Say Goodbye to American Primacy and Hegemony

Kevin Doremus | United States

The United States has been involved in four military conflicts since the end of the Cold War: Serbia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Of course, this is not counting proxy wars. The U.S. has spent an enormous amount of money and blood in regions that are known to be unstable. There needs to be increased restraint in how the government involves itself in foreign affairs.

Over the past decade, the United States has engaged in a policy commonly referred to as primacy, or liberal hegemony. Its advocates argue that the U.S. needs to preserve its power advantage and defend Western values such as democracy, universal human rights, and open markets. In Washington D.C., it is a strategy that has bipartisan support. Yet, the American populace has seemingly rejected this policy at the polls.

The Values of Primacy

Primacists argue that it is a moral good to spread Western values across the world. Proponents of this foreign policy see failed, rogue, and illiberal states as threats to the rule-based international system they claim the U.S. was built to be. Failed states are a threat because they could potentially harbor terrorists. States that are deemed to be rogue are ones that are estimated to use weapons of mass destruction. An illiberal state is considered a threat because it opposes the U.S. from acting freely. To counter all these threats, the U.S. is required to invest in its military and increase international political commitments, which is an enormous task.

Hal Brands, Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argues for primacy:

In response to critiques of unsustainable defense spending:

From 2001 to 2018, the U.S. has spent about $5.9 trillion on wars in the Middle East. Military spending continues to increase with spending on bases, military branches, and research and development.

For primacists, the cost of their policy is worth it. However, it is debatable whether primacy brought peace and stability.  The Middle East is more unstable now than it ever was before. Superpowers are becoming more competitive than cooperative. Convincing voters that hegemony is more crucial to their interests than entitlements has always been a difficult task.  The elections in 2000, 2008, and 2016 showed that primacist arguments are not convincing to the public. Talking points that were similar to restraint were, however, very successful.

Restraining the American Empire

A restrainer believes that the U.S. should modify its foreign policy. Primacy, historically, has been counterproductive and costly. The U.S. is surrounded by weaker powers and two bodies of water, making it easy to defend. National interests should be narrowed from the ambitious strategy to remake the world.

A foreign policy of restraint would lead to a decrease in excessive government spending. Restrainers are supportive of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) which “identifies property and improvements that are surplus to [the] military…” According to the Department of Defense, infrastructure excess is estimated to be at 19%. Annually, the closure of excess bases would save the government $2 billion.

The power of the U.S. military is dependent on a strong economy. Prosperity has allowed the military to have capabilities that are unmatched by other countries.  Excessive spending only weakens the country over time. In a world where the global system is changing, the U.S. needs to be prepared, economically, for the new realities. Sacrificing the needs at home for the ambitions abroad has resulted in a middle and lower class revolt against the establishment. The country is unprepared for a multipolar world.  It is unknown if the major powers will decouple or co-exist.

The U.S. should reduce its commitments to the world. Primacy prioritizes preserving the liberal order over U.S. interests with proclamations that the U.S. is the defender of democracy and universal human rights, thus it is easy to become entangled in conflict across the world. Partners and allies should be responsible for their own security and not rely on America to do their fighting.  If the Europeans and Asians have their own security interests, they should be the ones investing and defending their own countries.

The U.S. should deter attacks on its soil from other states.  Reducing its international presence means that the country will be “a less attractive target for violent political entrepreneurs motivated by identity politics…” In other words, reduce presence in the Middle East to avoid blowback.

Restrainers recognize that nuclear weapons are here to stay. While the nuclear club (U.S., Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) does not want another nuclear peer emerging, the abolition of such weapons is a fantasy. The technology is becoming more accessible that small countries such as Pakistan have nuclear weapons. For small states, “nuclear weapons are the great equalizer.” The destructive nature allows smaller states to defend their country from predatory states. Even if the majority of countries want to abolish nukes, it only takes a holdout to prevent everyone from following through. These weapons of mass destruction provide a real deterrent, “Nuclear weapons permit Israel to insure itself against the more populous Arab states even if it lost the support of the United States, Pakistan to insure itself against a much more populous and powerful India, and Russia to ensure itself against a rapidly developing and more populous China.”

A restrained foreign policy is an alternative to primacy. It reduces military spending, bases located domestically and abroad, and ends projecting power across the world. Primacy is an attempt to preserve the U.S. power advantage and spread liberal ideas across the world. It was an expensive ambitious plan that led interventions on global humanitarian arguments. Restraint argues that the U.S. should stop pursuing idealistic adventures and prioritize security at home. International commitments would have to diminish to avoid foreign entanglements. The benefit of this policy is that money would not be wasted on foreign military endeavors and the possibility of blowback would potentially be lowered. With a strong defense, the U.S. can deter aggressive state actors but can still economically trade and prosper with other countries.


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