The False Promise of Primacy

Debunking Robert Kagan’s Nostalgia for Bush-Era Foreign Policy

Nina Hachigian debunks Robert Kagan’s nostalgia for Bush-era foreign policy and argues that our greatest strengths are our ideas, flexibility, and leadership.

President Obama speaks in Moscow last year saying, “the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game—progress must be shared.” (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
President Obama speaks in Moscow last year saying, “the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game—progress must be shared.” (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

One unquestionable success of the Obama administration so far has been to turn the page on the failed Bush foreign policy framework. Not so, says Robert Kagan, who reveals a perverse nostalgia for the previous paradigm in recent writings.

To understand why, you have to remember that American foreign policy leaders during the Bush administration clung to the false promise of primacy, the belief that the lynchpin of American security was for it to remain more powerful than all other countries by a huge, fixed margin. Mona Sutphen and I described why this was a misguided strategy in our 2008 book, The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise, but the proof is in the pudding. And in the end, the primacy strategy didn’t deliver.

Primacy tempted our leaders into a reckless war in Iraq; it did not prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons; it did nothing to slow China’s influence, as was its implicit goal; and it wrecked, with Moscow’s help, our relationship with Russia. A fixation on primacy paradoxically managed to undermine the influence and authority America did have. Nevertheless, the fact that the Bush administration embraced the notion of primacy was a comfort to the remaining Cold Warriors.

President Barack Obama’s approach is different, to say the least. His political allies and his detractors can agree that Obama sees foreign policy not in terms of asserting America’s unparalleled might, but of seeking common cause, including with other major powers. On the one-year mark of his presidency, the contours of the new paradigm are fairly clear:

  • Lead the world in addressing shared challenges
  • Treat other governments and peoples, friends and foes, with respect
  • Forge strategic collaborations with big, pivotal powers and demand responsibility from them on global challenges
  • Reinvigorate and repair existing alliances
  • Reengage with international institutions and rules, pushing for increased accountability
  • Make basic political and economic rights available to more people, knowing that democratic government is the best way to achieve this goal

As for primacy, Obama dismissed that as a strategy goal in his inaugural address when he observed, “Our power alone cannot protect us.” Later, in Moscow, Obama elaborated on his view of great power relations, saying, “a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries…[G]iven our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game—progress must be shared.”

Robert Kagan now accuses President Obama of reorienting American foreign policy away from its WWII and Cold War roots, focusing on how “to adjust” to the decline in American primacy instead of trying to reverse it. He portrays administration officials as naïve ideologues, buttering up autocracies and forsaking our democratic allies.

Kagan’s analyses fail to discuss two major developments that demand a new approach—the increased potency of transnational threats and the new salience of domestic policy in America’s world standing.

Kagan writes as if the Obama administration is engaging with re-emerging powers to prove an ideological point that great power strife is a relic of history. Yet no staffer that I have ever spoken with would suggest that these relationships are beyond rivalry. More importantly, Kagan does not reveal the Obama administration’s reasons for pursuing strategic collaborations with China, Russia, India, and other pivotal powers. In fact, these partnerships are necessary to protect Americans from common threats in terrorists, global warming, economic crises, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics such as swine flu—the forces of disorder that can and do affect Americans right here at home.

Kagan barely mentions these threats, but to keep its own people safe, America needs Russia to secure its loose nuclear materials so terrorists cant get it, China—the world’s largest emitter—to cut down on its carbon, India to help track extremists, and all of them to contain pandemics. How can we get these big, proud countries to take these steps? Aggressive diplomacy.

Transnational threats also explain why the Obama administration is taking international institutions seriously. It’s not because the president is looking to attend more international meetings; it’s because international rules and institutions play a vital coordinating role when threats cross borders. The WHO led the battle against swine flu last year just as the IMF bailed out a slew of countries headed toward financial ruin. Fortunately, international architecture and traditional alliances are not mutually exclusive, as Kagan would imply.

It’s still early days, but the Obama approach is paying dividends. China has agreed to limit its carbon intensity. And, for the first time last year, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang—it also enforced them, in contrast to Kagan’s assertion that the administration has failed to gain “any meaningful Chinese help in North Korea.” Russia has allowed the United States to transport supplies through its territory into Afghanistan. The Global initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is up and running again. A successor to the START treaty to reduce our arsenal of nuclear weapons is not yet complete, but it’s on the way. And these nations and others agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves. Iran remains a challenge, but Beijing and Moscow did recently join in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued.

Of course, we continue to have differences with these pivotal powers, including on human rights and democracy. Kagan is simply wrong to suggest that administration officials have failed to “continue to press Russia and China for reform.” They have, just not in a grandstanding, provocative way that ends up being counterproductive. Here, for example, is what President Obama said in Moscow:

The arc of history shows us that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia—nations that today live with great security and prosperity.

And here is what he said in Beijing a few months later:

Finally, as I did yesterday in Shanghai, I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights. We do not believe these principles are unique to America, but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities. And our two countries agreed to continue to move this discussion forward in a human rights dialogue that is scheduled for early next year.

Where does Kagan get the idea that Obama is not a champion for liberal democracy? The difference is that the Obama staffers have no illusions about how hard it is to impose a liberal transformation from the outside. Every country has to forge its own future. America can help, but we can’t call the shots.

Kagan also accuses administration officials of squandering American primacy. “Instead of attempting to perpetuate American primacy,” he writes, “they are seeking to manage what they regard as America’s unavoidable decline relative to other great powers.”

The truth is that America’s relative decline is, in fact, unavoidable in the short term. That’s just a matter of definition when China’s economy is growing at 8 percent or 10 percent, India’s at 6 percent, and ours not at all. It won’t always be this way, but it is now. Rather than pretending otherwise, the administration is facing and addressing this uncomfortable fact. Because while it is true that our toughest global challenges require cooperation, American power is a vital ingredient to securing the best possible future for Americans.

Kagan declines to mention domestic policy, yet rebuilding American strength is, at the end of the day, a task for us here at home. Behind every great power is a great economy. We can try to perpetuate our power and influence all we like, but if our economy doesn’t begin to grow steadily again in the years to come, all our scrimping will be for naught—we simply will not be able to afford the tools for an expansive foreign policy, not to mention rising living standards for future Americans. Growing American strength is not about rhetoric; it involves tough political choices. Getting politicians to prioritize long-term success over short-term gain is never easy.

The unifying theme of President Obama’s domestic agenda is retooling America so it can prosper in the global economy. That is what the health care debate, investments in basic science, green technologies, and public education are all about., not to mention the banking rules designed to prevent another bubble/bust cycle. All of these investments would be a lot easier if the last administration hadn’t committed a trillion dollars to a needless war. Talk about squandering primacy.

America will bounce back. And it will continue to be an indispensible nation, not because of our unassailable power, but because of our ideas, our flexibility, and our leadership – the strengths that in fact enabled our still vast military superiority. Fortunately, Barack Obama has proven to be a leader that reads America’s virtues broadly, and enlists others in their promise. Perhaps it is simply too inclusive a world-view for those that miss the clarity of a bipolar ideological contest. But as Obama has pointed out, such clarity is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Nina Hachigian is the co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow