Is American Global Primacy Just Too Expensive?


One of the reasons I started a blog was because I get pulled into some excellent email chains that deserve to see the light of day. Here is a nice debate between me and a good friend (whose IR background is more law; mine is security and political economy). He thinks the costs of US empire’/dominance/unipolarity are too high to the US, and that we should start pushing burdens onto the allies more – an idea as old as the Nixon Doctrine. I agree in principle, but in practice, the allies won’t do it, the world will slide into multipolarity, and become more dangerous I think.


An Empire At Risk. I share all of Niall Ferguson’s concerns, but he is focused, at least in this article, on a military decline as the ultimate effect of our profligate ways.  I say – so what?  I would like to see a US that spends less on the military and is less focused on policing the world. Let’s hear it for Germany, Sweden, Norway, Japan, etc. – countries that direct their resources toward their people and not an extravagant defense establishment and adventurism. In the world today, the US has had to invent a global enemy – ‘terrorism’ or a boogie man China – to justify its fantastically large military. Security today is not as the Neo-Realists traditionally portray. The great powers are not likely to return to the days of the 1930s any time soon.


Ferguson is always a good read, although ten years ago he said the US was the “colossus” bestriding the world as the new Rome. That didn’t work out too well…

You’re right that the US military needs to go on a diet. After 9/11, the military got everything they wanted including lots of c— we don’t need (F-22s, missile defense, Future Combat System). But the larger point is correct. The ultimate backstop of the liberal global economy is the US military. The more powerful the US is, the less it makes sense to compete against it. Unipolarity encourages bandwagoning and hedging at worst, not open balancing. If the French, Russians and Chinese get their wish for multipolarity, watch security dilemmas in places like northeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia move into defection spirals of arms-racing. Unipolarity correlates well with systemic peace, and a liberal unipole is even better. Switzerland can claim the moral highground of neutralism and abdication, and no one cares. If the US does it, the world will change.


We have two basic disagreements.  First, I don’t share your concern about SD and spiraling arms races.  I am a believer in Jervis’ security community, though there are areas outside of it, a great power war is highly unlikely. Peripheral wars have gone on, are going on now  – even with ‘unipolarity’ – and will go on regardless of US military might. Moreover, it is rather speculative that US unipolarity will prevent the consequences you describe as the number of cases of unipolarity is quite small.

Regardless, and second, the problem with maintaining unipolarity is someone has to pay for it.  Why is it the burden of US citizens to maintain this blessed (if often fractured) liberal economic world order of peace and prosperity?  The British are sending an extra 500 troops to Afghanistan and they are one of the better allies there. Everyone knows the current US fiscal deficit is unstainable so, to fund unipolarity, Americans must give up public health insurance, infrastructure investment, and basic government funded research, fight inflation, suffer a depreciating dollar, yada yada, while the rest of the developed world has social safety nets and high-speed trains. If the world becomes more complicated without US unipolarity, if other liberal, peace-loving democracies must step up in a multipolar world, that’s fine. Americans deserve to have their wealth spent on their needs (cancer research comes to mind. Cancer touches everyone of us and will probably kill you and me. Compare what has been spent on that to just one year of defense spending – it’s shocking). 


1. You don’t think that the regional security dilemmas in places like Northeast Asia or the Middle East would inflame if the US retrenched? I can’t agree. If the US leaves the ME, Israel and Iran will be at blows. In Asia, China and Japan, and India and Pakistan and China would start racing furiously. I think even the Chinese think so, judging by what I have heard from Chinese scholars at conferences out here. Unipolarity has strong causal effects for peace.

2. Here I agree with you partially. But the US DID afford hegemony for awhile. Not even Vietnam broke US power: In fact, under Clinton, the budget was balanced, the debt was declining, the US was respected, and our foreign policy requirements were reasonable. Sullivan called the 1990s a ‘silver age’ for the US in his book the Conservative Soul. The real problem is that Bush misread unipolarity as omnipotence. Bush and his buddies wrecked US power through conscious choice. It was not the structure of unipolarity itself that bankrupted the US; it was W. Try here.


I don’t believe in US isolationism.  Of course, complete disengagement from Asia and the ME would be destabilizing.   Multipolarity is not isolationism. The US should remain a balancer and diplomatic force.

But, I don’t think NE Asia countries would race furiously even with a large US draw down.  I think here we differ because my view is more informed by commercial liberalism and the waning of war among developed countries as a cost-effective or even plausible solution to problems (constructivism).  Though it doesn’t surprise me that Chinese scholars would promote the idea of a spiraling arms race and war if the US draws down – of course the party line is let the US carry our security water while we build our economy.  There view is that the US presence makes every feel OK while China grows.

Sub-Asia and the ME are different, I agree. 

As I mentioned, there are areas outside of the ‘security community,’  but I am not that concerned about arms races there.  India and Pakistan have been racing and warring for years and the world survived without a great power holocaust. Nuclear weapons provide a certain stability there, as does US even- handedness in arms sales to Pakistan and India. Stability can also come from balancing. 

The ME also has a long history of localized arms races and wars and while it has been tense and economically destabilizing at times, we have managed (until recently) without US  military entrenchment there.  The US has balanced through its support of Israel and relationships with ‘moderate’ ME powers.  The prospect of a war in the middle east are less than they ever were (unless the governments of moderate powers topple to extremists) and that is largely because of war exhaustion and peace efforts going back to camp David. Iran is a problem but do you really think a middle east war will result?

I know the world is a dangerous place but I not worried about regional powers balancing themselves – I prefer it because of cost issues for the US. The US should remain engaged and a balancer but not the balancer. If wars break out, that is bad but it’s not like the last 20 years of US unipolarity have been peace and prosperity.  Before Iraq and Afghanistan, there were the Balkans.

I can only say here that today is not the 1960s or even the 1990s.  You know that US economic preeminence, allowing it to afford lots of guns and butter, was an a rare confluence of factors. Those factors have largely receded and are rapidly diminishing.  The 1990s was an economic bubble as we learned in 2000.  Moreover, your domestic agenda (and maybe Sllivan’s) is apparently smaller than mine.  Clinton may have balanced the budget  but he didn’t deliver health care, infrastructure investment, ya da ya da.  (In fact, Clinton, for all his talents and opportunities, was a waste of space.)  So, I don’t view the 1990s as an example of our ability to do it all.  The 1960s is a better case but not a realistic one today. The price of unipolarity:”

14 thoughts on “Is American Global Primacy Just Too Expensive?

  1. Professor Kelly,

    I have been following your blog on-and-off for some time, but I choose this post to leave my two-cents. First, I don’t think it matters that your background is security and your friend’s background is law. After 2 years of law school, I can sufficiently say that I believe that the majority of the law is based on reasonableness, or at least some flavor of it. International law, in my opinion, does not exist and will not exist in the near future unless it is against countries who choose to be bound by it (and if the U.S. won’t be bound by it, why would a less democratic country?). I know I’m leaving out exceptions to this, but broadly, I think it’s true.

    Second, one of the things that stuck in my mind from your Peace Studies course is that no one has stepped up to balance the US, and how weird this is. In the context of your blog post, I don’t think it is that weird and I think it is unlikely that the US will have any competition anytime soon, no matter how costly it is. Your friend is correct in that US citizens should have money for cancer research and our basic needs, but I think that should we effectively pull-out of every military base and our presence in the world diminishes, the cost of that cancer research will rise as countries will no longer give us the favorable trade agreements (many based on the security or foreign policies we give them) we so selfishly enjoy. I submit that the price that we pay for unipolarity pays dividends. While our military is large (especially post 9/11) we have a presence in every corner of the world. This presence protects our interests (either directly or indirectly) in trade, which makes us richer. Regarding debt, my ignorant stance is-so what? The U.S.’s borrowed money is only backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. It’s not back by land or services.

    If the US were to essentially “give up” its unipolar reign, I agree with you that there would be arms races but I don’t believe it would be China/India/Pakistan. First of all, I don’t believe that the Chinese are really interested in war. Their recent naval buildup is just a cosmetic response to Russia. If you and I were neighbors in, say, South Central L.A. and you bought a gun to protect your family from gangs and I didn’t buy a gun my family would think that I don’t take their security seriously and it would cause internal disputes within my home. Security is a necessary precaution to keep the wife and kids (the Chinese citizens) happy. More than anything, my fear in a multi-polar system is the irrational actors. Since Iran justifies every threat it makes regarding nuclear weapons or Israel as necessary to defeat the “evil U.S. empire,” what happens when we aren’t the empire anymore? Iran will still be trying to build nukes, but will no longer have the U.S. to blame so they’ll have to use a different country as an excuse–and given the region, it will more likely that not be a non-rational actor that takes serious offense to the threats. The U.S. is basically a punching bag for Iran, but so what? Would you rather have Iran threatening the U.S., or threatening Pakistan?

    Lastly (a point that you didn’t address in your blog article) I am entirely unsure what would happen to Africa in a multi-polar system. While not a powerful actor in the least bit, it has the opportunity (due to its resources) to become powerful if manipulated in the right way by a more powerful country. I guess in my mind, I see Africa not as a continent full of countries, but as a parcel of land that has yet been conquered. As rapidly-developing countries are scrambling for resources, they will inevitably turn to Africa as a source of cheap labor, abundant materials and low costs. If the US turns a blind-eye to Africa, could the Chinese (or Indians) secure the countries that it does business as proxies?


  2. I believe the world really contains very few irrational actors. Not even North Korea falls into that camp, as crazy as it is. Self-defense is such a basic instinct that that number of countries crazy enough to self-destruct by provoking all-out war with a vastly more powerful country is small. We thought the Soviets were irrational, too. We thought the Norks were irrational when they first acquired nuclear weapons. Many people believe (incorrectly IMO) that Iran is irrational. But they all behave as if they’re aware of the risk of destruction through war so they keep their powder dry.

    I don’t think the only choices are all-in or all-out. Bob, your friend (whom I agree with) is advocating a bit of a pullback because the opportunity costs of our immense military commitments are simply incredible. I agree with your friend. The costs are far too high. Thousands of American families go bankrupt each year due to uninsured medical expenses – many of these families had full-coverage policies in effect but where dropped or faced some other kind of impossible-to-predict exclusion or coverage cap. For a country that claims to care about families, that is a crime, plain and simple. I’m a father, and I can’t tell you what it would do to my image of my country if it forced me to choose between proper care for my daughter or financial ruin. The costs of empire are personal and visceral and dire. I favor a modest pullback. We can trim $150B from our military budget and still be colossus.


  3. I also agree with your friend that my domestic policy preferences are growing more ambitious with time. I had plenty of time in college to yammer on about unintended consequences and the road to serfdom and all that. More and more, I simply see all human endeavor as flawed and imperfect, all groups as myopic, and half of life as pure dumb luck. We’re all struggling toward betterment by zigs and zags. Government is an essential part of that. Enough countries have successfully implemented much more ambitious and successful social insurance plans and they work. We know they can work because in places where they’re well designed, they do work.

    I have a colleague and friend here in town, we both work in defense, and we both daydream at lunch about retiring in Denmark or Norway. Imperfect, but there’s a reason Danes and Norwegians are so ridiculously happy and self-satisfied. At the end of my life, I’ll have been glad to trade some shots at winner-takes-all glory if I can provide greater security and stability to my family, spend more time with them, and enjoy life a little.


  4. Hi Zack. I am glad you remember the class and read the blog. Thanks. And please, call me Bob. You are long since my student.

    I think you put your finger on a good point I did not develop: that unipolarity generates benefits as well as costs. So yes, the DoD budget is ridiculous, but the dollar’s status as reserver currency generates huge benefits, as does the big military’s ability to muscle others into good trade deals for the US. A full-blown cost-benefit analysis of unipolarity is needed. My guess is that the comes out on behalf of the benefits.

    Roker and my original intelocutor are correct that the allies could do more: this would drive down costs. But there is also a downside to allied strength – they can then be more independent of you. If you keep the US’ allies dependent on the US military, then you can squeeze them more easily. Remember that the US made money off of the first Gulf War, because lots of countries contributed financially. The US actually profited. So, as I said, the real problem with unipolarity is not the cost, but that W squandered the legitimacy that kept the allies on board and paying.


  5. Roker-

    I’m curious, what are your reasons that Iran and North Korea are not irrational actors, and how would you define an irrational actor? The way I understand it, a rational actor is someone who tries to maximize their benefits while minimizing their costs. So the converse of that theory is an actor who actually minimizes their benefits while maximizing their costs. I don’t see how North Korea has had any benefit to them in a tangible or intangible way lately. Yes, they receive some aid and are occasionally invited to an international conference, but is that really a benefit when the cost to them is alienation, loss of legitimacy and sanctions for their policies? If an actor defines their own benefits, and NK’s is mere international recognition, does that make them rational when that only directly (and probably indirectly) benefits their ruling regime?

    However, if we’re going to measure rationality on whether or not they’re going to press the nuke button, then that’s not something I would feel comfortable giving the “poor state” the benefit of the doubt just because they haven’t killed anyone lately. I agree with your statement that Iran and NK have a coherent realization that armed conflict with the U.S. (or Israel, or South Korea, etc.) could result in their destruction. But my concern, as I stated previously, is what should happen if the United States were taken out of the equation and there no longer existed a “punching bag” for these countries and had to find a less rational actor to jerk around. I believe it would result in serious armed conflict colored ugly.

    And surprising as it may seem coming from a 24-year-old, I sympathize with the importance that you place on domestic policies because of your commitment to family security and health. Sometimes, I ask my dad about what the world was like growing up in the 50’s and 60’s and he always starts out the same: “People are crazy. When I was growing up there were never this many crazy countries running around killing whoever they wanted. Just get a job with good benefits and hope for the best.” To his credit, he very well may be right. But if all young adults in the country are told to “think domestically” in an increasingly-globalized world, I do not think that the result would be nearly as peaceful as it is today. When I retire, I would love nothing more than to live in a country with great benefits, have my whole family with me and spend as much time as I can enjoying life. But this comes at a cost, and that cost is the dominant global presence of the United States. The world would be very different without the U.S. as the most powerful and most connected country.


    I agree with you that a full-blown cost-benefit analysis of unipolarity is needed. It would definitely be a fantastic undertaking and a great read. I am going to have to disagree with your friend that multi-polarity will not make that much of a difference and the only after-products will be a few small arms races and more affordable domestic services. I think that the rest of the world likes having the U.S. as “Dad”. Aside from the fact that they get vast amounts of security from us, countries that align themselves with the United States get legitimacy and influence. In a multi-polar world, who would a country go to in order to secure their status as legitimate, and if every country is beating up on them who is the country going to cry foul to? I believe that unipolarity works so well because it is not an issue of imperialism, but rather one of order. One entity needs to be in charge as the “balancer and diplomatic force.”

    Lastly, I’m not sure how creating a multi-polar system would work without some type of conflict. An immediate pull-out or even the announcement of a gradual reduction of military support in all foreign countries is impossible. After all, (as you commented above) our allies are dependent on us. Losing that “crutch” that we provide to them will more likely than not result in a negative image, precautionary arms races to fill the void and threatening trade tariffs designed to dissuade the U.S. from following through. Some of these tariffs may be so persuasive that the U.S. actually doesn’t pull-out or reduce its presence in certain countries, in essence creating two classes: those favored by Americans and those dispensed by Americans. Is that a situation that we’re willing to create? This is not even taking into account the announcement, and I can see the headlines now: “America Reduces Foreign Presence to Create Multi-Polar World.” I’m not sure that will go over will with the ME, Russia and China who like to tell themselves that this is, in fact, a multi-polar system and that all countries are equals at the bargaining table.


    • I was not suggesting that the US withdraw completely from the world, only that it scale back its ambitions fractionally (a big fraction, but fractionally) and allow reliable allies to shoulder more of the burden. We cannot afford so spend more on defense than the rest of the planet combined, and double on healthcare what any other advanced nation spends. We can’t afford it. So we have to spend less. As they say, something that cannot go on forever will eventually stop.


    • The methodological problems of a serious c/b analysis are brutal. How do you figure in the benefits of things like prestige? Think of all the Americans all over the world who weren’t mugged or imprisoned just because of their passports. Think of all the easy visa rules Americans enjoy, because it is number one. As Mel Brooks said, it is good to be the king, or ‘Dad’ as you call it. My thinking is that you (Zak) are right. The benefits still outweigh the costs. Here is one huge financial benefit: We can print the global reserve currency! So we can run up huge international debts in our own national currency. That gives the US huge leverage. Retrenchment would jeopardize it.


      • And what do we use that wonderful debt for? We continue to avoid making hard choices and we continue to avoid reform of any kind. That is not a benefit to us.


  6. Great article from the Financial Times titled:
    Why Obama does not want a multi-polar world order

    Zack you should give Dr. Bob your email address so that I can put you on my closed discussion link. Also, the Chinese are already in Africa, they have been there for a long while and are doing a number on that continent. China is the new lifeblood to Africa’s “BIG MEN”, aka maximum leaders.

    Also, multi-polarity ALWAYS lead to Bipolarity and then Uni-polarity. Always. Ask Bismark. Bismark and President Obama have quasi similar styles in that both of their respective nations were/are the dominant powers and yet they tired/trying to be gentle giants. In other words they sought/are seeking “multi-polarity” on their terms.

    Another interesting article from the FT: “India signals ‘serious concern’ over Chinese military ties with Pakistan”

    Also ARMB, there are A LOT of countries acting completely irrationally, they are in Africa. I think that you can agree with that. Just take at look at Uganda, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire and the recent best Equatorial Guinea. Let’s not forget Guinea. But actually Liberia under Chuck takes the cake since 1990. Chuck might have Idi Amin Dada beat.


  7. Zack could you please clarify this statement. You weren’t at the 1885 Berlin Conference were you?

    “I guess in my mind, I see Africa not as a continent full of countries, but as a parcel of land that has yet been conquered.”


    • I am still trying to think of my response to the speech. It felt as mixed about the ramp-up as I do. Sorry. Still thinking…

      What do you think?


  8. Pingback: Should the US Pull Out of South Korea (2): No « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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