The Myths of Primacy: Alliances and Security Dilemmas

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has followed a foreign policy of primacy. The strategy aims to preserve and extend America’s dominant position in the world using its massive military and global network of alliances to spread western values and stop prospective threats before they materialize. Yet, while primacy continues to receive bipartisan support, a growing number of U.S. foreign policy and military experts are now calling for a new grand strategy, one that would make the United States stronger and more secure, and that would better align with the fundamental values at the core of the nation’s founding.

Last Wednesday, the Cato Institute hosted a conference titled “The Case for Restraint in U.S. Foreign Policy” to explore one such strategy. Over the course of the day, four panels of international relations experts explained why a grand strategy of restraint could and should replace primacy.

The first panel challenged the conventional wisdom about the benefits of U.S. alliances formed during the Cold War. The first speaker, Brendan R. Green of the University of Cincinnati, discussed the gulf between the academic literature and the arguments made by primacists on nuclear proliferation, concluding that the advocates of hegemony oversell the role that alliances play in halting nuclear proliferation.

Following Green, Eugene Gholz of the University of Texas at Austin explained how our alliance relationships come at significant costs to American security by exacerbating the security dilemma between the United States and countries like China for the sake of ally interests.

The third and final panel speaker, Joshua I. Shifrinson of Texas A&M University, spoke on behalf of himself and David Edelstein of Georgetown University. Shifrinson and Edelstein argued that the United States faces significant risks of entrapment—getting drawn into a conflict by its allies.

You can watch the full discussion below.