversary sometimes worked to unify disparate political factions and social groups in the United States. The post–Cold War quest for primacy offers a perverse contrast. The United States has acquired a kaleidoscope of foreign enemies, whom U.S. officials and the mass media have encouraged the American public to fear and punish. Small wonder that in the second decade of the war on terror, a demagogue was able to turn hatred of foreigners into a premise that propelled him to the presidency, dividing the country further still.
HOW TO FIX GLOBALIZATION
Americans and their leaders must act now to end primacy’s downward spiral. This will not require overturning the familiar definitions of fundamental U.S. interests: security for the nation and its people, prosperity for all, and the preservation of the constitutional republic. But those interests must be related to the domestic and international realities of 2020, rather than to those of 1947.
Buildings destroyed by U.S. drone strikes in Pekha, Afghanistan, October 2019
Stefanie Glinski / Eyevine / Redux
The United States should seek to transform globalization into a governable and sustainable force, one that protects the environment, spreads wealth equitably, and promotes peace. Such an agenda would bring Americans together and bring their country into a healthy alignment with the rest of the world. Climate change affects everyone, and two of the very few trends common to both U.S. political parties are mounting support for economic progressivism and a profound wariness of military intervention. A strategy to transform globalization would also transcend the current impasse between “America first” nationalism and nostalgia for the U.S.-led “liberal international order.” The former is implacably hostile to the outside world (and hurts the United States by defining it in opposition to others rather than in terms of itself and its interests). The latter submerges U.S. interests in a vague abstraction (and hurts the world by subordinating everyone to U.S. leadership). A better approach would be to focus on definable interests and major threats that genuinely require action across borders.
First among these is climate change. Nothing better encapsulates the backwardness of U.S. priorities than the fact that Washington directs at least $81 billion per year to its military to ensure the abundant supply of cheap oil around the globe, according to Securing America’s Future Energy, a clean energy advocacy group. The United States should work to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels rather than underwrite it.
The world still has a chance to avert the most severe climate impacts. To set the stage, the United States should use its market power and its international influence. At home, it should vastly increase investment in the Department of Energy’s research-and-development agency, levy taxes on producers and importers of carbon-emitting fuels, and expand credits for electric vehicles and other renewables. At the same time, the United States should adopt a range of green regulatory standards on which to condition foreign access to its large market, along the lines of the tailpipe emissions requirements that the Obama administration imposed on imported automobiles.
Globally, the United States should seek much more far-reaching results than the voluntary national emissions standards established by the Paris climate accord in 2015. After rejoining that agreement, Washington should ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which calls for vastly limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons, and should insist that multilateral development agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, support only those projects that would lead to fewer emissions.
The United States should also rally the industrialized world to provide developing countries with technology and financing to bypass fossil fuels. Coercion will be less effective, and less just, than provision. Washington can jump-start this initiative by investing at least $200 billion in the UN Green Climate Fund and opening discussions for debt relief with countries in the global South.
The United States should transform globalization into a governable and sustainable force.
A sticking point would be China, which spews by far the most carbon dioxide of any country—over a quarter of the global total—but also leads the world in mass-producing low-carbon energy technologies. The highest priority in U.S. relations with China should be to green Chinese behavior, an objective that would preclude a policy of Cold War–style containment. Washington should encourage Beijing to keep innovating renewable technologies, in part by stepping up U.S. research and development, and should push China to implement those technologies in its domestic energy production and international development practices.
A new U.S. strategy would not just green the global economy; it would also democratize it. As Joseph Stiglitz, Todd Tucker, and Gabriel Zucman recently argued in these pages, the next U.S. president should launch a campaign to combat global tax evasion by backing a global registry to reveal the true owners of all assets and by preventing corporations from shifting money to subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions. Those moves alone would increase U.S. tax revenue by approximately 15 percent. Still more revenue would come from establishing a global minimum tax to end race-to-the-bottom tax havens. Washington could use that revenue to ensure that U.S. workers benefit from the transition away from fossil fuels. In this way, environmental protection, economic justice, and the restoration of trust in government would proceed in lockstep.
HOW TO END ENDLESS WARS—AND NOT START NEW ONES
It will not suffice, however, to simply lay environmentalist and social democratic initiatives on top of U.S. military primacy, in pursuit of which the United States has formally obligated itself to defend approximately one-third of the world’s countries (and informally dozens more) and to maintain an archipelago of more than 800 foreign bases. The United States will also have to demilitarize its foreign policy.
The essential first step would be to end the era of costly and counterproductive warfare that began after the 9/11 attacks. The United States should remove its air and ground forces from Afghanistan within 12 to 18 months and even sooner from Iraq and Syria. It should bring those troops home rather than reposition them elsewhere in the region. Washington should of course try to broker the best possible settlements to the conflicts in those places, and it should continue to provide assistance to the Afghan and Iraqi governments after turning over the appropriate facilities and equipment to them. But the United States should withdraw from these conflict zones even in the absence of credible agreements to end the fighting. Washington lacks the leverage to demand what it could not impose through two decades of warfare. Although withdrawals may set back U.S. allies and partners in the short run, the region must find its own balance of power in order to achieve peace and stability over time.
Indeed, no strategic logic warrants the continuation of the war on terror, which perpetuates itself by producing new enemies. That is why a swift and sweeping termination would be best. If significant attacks occur, the United States should respond militarily but with clear restrictions regarding whom, where, and for how long it can fight. Its leaders should make a political virtue out of restraint, declaring that the United States will defeat terrorists in part by avoiding the kinds of indiscriminate attacks that militants exploit to swell their coffers and attract new recruits.
No strategic logic warrants the continuation of the war on terror.
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