It is customary for people to claim that we live in the most dangerous world ever, and primacists have a ready answer for making it less dangerous: more of the same.
They don’t deny that problems have proliferated under primacy—from rogue states with nuclear weapons, to transnational threats like terrorism and cyber-mischief—but primacists retain their childlike optimism that we can turn it all around if we just try harder.
Think again. There have always been dangers in the world, and there always will be, but primacy compounds the problem. By calling on the United States to deal with all threats, to all people, in all places, primacy ensures that even distant problems become our own. But it doesn’t ensure that we can actually solve them. An effective and wise foreign policy would allow us to prioritize threats to our own security, and call on others to do the same.
Primacy discourages others from acting to address urgent threats to their security before they become regional or global ones. If other countries were empowered to defend themselves, primacists fear, they might defy Washington’s wishes. Today’s allies might even become tomorrow’s adversaries.
But such fears are overblown. We need a foreign policy that creates willing and able security partners, and a world that is less dependent upon U.S. military power. Restraining our impulse to use the U.S. military when our vital national interests are not threatened would contribute to a more resilient international system.
Primacists see things differently. They contend that U.S. military power is essential to the functioning of the global economy. The United States sets the rules of the game, and punishes those who defy them. And by discouraging security competition among states, primacy creates the conditions for the free movement of goods and services. If the United States were less inclined to intervene in other people’s disputes, the primacists say, the risk of war would grow, roiling skittish markets.
Such claims exaggerate the role that the U.S. military plays in facilitating global trade, and ignore the extent to which U.S. military activism has roiled markets and upset vital regions.
Primacy, in short, hinges on a faith that U.S. military power has a degree of efficacy that defies logic—not to mention recent history. It would be nice if at least one of the two major parties would consider these lessons, and be open to alternatives.