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Pivotal Power

January 22, 2010
The false promise of primacy in U.S. foreign policy

Obama and his national security team. Photo: Flickr user WhiteHouse

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 his recent writings in which he argues that the Obama administration is formulating foreign policy from a perspective that accepts, rather than fights, the decline of American power.

To understand this yearning for American policy of yore, 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. 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. America needs China — the world’s largest emitter — to cut down on its carbon. And America needs India to help track extremists. Moreover, America needs 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 World Health Organization led the battle against swine flu last year just as the International Monetary Fund 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 indispensable 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 worldview 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




“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 worldview for those that miss the clarity of a bipolar ideological contest.”

Why not define a sirocco for what it really is?
Then check to see what the landscape actually looks like in such political/idealogical environments. Unheard words become but the virtually silent sighs of those whose blood, continually, is spilled into cold ground whose tunnels lead to other more complex labyrinthine issues better left unmentioned by current standards of human language.

Anyone remember the Minotaur?


[…] the statements against what Obama has actually done or not done. Thus you can have both Kagan and Hachigian asserting in different ways that Obama intends to manage American decline from its status of global […]


To sum-it-up ,Obama’s foreign policy approach is quit simple , a wink-and-a-nod …a bow with a smile pedicable patterns,but the HOLY GRAIL is
Obama’s CHARM ??? APOLGIZE , APOLOGIZE ..we must.
un-chinch your fists ! lol, !!Dictator outreach…is so not community
organizing ?!!


davelnaf, the authors of this article are anti-American. Keep that in mind while you read it. It makes perfect sense from the POV of an America hater. To normal people,it’s a bunch of whooie.
Obama is the worst POTUS ever. Worse then Carter. What the clueless 4th worlders that like his foreign policy overlook is that the USA doesn’t use it’s military for direct expansion.
We use our cultural and economic superiority to expand, then hold those gains with our military.
Classic geopolitics. China is correct when they describe America as hegemonic. Bush’s foreign policy was geared to take advantage of that hegemony. Obama’s policies will lead to an imperial type military expansion. That is a bad thing.


Excellent work, it is important to challenge the stupidity that dragged the US into unnecessary wars. Current US weakness is primarily caused by internal factors, led by weakness in manufacturing, health, and education. The problems are compounded by the capture of state power for private use in the form of banking subsidies, a commitment to fossil fuel, and the suburb, all of which cost more than they are worth.


It’s hard to see how one can come the conclusions you spelled out in your article when Obama has proven himself to be the most anti-American of presidents. One of his primary reasons for running for this office was to try to change America in ways that would render it unable to decisively impact the world. He actually believes all the trite leftists theories about what ails the planet having a root cause in the US trying to impose its will on other nations in various ways, the primary one being military force. You are seeing something in Obama that is not there and never will be.



This is just pro Obama propaganda. He has not yet proven leadership both internationally and domestically. None, nada, and squat. Kinda pathetic that she is a senior fellow of something and she is pumping out this crap.


Maybe it’s just me:American people are under the impression that Obama won his presidency fair and square,i beg to differ.After 8yrs of the crooked Bush govt,how can we even slightly think that Obama was elected by the people,how do we know that he wasn’t put there to show the world that we are a true democracy and that a black man can also become a president.He is surrounde by some of the leftover employees of the previous adminstration.He has to deal with enormous challenges leftover from the incompetent and inept Bush administration.My personal opinion:Give it to the Black guy if he screws up he’s the only person to blame and then the republicans will take over after 4yrs and muck things up even more(sarah palin).Politics is a dirty game.Mass senate selection of Senator (R)Brown is just one example.


Obama has attempted to work with foreign countries where Bush under neo-con ideology believed in the use of force. The UK has a long inquiry going on about why the UK participated in the invasion of Iraq. The US should have a similar inquiry about why we invaded, who was to benefit, why we built a number of large permanent military bases and if we would actually leave if asked. Obama’s major foreign policy failure has been the Israel/Palestine issue. Although he talked about treating the two sides equally he has retained the US Israel bias and wasted the good will his election originally generated. Now he blames both sides and says the issue is more intractable than he thought. He should have known the true situation. Israel is not ready for peace and the Palestinians are in a stronger position to say no to an endless negotiation or to accept Israel terms.


President Obama’s first year is a (truly sorry for such a harsh critique regarding his first year?) travesty,period. He has juggled a myriad of one-on-one subjects as if he were the greatest ambidextrous performer “Circ’de’lai” (probably/definitely have the incorrect spelling) on the world’s (such vanity) stage. Unfortunately,… it’s all come tumbling down thanks to his personel aid Rahm Emanuel,and certifiable personal trainer, via campaign manager David Axelrod,the trilateral “Chicago Connection”? His administration mirrors the “Clintonian Era” to the “T” with absolutely no-change (perhaps some of the faces have changed,but the philosophical mantra is overwhelmingly concentric) which makes all for nought,…a wasted year,…a period of endless polarizing rhetoric! The “Health Care Bill” trashed by the new independent party that shall take it’s revenge on both sides of the (who needs term limits,with this no-name referendum) isle,culling this democracy of it’s sordid Aristocrats that look down at the deprecate proletariat! Our foreign policy is a joke,…Israel laughs at us,…N. Korea is still playing it’s waiting game, with China nodding towards Tibet. What has happened to America’s hegemony is a blessing in disguise? The way that Bush #43,and #41,…”New World Order Proliferater’s” have squandered our national treasury,is of irrapable ill-repute that President Obama so sadly has been shackled too,for shame. The United States collaboration with China,Russia,and India,and other pivotal powers is a ruse with the smell of blood in the water if China turns the fluid-money-spigot off this sapless dilusional government of inexcusable,blatant ignorance,that leads it’s proud american patriots into “World Martyrdom”. Just look at global warming,…the world’s carbon-footprint,the countries economic crises,nuclear proliferation,and worldly pandemic’s, and think ,just for an illogical minute ,or so,of what is real,and what is manifested by the powers to be too harness more power from the live-life-as-it should-be people of the world,…just give it some thought,please? Mother Nature has it’s own mind made up,as does the arrogant landlord,with his plethora of warlords,and bio-chemist,…so very much unegalitarian. What about Mexico’s “Drug War’s” ,South America’s unrest with the birthing of fledgling Democracies that would like too keep their natural resources,and money from flowing out to the Imperialist countries of the world all co-sponsered by the IMF,and World Bank,…just ask the Haitian People to explain it to you! I’d be remiss about Russia opening up it’s borders to Afghanistan to help America fight one of it’s many “America’s Perpetuity War’s”. President Obama does what,…? Yes,…he breaks another campaign promise, and becomes a “Warring President” as his predecessor,never mind the handful of other promises thrown by the wayside,…that would have at least given him some credibility. Yes,we fight in turmoil in Afghanistan with our past,and present adversaries feigning tutelage while ravaging the world’s resources throughout the world while America is in a seemingly endless morass. Needless to say, we still are a great country,with a resilient economy,and world power,…but we cannot fund our wars with foreign money,as Pakistan has already said in a non-scripted way,that without American greenbacks their fight with the Taliban is on hiatus,while the al-Qaeda is on sabbatical in La-La Land. There seems to be some disconnects,or questions about who if anyone decides to launch the first nuclear warhead,but if you think about it once again,all sides realize it’s a losing cause,therfore rogue nation,or stable nation please stop the incessant fear-mongering,…it will all be decided in the future (communication) cyber-space wars? Finally,…I’d like to mention alittle known fact (perhaps not so little known?) that just happened a few weeks ago,…”The Russian-China-Iran Energy Nexus” is a reality,…yes a reality,so stop spreading rumors Israel? The Kazakhstan-Russian/Kazakhstan-China/South Stream/East Siberia-Pacific new agreement,and signed-off lifelong signatory contract proposed (Black Gold)oil routes;…next we have The Blue Stream [LNG-Liquid Natural Gas,ie)”Blue Gold”]/Russia-Europe/Caspian Coastal/Turkmenistan-China/Dauletabad-Khaniran/North Stream Gas lines,new lines,and signatory signed -off agreements proposed under lifetime contracts. PS. Talk about taking your eyes off the ball,…? Please be advised as a sidenote: Russia,Turkmenistan, and Iran have approx. 75% of the world’s LNG known reserves,with approx.35% of it’s known crude oil reserves,thusly the United States “Nubucco Pipeline,has virtually been neutered.


Look up the name Urenco. They sold Saddam Hussien 25,000 units. Iraq had 500 tons of the non-existant Yellow Cake. Industial nuclear reactors. A chemical weapons program that was on going in buying world wide chemicals that had questionable use. It had a Bio weapons program. It had 400 tons of RDX that he paid 3 times the world price. He brought billions of dollars of war material from the Russians as that country fell apart. He could have brought part of the Russian Navy, but Russian officals would have go to war over that. He had no problem getting anything that he wanted including US Congressmen. and US State Department officals.
Bush put a stopped to Europe cash cow.
Saddam brought 250 of Perry’s Chemical Handbooks which says that at least he knew a good book to read in his off days.
I hope that world not only Hates America, but also fears America. Similar to Russia who policy is that if you bother Russia, Russia bother you.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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