The Problem with Military Primacy

A suicide bombing in Yemen kills scores of new military recruits. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has suffered a brain hemorrhage. Nuclear-armed North Korea tests ballistic missiles. Venezuela is in a political and economic death spiral. The civil war in Syria drags into its fifth year, and only seems to get worse. In each case, a worried world asks: “What is the United States going to do?”

U.S. policymakers have invited this response. For decades, U.S. foreign policy has followed a quixotic goal of primacy, or global hegemony. It presumes that the United States is the indispensable nation, and that every problem, in any part of the world, must be resolved by U.S. leadership or else will impact American safety.

.. It would also reject the need for global hegemony. The idea that we can only be safe once the world is remade in our image is riddled with logical fallacies. Moreover, an interests-driven foreign policy would take seriously the consequences of our actions abroad and here at home — on our soldiers, our fiscal health, and our principles.

.. Instead of asking, whenever a distant crisis breaks, “What is the United States going to do?” we should ask, first, “How does this affect vital U.S. national interests?” and, second, “In light of recent developments, what can the United States do, while remaining prosperous and relatively safe, and what must others do to protect themselves?”

This might seem like common sense, but it runs counter to the foreign policy thinking among American elites. They argue that America’s dominant position in the international system is good not only for America but also for the world.

.. primacists are more worried by the prospect that allies’ self-defense efforts might fail, necessitating more costly U.S. intervention later and under less favorable circumstances.

.. U.S. security guarantees, the primacists say, tamp down the natural inclination of states to want to provide security for themselves, thus preventing allies from engaging in arms build-ups that might unsettle their neighbors, perhaps even unleashing regional arms races.

.. But, under primacy, the U.S. military is expected both to stop threats from materializing and to stomp out any fires it fails to prevent.

.. The United States will have spent nearly $500 billion more on the military in the Obama years than during the Bush years.

.. nearly three times more than China and Russia combined.

.. It could do so through smarter spending, eliminating wasteful gold-plated programs such as the F-35, and demanding greater burden-sharing from allies.

.. Michael Mullen warned that debts and deficits represent threats to not just our fiscal health but our national security as well.

.. primacy is based on a number of faulty premises, including:

  1. that the United States is subjected to more urgent and prevalent threats than ever before;
  2. that U.S. security guarantees reassure nervous allies and thus contribute to global peace and stability; and
  3. that a large and active U.S. military is essential to the health of the international economy.

.. They believe that the security of all states are bound together and that threats to others are actually threats to the United States.

.. “The alternative to Pax Americana—the only alternative—is global disorder,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens,

.. Meanwhile, potential challengers like China face more urgent problems that will diminish their desire and ability to project power outside of their neighborhood.

.. a massive, forward-deployed military is not the best tool for dealing with terrorists and hackers.

.. it inadvertently increases the risk of conflict. Allies are more willing to confront powerful rivals because they are confident that the United States will rescue them if the confrontation turns ugly, a classic case of moral hazard

.. Restraining our impulse to intervene militarily or diplomatically when our safety and vital national interests are not threatened would reduce the likelihood that our friends and allies will engage in such reckless behavior in the first place.

.. U.S. efforts at regime change and talk of an “axis of evil” that needed to be eliminated certainly provided additional incentives for states to develop nuclear weapons to deter U.S. actions (e.g., North Korea).

.. The civil war in Syria, and the problem of the Islamic State in particular, is inextricable from the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The situation in Libya is not much better — the United States helped overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, but violence still rages. The Islamic State, which originated in Iraq, has now established a presence in Libya as well, provoking still more U.S. military action there.