US strategy: dilemmas of primacy, decline and denial

By Dr Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts*

What is happening to US grand strategy amid the decline management of the Obama administration and decline denial of those now in the White House? Since President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, there has been a growing perception in the US and abroad that US primacy in the international system is under threat from multiple fronts.

A rising China and an assertive Russia are demonstrating their willingness to use military means to achieve their political ends, directly challenging existing security/strategic orders underwritten by the US.

Such crises, and the Obama administration’s inability to combat or resolve them effectively, have not only shaken the native confidence and fundamental optimism of the US, but also contributed to a sense of the country’s relative decline and gross political dysfunction.

As witnessed during the 2016 election, a significant proportion of Americans doubted and also openly questioned the desirability and sustainability of Washington’s leadership role in international affairs. President Donald Trump has certainly tapped into this by openly questioning long-standing US stances on key foreign and national security issues.

The puzzle that now confronts observers is how best to explain this shift. First, the shift away from primacy is not primarily the product of fundamental changes in the international system itself, but rather how such changes have been interpreted.

Second, US grand strategy is now caught between approaches best described as the ‘decline management’ of the Obama administration and the ‘decline denial’ of President Donald Trump.

Third, the sustained critique of primacy over the past decade has fractured what Richard K. Betts has termed the “political support system for American primacy” that was based on the ability of the US to strike a balance between its moral and material interests in international affairs.

This fracturing can only be understood if we recognise that national security does not simply pertain to the physical security of the US homeland or its interests abroad, but also to the security of the country’s values and ideology.

Primacy in the service of national security

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the world’s sole superpower. A central question for policymakers in Washington as the US ‘unipolar moment’ dawned was deceptively simple: What should the country’s grand strategy now be?

For President George H W Bush, it was the “responsibility” of the US to seize “the unparalleled opportunity of the Cold War’s end” to harness its “moral and material resources” to ensure that “a new world order…  compatible with our values and congenial to our interests” would emerge.

The Clinton administration relatively quickly consolidated a foreign policy that demonstrated continuity with its predecessor, albeit one with a ‘human face’ emphasising democratic values and multilateralism.

With the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, the US pursuit of primacy shifted ultimately towards a much more muscular iteration.

The events of 9/11 served to intensify the administration’s belief that only by crafting a grand strategy based on the universality of US values and the primacy of US power could it ensure both national and international security.

This alignment between values and primacy was clearly detailed in the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America. First, and perhaps most importantly, the national security strategy highlighted the administration’s belief that US power was inherently a “benign and redeeming force in international politics”.

Taken as a whole, the logic underpinning the administration’s approach was explicitly about primacy. It was based on two interrelated assumptions: that the maintenance of overwhelming US material power, combined with its commitment to liberal values, would in fact dissuade rather than provoke peer competition.

US primacy would achieve ‘peace’ by dissuading hegemonic rivalry, minimising security competition amongst the great powers, limiting expensive major-power competition through the maintenance of key security institutions, and providing incentives for others to bandwagon with the US by ensuring that the costs of balancing were prohibitive.

Obama and the dilemmas of US primacy

Towards the end of the administration of President Bush, both the durability of US primacy and its ‘vindicationist’ face were tarnished by the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 global financial crisis. These had fed into a more encompassing challenge to US primacy: the so-called ‘rise of the rest’.

Despite the various crises of the Obama era it has arguably been the rise of China that has demonstrated the dilemmas facing US primacy. The combination of increased economic and military qualities provides China with the capacity to diminish US legitimacy in crucial dimensions.

At their core, these debates are primarily based on the economic factors that underpin the US capacity to lead the global order.

In contrast to his immediate Democratic predecessor, Obama and key aides—dubbed the ‘Obamians’—were not only more sceptical about what US power, especially military power, could achieve, but were also more aware of the constraints placed upon that power by the rise of states such as China.

This ‘decline-management’ strategy was evident in Obama’s response to three core foreign policy challenges that he faced through his two terms in the White House: the Libyan intervention; the Syrian war; and the rise of China. Indeed, Obama’s response to the Libyan intervention in 2011 has been described as a transfiguring event in US strategic doctrine. President Obama’s justification for the decision to confine the US role in Libya was clearly informed by a desire to avoid the ‘overstretch’ of the Bush era.

Second, Obama resisted internal and external pressures for the greater use of US military power to bring about a resolution to the conflict. Obama asserted that this strategy was, in fact, “a proud moment”, where he was “able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interests”.

Third was his response to a rising China. Obama emphasised diplomatic and economic means over military coercion and deterrence. As such, the ‘pivot’ constituted a tactical hedging response by the US in which the risks of attempting to shape Chinese behaviour towards that of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ would not solely be shouldered by the US itself, but shared with regional allies and partners.

Taken as a whole, Obama’s strategy of ‘decline management’ has been made in direct response to the poor strategic choices made by the Bush administration in the pursuit of primacy. Obama attempted to minimise conflict and US military commitments abroad in order to ensure the longevity US pre-eminence.

Obama’s two terms in the White House were largely understood as a strategy narrowly focused on moderating the use of US power in accordance with his acknowledgement that the US was in decline. Through this prism, the Obama administration set out to avoid the overreach of the Bush era in particular and to establish a more sustainable approach to ensure the longevity of US primacy.

Crucially, there is reason to believe that in the coming decades, particularly under President Trump, the US will slowly morph from ‘decline management’ to a ‘decline-denial’ approach. The rise of populism and the values that underpin the Trump campaign have been viewed and equated by some to amount to the ‘end of American exceptionalism’.

Attached to this populist thinking is a belief within a significant portion of the US community that a strategy of primacy is neither desirable nor sustainable. After some seven decades of US global leadership, the US has elected an administration that stridently questions two fundamental pillars of US primacy: an open global economic system and the web of long-standing alliances.

Trump’s ‘America first’ approach is thus driven by a desire to maintain US primacy, but without the associated leadership that accompanies such responsibility.

President Trump’s strategy of pursuing US primacy without paying due respect to the necessary responsibilities of its leadership is understood as an emerging approach of ‘decline denial’. This draws attention to the ‘choices’ of the US leadership and the domestic considerations that ultimately play into great-power decline.

* Dr Michael Clarke is an associate professor at the National Security College at the Australian National University. Anthony Ricketts is a doctoral candidate at the National Security College at the Australian National University.

Republished with permission of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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