Primacy versus Pluralism

What kind of world is safest for America’s liberal way of life?

Its a tough question, and goes to the heart of grand strategy – how a nation like America aligns its power and its interests, resources and commitments, in order to create the conditions and shape an external environment that is conducive to its domestic institutions.

The strategy embraced by the Bush II Administration, and in milder and more consensual form by the Obama Administration, was and is one of primacy. That is, it sought not only to keep the US the single global superpower, but to deter and dissuade other powers from competing with it, or even considering being America’s rival. America would underwrite the security of this liberal world order, and by doing so, ensure that its liberties were safe.

This idea entails a range of policies. They include disuassion, or a vast outspending and outpacing of other potential military-strategic rivals; reassurance, where the US must be willing to go to war to reassure its allies and bolster its credibility in wars that may not threaten America directly; and thirdly, active counter-proliferation of advanced weapons to hostile nations.

But as George Kennan argued (and I recommend John Lewis Gaddis and Michael Lind on this point), a liberal state will become illiberal if it goes for primacy and tries to remake the world in its image:

‘We are great and strong; but we are not great enough or strong enough to conquer or to change or to hold in subjugation by ourselves all…hostile or irresponsible forces. To attempt to do so would mean to call upon our own people for sacrifices which would in themselves completely alter our way of life and our political institutions, and would lose the real objectives of our policy in trying to defend them.’

By keeping America in a state of mobilisation, it would be overly costly and damaging to the economy; it would threaten the constitution by concentrating power in an ever more dangerous imperial presidency; and it would place America on collision course with potential rivals in Asia and the Middle East, or smaller ‘credibility wars’, lowering the threshold of conflict, and creating a state of¬†endless war or the threat of war.

Primacy, with its universalist nature, is unsustainable and dangerous for a liberal state. A more plural world with equilibrium preserved in it is hardly ideal, but it is achievable and tolerable, and more true to the founding purpose of America than a security-addicted garrison state. A world of prudently balanced diversity, in other words, is ultimately more compatible with liberal values at home.

To move to this alternative grand strategy, there would be one especially difficult shift. Instead of trying to avoid the rise of other Great Powers, it would recognise that history happens to everybody, and seek instead to anticipate and co-exist with other rising powers. By abdicating global hegemony, America could be in a stronger position to remain a great power, with the ability to intervene decisively. But you knew I was going to say that.

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