Patrick Porter has a couple of strong pieces out currently. The first discusses the US foreign policy establishment’s adherence to a grand strategy of primacy, or the idea that the United States must possess more power than any other state in world politics and use that power to impose its own liberal rules on the entire world. Primacy is the grand strategy that we associate with the United States when it acts as a “global policeman”. Porter says that primacy is a habit that the United States can’t seem to shake. It’s a path dependent “common sense” about US foreign policy that persists despite changing conditions in the international system. The second piece questions if the liberal world order created by the United States actually lived up to its own promises. It suggests the order was never a singularly liberal one and consisted of multiple sets of governing arrangements, including those which relied on extensive US coercion. Both are worth reading, as are others in this genre (see Ashford and Shifrinson here, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper here, Acharya here, and Meaney and Wertheim here).
All together, these new perspectives on American foreign policy suggest that the Trump administration isn’t that different from its predecessors, including the Bush, Clinton, and to a lesser extent, the Obama administration. They also reinforce the conviction that the United States desperately needs to develop a new kind of grand strategy that can better adapt to a multipolar international system and limit the decline of US hegemony.
This work is important because it helps us make sense of the foreign policy conversation in the Democratic party, which is bereft of new thinking on foreign policy. Democrats rely on a liberal international version of primacy that softens the use of force by laundering it through international institutions or making it covert enough for no one to notice. The habit of primacy is why Democrats rely on bland slogans without any meaning when they describe international affairs. For example, take Ronan Farrow’s new book and his big idea regarding “demilitarizing foreign policy.” What does this mean? As Chase Madar show, it’s an empty soundbite unless the United States abandons its strategy of primacy for something else. Thinking of primacy in terms of habit helps us understand why Farrow can’t flesh out his ideas.
Yet primacy remains consistent with President Trump’s foreign policy, especially his amoral realism and ethnonationalism. In fact, Democrats routinely echo the Trump administration’s unwavering support for Middle East allies and maximal demands on North Korea. If Trump were so bad (and he is), you would think Democrats would do everything they can to develop grand strategic alternatives, even if that meant discarding their old ideas for how to act in world politics which implicate themselves in the President’s excesses of power. But because of the habit of primacy, they can’t offer the American people a foreign policy alternative to Trump. If they did, they might actually win some elections.
While habit is one part of the reason why Democrats can’t develop grand strategic alternatives, great power identity is another. The liberal internationalist version of primacy espoused by Democrats is rooted in an exceptionalist understanding of the United States as a great power. Exceptionalism is the notion that the United States has a historic mission to remake the world in own image, spreading free-market capitalism and democracy along the way while defending allies and defeating threats to the liberal world order without making concessions to them. The habit of primacy is intimately linked to the liberal version exceptionalism espoused by Democrats: if you believe that the United States must exercise leadership to protect its favored set of international governing arrangements, then you’ll reinforce the habit of primacy.
And like habits, identities are also hard to change. Jennifer Mitzen’s work on ontological security tells us why. Like human beings, states pursue a coherent and stable sense of who they are that allows them to resolve anxieties how they should organize and comport themselves in the world. Achieving ontological security requires routinizing relationships with social orders – if we treat each other in a consistent way over time, we reinforce our beliefs about ourselves and stabilize our very existence. Over time, states become attached to relationships that provide ontological security, even if those relationships are hostile and drive actual physical insecurity. During the Cold War, superpower competition with the Soviet Union reaffirmed an American liberal exceptional identity because enabled the United States to define itself in opposition to its adversary – if the Soviets were totalitarian communists bent on restricting human freedom, then Americans were everything they weren’t. And if those relationships deteriorate (like the US-Soviet one which collapsed along with the Cold War), states might even seek out new relationships or reactivate old ones that confirm an existing identity (like US hostility with Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, etc.) Much like habits of grand strategy, attachment to identities persists even at the expense of a state’s long-term objective interests.
If we think about habit and identity as complementary concepts, then we can draw out some implications for the Democratic Party based on Porter’s conclusion in his International Security article. He argues that habits can be broken only when 1) external conditions change rapidly enough to force a reappraisal and 2) when someone comes along who can incur the costs of challenging an existing habit. For the Democratic Party, that means a leader who can mobilize a domestic coalition that will support new ideas about foreign policy that diverge from the establishment’s habit of primacy. We generally think about coalition formation in terms of the aggregation of interests, but they are just as much about the definition of an identity that can link those various groups together as a united movement engaged in collective action.
We know that the dominant Democratic party identity is collapsing, partially because Democrats are losing faith in free-market capitalism (witness the rise of Bernie Sanders and the revival of socialism) and because even liberalism enables the persistence of domination on the basis of race and gender (liberals have been willing participants in mass incarceration, perpetuate patriarchy, and tend to privilege white women at the expense of women of color). As left Democrats develop a new political identity to displace the old neoliberal one, they have a strategic opportunity to redefine the United States’ role in world politics – its great power identity – and then develop some new set of grand strategic habits.
It’s through that path – of party politics and identity formation – that Democrats abandon primacy and embrace great power concert, the preferred strategy of Porter and Acharya given the multipolar/multiplex context of world politics. It’s also the strategy that most compatible with an emergent Democratic party identity. As the movement politics of Black Lives Matter and The Poor People’s Campaign shift into national electoral politics, left Democratic leaders will need to redefine not just the party but also America’s role in the world, including how it relates to other great powers. Because great power concert prioritizes the consensual resolution of disputes and recognition of other social actors as autonomous equals whose rights must respected, it’s consistent with movements for social and economic justice. Both are grounded in what Chantal Mouffe calls agnostic pluralism, the radical democratic commitment to treat other social actors as legitimate enemies, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality.” Although we can disagree with others about how to implement those principles, we commit to treating others with respect and dignity while recognizing the legitimacy of emancipatory struggles demanding the same.
Apply that habit of democracy to foreign affairs, and you get great power concert – the United States would treat its rivals as equals and joint partners in maintaining world order. A pluralist identity and strategic habits of concert-balancing would thus deescalate security competition in world politics and strengthen cooperation and peace in world politics. But it’s also consistent with a commitment to rules-based procedures and institutions as well as a relatively open international order governed at the global level. And in contrast with Trump’s authoritarian nationalism, a concert strategy will be more appealing to an increasingly polarized electorate no longer satisfied neoliberal primacy.
Bottom line: we should be optimistic about a strategic shift away from primacy because changes in the Democratic Party are making it possible.