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Beyond Primacy?

Hegemony and Security Addiction in US Grand Strategy

David S. McDonough* Published in Beyond Primacy? Hegemony and Security Addiction in US Grand Strategy, Orbis 53, 1 (Winter 2009), 6-22. Available online at

*David S. McDonough ( is a doctoral student in Political Science and a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. He is a SSHRC Canadian Graduate Scholarship holder, an Honourary Killam Scholar for 2008/2009 and the author of Nuclear Superiority: The New Triad and the Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Adelphi Paper 383 (2006).

The Bush administration has embraced a particularly expansive and ambitious approach to strategic affairs. Unprecedented financial and military resources were allocated to all areas of national security. An aggressive counter-terrorist and counter-proliferation campaign was initiated to eliminate global terrorist organizations, cowl rogue states and impose democracy in the Middle East. Countries like Russia and China (and implicitly even trusted allies like Japan and Germany) would be dissuaded from strategic competition. American decision-makers have rarely felt such acute vulnerability, nor devoted so much attention to issues of strategy and doctrine in this Long War. President George W. Bush came into office initially dismissive of his predecessors cautious, reticent, and ultimately undisciplined strategy. Ambitious neo-conservative strategists like Paul Wolfowitz were restrained by more pragmatic officials who advocated a mixture of unilateralism and selectivity. In the post-9/11 period, however, the vision of unrestrained strategic dominance would no longer be dismissed as infeasible. Strategic vulnerability necessitated an expansive definition of national interest, a dramatic infusion of resources into the national security apparatus and an ambitious international security policy to pacify the strategic landscape and transform the unipolar moment into an indefinite era. Yet the two costly interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have stretched the countrys resources and raised the possibility of imperial overstretch. Many critics expect that the growing quagmire in Iraq has made the current approach unsustainable. Primacy appears destined to be remembered as a temporary grand strategy aberration. However, these critics will be disappointed. The 9/11 attacks reinforced the long-standing American concern over its societal vulnerability and created a political support base for both major parties to adopt primacist strategies. A bi-partisan consensus has emerged on the overall direction, if not the

particular modalities, of grand strategy. The unpopularity of the current administration and recent expenditures in blood and treasure are unlikely to lead to American retrenchment or strategic restraint.

Debating American Grand Strategy The United States emerged from the Cold War with its formidable military capabilities and globe-spanning network of allies largely intact. Strategic thinkers had an unprecedented opportunity to reassess the American role in the world. Yet decision-makers found it difficult to maintain discipline on the many different interests, priorities and goals that competed for scarce resources. There was little consensus on the contours of grand strategy: What are vital US interests in the post-Cold War period? What are the challenges to these interests? What means should be used to respond to these threats and to secure these goals? Grand strategy is fundamentally about finding answers to these questions. It involves a theoretically informed relationship of ends and means that identifies and prioritizes national interests, potential threats and resources and/or means to meet these threats. The goal is to develop a conceptual road map and set of policy prescriptions on issues of national security.1 Containment was one such road map and it proved to be a remarkably resilient one at that. The post-Cold War period, while marked by a vigorous debate over grand strategy, has proven to be a far more difficult terrain to chart an agreed upon course Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, in perhaps the most insightful overview of this debate, summarize four alternative grand strategies.2 Neo-isolationism advocates a significant reduction

Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 10-11. 2 Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, Competing Visions for US Grand Strategy, International Security, Winter 1996/97, pp. 5-53.

in US strategic commitments, including the dismantlement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other alliances, and the avoidance of international engagement. This grand strategy has an essentially benign account of the security environment. Strategic immunity is guaranteed by the US nuclear arsenal and geostrategic location, and retrenchment would facilitate the rise of stable regional balances and reduce the international hostility often generated by US hegemony and interventionism.3 This approach was, however, largely dismissed as an unwise and essentially infeasible option. As Posen and Ross note, Neoisolationists seem willing to trade away considerable international influence for a relatively modest improvement in domestic welfare.4 In contrast, selective engagement envisions a more prudent and restrained strategy that forgoes significant humanitarian or policing duties, and instead focuses on the selective application of American power to maintain regional balances and great power peace. The United States should therefore be concerned with maintaining military commitments in Europe and Asia, and a presence in the Persian Gulf in order to forestall any competition for its vital resources. Yet it can be criticized for being an explicitly realist strategy that remains ill-suited for an American Republic that has historically been concerned with liberal principles as much as power. One can also question whether this approach can ever be selective in its implementation; there is very little agreed upon criteria for what constitutes national interests, and current commitments will ensure a significant US global presence for the foreseeable future. Some prominent advocates have even adopted a realpolitik plus strategy that, by including

For an excellent account of neo-isolationism, see Eugene Gholtz, Daryl Press and Harvey Sapolsky, Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation, International Security, Spring 1997, pp. 5-48. 4 Posen and Ross, Competing Visions of US Grand Strategy, p. 16. An additional benefit of the neo-isolationist approach is in the reduced probability of a WMD attack on American cities though such an attack is perhaps one of the few scenarios that might actually trigger such restraint. See Douglas Ross, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy: Essential Pillar or Terminal Liability? International Journal, Autumn 2008, forthcoming.

humanitarianism and environmental activism, illustrates the potential temptation of an expansive definition of selectivity.5 Neo-isolationism may complement the historic American proclivity for limited liability and prudence in its international commitments. Selective engagement is meanwhile rooted in the present unipolar environment, particularly the need to conserve scarce resources and preserve the countrys remaining strategic advantage. But neither approach meets the structural and cultural conditions that are necessary for any stable strategic adjustment.6 American preponderance makes any return to a neo-isolationist posture highly unlikely, while its liberal impulses has always made explicitly realist strategies inherently suspect and ultimately shortlived. The two remaining grand strategies, cooperative security and primacy, provide the most ambitious blueprints for an American global role. Cooperative security differs from the other approaches by being founded on unadulterated liberal principles; humanitarianism is to be prescribed and armed aggression prohibited. Supporters of this strategy have an optimistic view on the potential for institutions like the United Nations or NATO to coordinate the deterrence and defeat of aggression 7, and for arms control and confidence-building measures to minimize security dilemmas and buttress strategic nuclear stability. Yet cooperative security also posits a high level of strategic independence that connects US national security to any number of disputes abroad. With the pressing need to build credibility, the United States and its allies must be willing to undertake humanitarian interventions and proactive counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Robert J. Art, Geopolitics Updated: The Strategy of Selective Engagement, International Security, Winter 1998/1999, pp. 79-113 6 Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, Chp. 5. 7 Posen and Ross, Competing Visions of US Grand Strategy, p. 25.

Many US allies, wedded to notions of human security and multilateralism, will likely embrace an American shift towards cooperative security. It is, however, unlikely that allies will be able to resist the free-riding temptation and adequately reinvest in military assets. The United States will have to bear the primary burden for any such project. It is also uncertain whether the US has the appetite to sustain the imperial policing role needed to regulate regional peace, discipline violators of civilized norms, and promote democracy and world order.8 Primacists, on the other hand, have placed their trust in the overwhelming American strategic preponderance that underpins international institutions. The ultimate objective is the preservation of US supremacy and the prevention of any serious challenger to this hegemonic order. Allies and more amicable regional powers are to be discouraged from developing an independent global role, through a mixture of implicit coercion and robust security guarantees. More aggressive near-peer competitors are to be latently contained. While eschewing the multilateralism of its more cooperative cousin, a grand strategy of primacy does envision a vigorous (and likely unilateral) effort to stem WMD proliferation, which could otherwise curtail US freedom of action and facilitate the rearming of potential competitors. Primacy is firmly rooted in key realist assumptions. Primacists are hawkish and hardline, with a keen appreciation for the role of power, force, conflict, and national self-interest in international relations.9 But this controversial choice is also unfairly optimistic on the potential for both indefinite US preponderance and the successful suppression of strategic rivals and WMD-armed regional powers. Primacy supporters either underestimate or simply ignore the possibility that other countries may resent such imperial hubris. This stems partly from the US

Richard Betts, A Disciplined Defense: How to Regain Strategic Solvency, Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec. 2007, pp. 67-80. 9 Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, p. 121.

liberal exceptionalism that posits a benign and more acceptable sort of hegemony, and partly from the difficulty of balancing against a superpower. The Bush Sr. administration showed a strong inclination to adopt primacy after the Soviet Unions collapse. The draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) for 1994-1999 featured explicit calls for indefinite military preponderance and the prevention of a new strategic rival. The DPG was publically disavowed by the administration after it was leaked to the press in 1992. But a redrafted version, authored by I. Scooter Libby under Dick Cheneys guidance, would contain even more ambitious calls to shape the future security environment and dissuade rivals from contemplating military competition with the United States. This documents statement on overall strategy was subsequently released in 1993 as the Defense Strategy for the 1990s. 10 The Clinton administration came into office eager to adopt a grand strategy more attuned to notions of cooperative security. Multilateral institutions like the United Nations were given significant responsibilities for peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction, while the United States recommitted itself to a number of multilateral economic arrangements. Yet more astute observers of the United States also detected a growing disillusionment over the efficacy of international institutions. With the exception of the NATO, multilateral organizations were shown to be disastrously unprepared to manage the civil conflicts and stabilization operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. The sincere desire for an institutional order conducive to achieving true cooperative security was balanced by the recognition that American leadership and strategic power were essential to fulfill this vision. With multilateral organizations often dithering over such crises as Yugoslavias dissolution, the United States rediscovered the burden of being the indispensible nation.

The original DPG document was written by Zalmay Khalizad under the guidance of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz. See Michael Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bushs War Cabinet (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), Chp. 13.

Colin Dueck has noted that the Clinton administrations liberal internationalist assumptions were balanced by a strong dose of primacy, as demonstrated by the explicit rejection of dovish prescriptions to abandon Americas forward strategic presence.11 Indeed, President Clinton had frequently resorted to an assertive multilateralism that relies on cajoling allies towards military action, and thereby acquiring at least a semblance of multilateral legitimacy for these operations. Posen and Ross have also detected an additional emphasis on selectivity and concluded that this mismatched approach should be termed selective (but cooperative) primacy.12 This grand strategic amalgamation may not satisfy the more hardline adherents of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), but there should be little doubt that the Clinton foreign policy teams lofty multilateral rhetoric was often used to soften otherwise tough primacist policies. Posen and Ross four-fold typology of strategic choices has done an admirable job in clarifying the key positions of an otherwise esoteric debate. Yet the reification of these options carries the danger that similarities can be overlooked. Christopher Layne, for example, argues that American grand strategy has essentially been concerned with maintaining US strategic preponderance. Selective engagement still envisions a forward strategic presence to balance potential competitors and preserve American hegemony, and cooperative security would only further reify an American-centred institutional order. The grand strategy of offshore balancing, which incorporates neo-isolationist prescriptions with a more active role as the balancer of last resort, is advocated as an antidote to visions of hegemonic grandeur. Laynes vision is

11 12

Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, p. 132. Posen and Ross, Competing Visions for US Grand Strategy, pp. 44-50.

decidedly optimistic on the potential benefits of an eventual multipolar environment, even as it prescribes a smaller, maritime-oriented military and the dismantlement of entangling alliances.13 It is difficult to deny that both primacy and selective engagement take the preservation of American strategic preponderance as a conceptual starting point. Primacists are simply more optimistic on the continued vitality of American power, and are therefore not so keen to rely on other countries to provide regional counterweights to any challenger. Even supporters of cooperative security have grown to share this appreciation for American hegemony. In this light, the Clinton administrations willingness to embrace elements of these different approaches, rather than an aberration from an undisciplined presidency, seems to be a more natural condition arising from the conflation of American unipolarity and its liberal strategic culture. It would be imprudent, however, to simply dismiss the post-Cold War grand strategy debate. All three of these strategic options began with important points of disagreement on the necessary means to achieve American security primacists rely on US supremacy, cooperative security advocates rely on multilateral institutions, and selective engagers rely on extra-regional balancing. These differences lessened during the Clinton administration, as cooperative security and selective engagement slowly blended into a more multilateral version of primacy. The 9/11 attacks later crystallized a primacist approach that was both aggressively unilateral and, with its democratization campaign in the Middle East, also virulently liberal. The debate over American strategic options has narrowed considerably in the post-9/11 period. The new debate on US grand strategy is essentially about which variant of a hegemonic strategy the United States should pursue.14 Posen labeled these two variants of primacy

Christopher Layne, From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: Americas Future Grand Strategy, International Security, Summer 1997, pp. 86-124. 14 Barry Posen, Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of US Hegemony, International Security, Summer 2003, p. 6.


national liberalism and liberal internationalism. 15 The former is essentially the current administrations unilateral approach, while the latter has been embraced by a Democratic Party eager to demonstrate its competence in national security affairs. President Bushs strategy does not represent a revolutionary change when compared to its predecessor, but it does represent the culmination of a strategic adjustment process that has effectively settled on primacy in one form or another for the post-9/11 period. The vagaries of US domestic politics and the shock of the 9/11 attacks had given neoconservative strategists an opportunity to implement their aggressive primacist vision. Primacy is, however, a more stable strategic choice than many critics of the current administration are likely to admit. It will continue to guide US strategy long after the Republican neo-conservatives have left the executive branch. Any calls for strategic restraint are unlikely to be heeded by either major party in the current strategic climate.

9/11, the Bush Doctrine and Security Addiction The Bush administration had initially sought to implement a realist grand strategy that eschewed nation-building and liberal humanitarianism in favour of great power politics and national interests. President Bushs foreign policy team (the Vulcans), composed of experienced members of the national security establishment, were adamant on the centrality and the efficacy of American military power.16 The United States was expected to develop clearly specified national interests and to be more judicious in its application of military force. However, the primacist strategy that gradually coalesced under the Clinton presidency would remain

15 16

Barry Posen, Stability and Change in US Grand Strategy, Orbis, Fall 2007, pp. 561-567. Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, p. 362. Neo-conservatives may have been the most vocal and controversial of these figures. Yet this group also included committed unilateral nationalists like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as well as more moderate figures such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.


largely untouched. To be sure, this did not entail significant increases in military expenditure, nor did it result in an aggressive rollback strategy against rogue states. Primacy was still balanced by considerations of selectivity and political feasibility that curtailed its more ambitious and idealistic formulations. Instead, this modest strain of primacy was limited to maintaining and cultivating the strategic preponderance inherited from the Cold War.17 The 9/11 attacks changed the contours of the American grand strategy debate. Selectivity and restraint were replaced with a newfound faith in the efficacy of military interventionism. Military operations in Afghanistan demonstrated not only US retaliatory capabilities, but also its willingness to target and eliminate regimes that provide support or sanctuary to terrorist organizations. As President Bush stated to a special joint session of Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.18 These pronouncements were followed by statements that explicitly linked terrorism with WMD-armed rogue states. President Bush made this abundantly clear in the 2002 State of the Union address, where he promised that the United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.19 With the possibility that terrorist groups could be supplied with WMD capabilities, and therefore capable of strategic surprise attacks, American decision-makers were no longer sanguine on the traditional pillars of deterrence and containment. As noted in the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), there is a need to adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of todays adversaries. This resulted in the promulgation of a doctrine of preemptive and
17 18

Dueck, Reluctant Crusders, pp. 148-151. Cited in Ibid., p. 154. 19 George W. Bush, President Delivers State of the Union Address, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, Jan. 29, 2002.


preventive war: To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.20 Iraq was the first and only case in which this doctrine was actually implemented, and it is unlikely that the United States has the appetite to undertake another preventive campaign against more formidable adversaries. But the United States remains keen on developing a more limited pre-emptive Global Strike capability, involving both conventional and nuclear weapons, that could be implemented in any number of contingencies. As the recent 2006 NSS makes clear, The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same.21 The Bush administration has been extraordinarily confident in its ability to shape the global security environment. On one hand, this concerns the traditional primacist emphasis on preventing the rise of a strategic challenger to the unipolar order. Early hints of this goal can be found in the 1992 DPG, and these prescriptions would appear even more forcefully in the 2002 NSS. This strategy argued that the United States must be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.22 To do so, the United States is particularly keen to consolidate its already overwhelming command of the commons over the air, sea and space environments and expand this strategic dominance into more contested zones.23 Recent nuclear weapon developments, which have increasingly focused on specialized counterforce and hard-target kill capabilities, provide a good example of this effort to cultivate nuclear superiority.24

National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington DC: The White House, September 2002), p. 15. National Security Strategy (March 2006), p. 23. 22 National Security Strategy (2002), p. 30. 23 The contested zones include airspace under 15,000 feet, urban areas and littoral zones. See Posen, Command of the Commons, pp. 5-46. 24 See David S. McDonough, Nuclear Superiority: The New Triad and the Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Adelphi Paper 383 (London, New York: IISS/Routledge 2006).



The goal of maintaining military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless,25 promises to be an ambitious undertaking. Not surprisingly, the United States has embarked on an unprecedented level of defence spending in the post-9/11 period. President Bush, for example, has requested $483 billion as a base budget for the Department of Defense and $141.7 billion in operations funding for Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008. As a point of comparison, the requested base budget is larger than the average levels of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration funded an impressive rearmament programme to counter the perceived Soviet strategic advantage. If one includes the funding requests for the Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security, which total $22.5 billion and $46.4 billion respectively, American spending on national security will nearly reach a staggering $700 billion for the 2008 fiscal year.26 On the other hand, the Bush administration has been equally keen to use this preponderance for the liberal goal of democratization. Both Afghanistan and Iraq have seen ambitious nation-building and reconstruction projects to implant democracies in the Greater Middle East. It may be easy to dismiss the Freedom Agenda as window dressing to justify the Iraq War. But many informed observers have placed this virulent strain of liberalism at the heart of the Bush Doctrine.27 The development of such a national liberal variant of primacy should not come as a surprise. The American Mission to spread democracy, whether through modest exemplarist leadership or interventionary vindictionistcrusades, has a long history in


George W. Bush, President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, June 1, 2002. 26 Steven Kosiak, Executive Summary: Analysis of the FY 2008 Defense Budget Request (Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2007). 27 See Edward Rhodes, The Imperial Logic of Bushs Liberal Agenda, Survival, Spring 2003, pp. 131-154 and Robert Jervis, Understanding the Bush Doctrine, Political Science Quarterly, Fall 2003, pp. 365-388.


the foreign policy of the United States.28 And the Bush Doctrine, while perhaps lacking the prudential character that marked the Early Republics strategic approach, has certainly followed the tradition of incorporating liberal principles into foreign policy. Without this liberal purpose, primacy simply lacks much of a purpose aside from rationalizing Cold War level defence spending. The Bush administrations primacist strategy consolidates certain grand strategic trends both realist and liberal that have been percolating during much of the post-Cold War period. Primacy is not a radical departure from the Clinton administrations own haphazard strategy and the current emphasis on nation-building would not be totally unfamiliar to Clintons foreign policy team. But the Bush adminstrations national liberalism grand strategy represents a particularly unilateral and aggressive form of primacy, and one that is more open to liberal efforts at social engineering, imposed democratization and global interventionism. Perhaps most importantly, the Bush Doctrine culminates a decade-long strategic adjustment process that has finally settled on explicit variants of primacy as the only feasible options competing in the mainstream public discourse. The fact that the Bush Doctrine was only formulated after the 9/11 attacks raises questions on the role of such a strong external stimulus in settling the American grand strategy debate. If one is to believe the Bush administration, this strategic adjustment was a natural and inevitable result of these terrorist attacks. Terrorist organizations have to be eliminated and the most effective way of assuring such an outcome was a fundamental transformation of the Middle East. But such a simple cause and effect explanation seems to be insufficient to explain all the strategic changes that have taken place after 9/11. For example, it is difficult to believe that the

Jonathan Monten, The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in US Strategy, International Security, Spring 2005, pp. 112-156.


military dissuasion of potential strategic challengers can be justified on counter-terrorism grounds alone. A more convincing and sophisticated explanation is offered by neo-classical realists who combine structural factors with domestic political and cultural factors to explain foreign policy outcomes. The 9/11 attacks may have necessitated robust counter-terrorism effort, including the dismantlement of Al-Qaedas infrastructure in Afghanistan, but these attacks did not fundamentally alter the reality of American strategy preponderance. Instead, scholars such as Colin Dueck argue that the 9/11 attacks opened up a window of opportunity for advocates of alternative grand strategies to come forward and make their case. 29 Neo-conservatives simply proved to be the most successful in selling their particular strategic vision to receptive American decision-makers, who were far less concerned with issues of cost and feasibility in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.30 US strategic preponderance may have prevented a significant global disengagement, but it was the domestic actors who were primarily responsibly for transmitting this grand strategic vision. The neo-classical realist explanation does an admirable job in both rebutting the Bush administrations claim that its policies are inextricably linked to the 9/11 attacks and illustrating the key roles played by neo-conservative advocates and less idealistic but no less hawkish personalities such as Cheney and Rumsfeld in formulating the Bush Doctrine. Yet the narrowing of this debate towards increasingly primacist strategic choices did gradually take place in the 1990s, as the United States found its military hegemony both more stable and more advantageous than many had initially expected. The role of American unipolarity as an

29 30

Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders, p. 153. This is particularly ironic given that many of these neo-conservatives had admitted that a catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbour was needed to justify genuine primacy. See Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, A Report of The Project for the New American Century (September 2000), p. 51.


underlying condition that facilitates ever more expansive and ambitious primacist policies should therefore not be casually dismissed. As Robert Jervis aptly summarizes, The very fact that the United States has interests throughout the world leads to the fear that undesired changes in one area could undermine its interests elsewhere.31 But perhaps more importantly, Duecks explanation seems to underestimate the role of the 9/11 attacks in settling the post-Cold War grand strategy debate. After 9/11, both major parties would seek to attack the national security credentials of each other and, in doing so, offer increasingly expansive and ambitious measures to eliminate the global jihadist threat. Of course, the liberal internationist variant of primacy is far more keen to include assertive multilateralism in its strategic vision, and has gone to great lengths to differentiate its vision of liberal hegemony with current efforts at empire. But with the logic of order clearly hierarchical in both cases, the similarity between these approaches is striking.32 Military preeminence and armed humanitarianism have been explicitly embraced by the foreign policy leadership of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) have been very clear on the need to preserve American strategic preponderance within their vision of progressive internationalism, and a similar emphasis is evident in newer organizations like the Truman National Security Project.33 This liberal hawk wing has also been coy on the subject of the Iraq War, emphasizing the

Robert Jervis, The Remaking of a Unipolar World, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2006, p. 13. For example, see G. John Ikenberry, Liberalism and empire: logics of order in the American unipolar age, Review of International Studies, vol. 30, no. 4 (2004), pp. 609-630. 33 Anatol Lievan, Liberal Hawk Down, The Nation, Oct. 25 2004, pp. 29-34 and Jacob Heilbrunn, Neocons in the Democratic Party, Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2006. For an in-depth examination, see Tony Smith, A Pact with the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (New York, NY: Routledge-Taylor & Francis Group, 2007).



incompetence of the implementation rather than the wisdom of the invasion per se,34 and include among its supporters Senator Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The Democrats are clearly trying to reduce their vulnerability on issues of national security, and many have taken the hawkish anti-communist approach of Presidents Harry Truman and John Kennedy in contrast to President Bill Clintons adage, Its the economy, stupid! as their principal models. Liberal internationalists share many of the central assumptions of the Bush administration on issues of democratization, preemptive self-defence and American leadership. But unlike their neo-conservative cousins, liberal hawks emphasize the importance of maintaining a semblance of multilateral legitimacy for American hegemony. Not surprising, the Final Report of the Princeton Project on National Security, which offers an ambitious manifesto for a Democratic grand strategy, advocates a balance of power in favor of liberal democracies and the creation of a new Concert of Democracies that could be used to legitimize military interventions.35 Liberal hegemony is at the heart of this variant of primacy. However, as noted by two astute Canadian observers, an imperial approach to world affairs is more likely to be created under a Democratic rather than a Republican presidency in the name of human rights and democratization.36

See Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias, The Incompetence Dodge, The American Prospect, Nov. 2005, pp. 31-34. 35 G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, co-directors, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: US National Security in the 21st Century, Final Paper of the Princeton Project on National Security (Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 2006), p. 30. A Concert of Democracies has been advocated by influential experts in both major parties and, under the name of a League of Democracies, has even become a key part of John McCains platform. 36 Douglas Ross and Christopher Ross, From neo-isolationism to imperial liberalism: Grand strategy options in the American international security debate and the implications for Canada, in David McDonough and Douglas Ross, eds., The Dilemmas of American Strategic Primacy (Toronto: Royal Canadian Military Institute, 2005), p. 205.



The reason why the current debate is currently mired in second-order issues of multilateral versus unilateral legitimacy can be attributed to the post-9/11 security environment. A grand strategy is, after all, a states theory about how it can best cause security for itself.37 It would be prudent to examine why the neo-conservative theory proved to be so attractive to American decision-makers after the 9/11 attacks, and why the Democrats have begun to rely on an equally primacist theory of their own. As Charles Kupchan has demonstrated, a sense of vulnerability is often directly associated with dramatic shifts in a states grand strategy. Kupchan is, of course, largely concerned with vulnerability to changes in the global distribution of power.38 Even so, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have dramatically increased the US sense of strategic vulnerability to both global terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and even to more traditional threats that are seen, in the words of Donald Rumself, in a dramatic new light through the prism of our experience on 9/11.39 Perhaps more than any previous terrorist action, these attacks demonstrated the potential influence of non-state terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. American strategic primacy makes conventional responses unattractive and ultimately futile to potential adversaries. The countrys societal vulnerability to terrorist attacks will likewise lead to extremely costly defensive reactions against otherwise limited attacks. For both the United States and its asymmetrical adversaries, the advantage clearly favours the offence over the defence. With the innumerable list of potential targets, preemptive and preventive attacks will accomplish more

Barry Posen, Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 13. 38 Charles Kupchan, Vulnerability of Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), Chp. 1. Kupchan is therefore confident that, notwithstanding the activism following 9/11, the US will become less inclined to expend blood and treasure on matters of foreign affairs. Kupchan, Hollow Hegemony or Stable Multipolarity? in G. John Ikenberry, ed., America Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power, (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 76. 39 Cited in Julian Borger, Rumsfeld Shifts Stance on Iraq Weapons, The Guardian, July 10, 2003.



against[terrorist or their support structures], dollar for dollar, than the investment in passive defenses.40 Perhaps more importantly, as former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith has argued, the primary reliance on defensive measures would inevitably endanger American civil liberties and curtail its free and open society.41 Strategic preponderance ensures that the United States will continue to face adversaries keen to implement asymmetrical tactics, even as it offers the very resources necessary to implement both offensive and less effective defensive measures. Unfortunately, terrorist groups with strategic reach (i.e., capable of influencing the actions of states) will likely increase in the coming years due to a combination of factors, including the democractization of technology, the privatization of war and the miniaturization of weaponry. As more groups are imbued with sophisticated technological capabilities and are able to employ increasingly lethal weapons, the US will be forced to rely even further on its unprecedented global military capabilities to eliminate this threat. The global war on terror, even with tactical successes against Al-Qaeda, will likely result in an inconclusive ending marked by the fragmentation and proliferation of terrorist spoiler groups. The Israelization of the United States, in which security trumps everything, will be no temporary phenomenon.42 Realism provides a less than useful means to understand the current post-9/11 strategic threat environment and leads to an underestimation or dismissal of the terrorist threat and its potential impact on the American sense of vulnerability. Globalized terrorism must be confronted by proactive measures to reduce the domestic vulnerability to attack and to eliminate

Richard Betts, The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy: Tactical Advantages of Terror, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 1 (2002), p. 33. 41 This point is raised in Douglas J. Feith, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War On Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), Chp. 3. 42 Frank Harvey, Addicted to Security: Globalized Terrorism and the Inevitability of American unilateralism, International Journal, Winter 2003-2004, p. 3 and 4 (emphasis in original).



these organizations in their external sanctuaries. Even then, these measures will never be able to ensure perfect security. As a result, significant public pressure for expanded security measures will arise after any attack. The United States will be consumed with what Frank Harvey has termed security addiction: As expectations for acceptable levels of pain decrease, billions of dollars will continue to be spent by both parties in a never-ending competition to convince the American public that their partys programs are different and more likely to succeed.43 This addiction has an important impact on the dramatically rising levels of homeland security spending. Indeed, while this increased spending is an inevitable and prudent reaction to the terrorist threat, it also creates high public expectations that will only amplify outrage in the event of inevitable security failure.44 Relatedly, American strategic preponderance plays an important role in facilitating a vigorous international response to globalized terrorism, including the use of coercive military options and interventions. A primacist strategy has the dual attraction of both maximizing US strategic dominance and convincing the public of a partys national security credentials. Indeed, the Republicans have developed a strong advantage in electoral politics by its adherence to a strong military and aggressive strategy, and the Democrats have in turn learned the lesson of its vulnerability on the issue and has explicitly declared its devotion to national security and support for the military.45 The 9/11 attacks may not have altered the distribution of power amongst major states, but it has directly created a domestic political situation marked by an addiction to expansive security measures that are needed to satisfy increasingly high public expectations. In such a climate, it is easy to see why the neo-conservatives were so successful in selling their strategic vision. The
Ibid., p. 12. Frank Harvey, The Homeland Security Dilemma: Imagination, Failure and the Escalating Costs of Perfecting Security, Canadian Journal of Political Science, June 2007, pp. 283-316. 45 Richard Betts, The political support system for American primacy, International Affairs, vol. 81, no. 1 (2005), pp. 5-6.
44 43


fact that the United States has effectively settled on a grand strategy of primacy in the post-9/11 period should also come as no surprise. It is simply inconceivable that a political party could successfully advocate a grand strategy that does not embrace military preeminence and interventionism, two factors that are seen to provide a definite advantage in the pursuit of a global war on terror. Political parties may disagree on the necessary tactics to eliminate the terrorist threat. But with increased vulnerability and security addiction, the United States will continue to embrace strategies of primacy rather than going beyond primacy for much of the Long War.

Primacy after the Iraq War The present difficulties in Iraq, in particular the ongoing effort at counter-insurgency and stabilization, have created expectations that the US will need to adopt a grand strategy of restraint.46 This primacist adventure has stretched the American military, especially the Army, nearly past its breaking point. With so many troops on rotation in Iraq, it would be foolish indeed to believe that the US has the capability let alone the will or appetite to undertake another significant regime change operation. The high hopes of the neo-conservatives seem to have fallen short. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has rediscovered a more selective and multilateral approach towards Iran and North Korea in its second term, even as it sought to achieve a semblance of victory in Iraq in order to extricate itself from that morass. Failure in Iraq may seem to herald the demise of the Bush Doctrine and the consolidation of a truly alternative grand strategy that goes beyond the imperial hubris of primacy. But Iraq is unlikely to transform the fundamental logic of the current addiction to security. Any
Barry Posen, while initially a proponent of selective engagement, has since begun to advocate a grand strategy of restraint (with strong similarities to either neo-isolationism or offshore balancing). See Posen The Case for Restraint, The American Interest, Nov./Dec. 2007.


subsequent hesitation to undertake military interventions, which will likely happen in the immediate aftermath of a withdrawal from Iraq, will be extraordinarily short-lived if another terrorist attack takes place on American soil. As Richard Betts concludes, while retreat may look appealing to some, primacy unleashed may prove fearsomely potent and many Americans would consider escalation to more ferocious strategies.47 A more likely consequence of the Iraq project is second-order changes in the strategies of primacy. True, the Democratic Party will continue to adopt a liberal internationalist approach, and as such place US preeminence and leadership within an institutional hegemonic order. But they may also be more wary, at least temporarily, of immediately following the Iraq folly with their own interventions. Liberal internationalists may also find multilateral legitimacy and collective action to be an unexpectedly elusive goal American preponderance promises to make allies uneasy and unilateral action ultimately more feasible. In contrast, the Republican Party will continue to favour a unilateral, if more undiluted, form of primacy that abstains from aggressive liberal wars like Iraq in favour of latent containment strategies against a rising China and a more geostrategically ambitious Russia. In both parties, however, the voices of restraint and true multilateral cooperation will be in a clear minority. On an operational level, the United States will likely be just as willing to utilize coercive military options when its national interests, against terrorism or rogue states, are clearly at stake. Iraq has proven to be a difficult and costly experiment in state reconstruction and social engineering, and the US may simply be more hesitant in commiting itself to the reconstruction of post-conflict states. One should recall that the destructive agenda of the Iraq War, including the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, the destruction of his regime and the elimination of


Betts, The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy, pp. 35, 34.


Iraq as a serious proliferation concern, was accomplished quickly and relatively cheaply.48 Irrespective of which political party wins the 2008 presidential elections, one should not dismiss the threat of a possible American counter-proliferation and/or counter-terrorism strike against Iran. Even with a withdrawal from Iraq, the United States will continue to have a significant regional military presence among the Gulf states that could readily be used for military contingencies in the region.

The 9/11 attacks will influence and shape the debate on American strategic options long after the Iraq reconstruction project has come to an end. The need to achieve the elusive goal of perfect security, which is perhaps the most prominent symptom of security addiction, will only lead to ever more expansive and costly grand strategies. The new reality of globalized terror and violence has heightened the natural sense of American vulnerability, and made it even more difficult for any administration to fully satisfy the publics high expectations of security. Indeed, both major political parties appear destined to endlessly debate the merits of their respective strategies of primacy in an effort to secure the publics trust on issues of national security. Security addiction has facilitated the bi-partisan consensus on the need to preserve American strategic primacy. Despite the current imbroglio in Iraq, American decision-makers are unlikely to be swayed by even the most convincing calls for more restrained and perhaps sensible strategic choices.


Steven Miller, The Iraq Experiment and US National Security, Survival, Winter 2006-07, p. 34.


Acknowledgements The author would like to thank Sean Clark and Frank Harvey for their insightful comments and discussions. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States 19th Biennial Conference in 2007.