Global Primacy Denied? Why American Primacy Is Not Assured
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Global Primacy Denied? Why American Primacy Is Not Assured


Writing over at International Security, Fletcher School professor Dan Drezner wades into the debate over U.S. military primacy. Though not billed as such, this appears to be the latest round in the running death match between proponents of offshore balancing and defenders of American supremacy. Well, insofar as international-relations scholars have death matches. Picture Greek and German philosophers milling around harmlessly on the soccer field in Monty Python's Flying Circus rather than Kal-El and General Zod pummeling each other in Man of Steel and you've got it.

Let me mill around as well. Professor Drezner uses a Wall Street Journal column from conservative pundits Ed Feulner, Arthur Brooks, and Bill Kristol as the hook for his article, making much of their claim that “military spending is not a net drain on our economy.” From this, it seems, Drezner infers that they believe military spending represents a positive good for the U.S. economy, and sets about evaluating this claim.

He considers whether, because of U.S. military primacy: (1) private capital sees the United States as a safe home, and thus flows to American shores; (2) allies and friends help Washington underwrite the costs of the international order it presides over, easing the weary titan's burden of primacy; and (3) whether U.S. military supremacy begets a virtuous cycle in which the world becomes increasingly “secure, peaceful, and prosperous,” reducing the need for costly expeditionary operations.

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To oversimplify, Drezner answers the three questions (1) not much, (2) not much, and (3) yes, but only if military supremacy is joined to “economic supremacy that leads to peace and prosperity.” If the liberal international order is to “yield positive economic benefits through systemic stability,” in other words, “it must be full-spectrum unipolarity.” If U.S. military dominance rests on a flimsy economic foundation, it may not long endure. Having concluded that primacy stands little chance of paying for itself, he closes by recommending cutbacks beyond those that are already pinching Pentagon budgets. In so doing, Drezner argues, Washington can keep military in sync with economic means.

This all sounds compelling. If America can no longer afford current levels of defense spending, or if that spending is a waste because primacy provides little return on the investment, then it only makes sense to stop hemorrhaging national resources. But — and you knew there was going to be a but — three quick observations.

One, a quibble about logic. Feulner, Brooks, and Kristol maintain not that primacy pays for itself but that the United States can afford the expense. The same goes for Professors Stephen Brooks, John Eikenberry, and William Wohlforth, whose articles “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment” and “Lean Forward: A Case for American Engagement” helped elicit Drezner's riposte. These commentators all point out that the United States spent around 6 percent of GDP on the armed forces annually during the Cold War decades. That's well in excess of recent figures — or, for that matter, of the most hawkish politician's wish list. Why are spending levels that were so bearable for so long suddenly unbearable?

Two, a word about measuring military power and about the relationship between power and geography. All parties to this debate seemingly accept as axiomatic that defense spending equals military power. Pointing to the defense budget, Drezner uses such phrases as “unchallenged military supremacy” and “outsized security capacities.” Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth write of a U.S. military that is “so far ahead militarily in both quantitative and qualitative terms” as to be virtually unbeatable. For both sides, it seems, whoever spends the most wins.

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