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Changes Are No Good

October 31, 2011

I finally got around to reading Stephen Walt’s latest essay “The End of the American Era” from the current issue of The National Interest over the weekend. Walt joins the growing chorus of academics calling for an American grand strategy that’s more offshore balancing and less primacy. Rather than offer my own long-winded diatribe on the merits of offshore balancing, I want to throw a couple questions out there for discussion.

In his opening paragraph, Walt offers up the conventional wisdom on the merits of primacy during a bygone era:

The United States has been the dominant world power since 1945, and U.S. leaders have long sought to preserve that privileged position. They understood, as did most Americans, that primacy brought important benefits. It made other states less likely to threaten America or its vital interests directly. By dampening great-power competition and giving Washington the capacity to shape regional balances of power, primacy contributed to a more tranquil international environment. That tranquility fostered global prosperity; investors and traders operate with greater confidence when there is less danger of war. Primacy also gave the United States the ability to work for positive ends: promoting human rights and slowing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It may be lonely at the top, but Americans have found the view compelling.

I asked myself the following questions after reading this paragraph:

1. Does primacy actually foster a more tranquil global environment?

2. Given that primacy nests so well within American exceptionalism, will it be possible to abandon this endeavor? In other words, can Americans accept the idea of not being on top?

What do you think?

  1. October 31, 2011 12:15 pm

    1. There has not been a more tranquil global environment since 1945 than before.
    2. IMO, many Americans will not accept lack of primacy, will not abandon the notion of (God-ordained) American exceptionalism.

  2. October 31, 2011 2:18 pm

    1. Post-1945, there were scores of civil wars and insurgencies. US & USSR engaged in proxy wars in several continents. So, US primacy resulted in lots of conflict, although possibly its primacy forestalled potential conflicts in other places – unknown, just speculation.
    2. Many Americans have a powerful emotional connection with the idea of American exceptionalism; for some, this is integrated with their religious beliefs – “God has ordained the U.S. as the best/the leader of the world/the freer of oppressed peoples/the teacher of ignorant peoples.” As horrifying as these attitudes are to me, they are held as deep values by many Americans. So, “the very idea” that the U.S. MIGHT not be supreme (and exceptional) is on the order of heresy … and blasphemy. Feeling superior will be a hard habit for many to break. A lot of people have a need to look down on others, not look at others as equals.


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