The US is Your Know-it-All Friend Who Should Just Keep His Mouth Shut

by | Sep 29, 2016


When makers of American foreign policy dream of an ideal world, they fixate on one word: primacy. It used to be called “full-spectrum dominance.” On the street, it comes out as “Don’t even think about it.” Tough guys in Western movies put it differently: “This town ain’t big enough for both of us.”

However it is phrased, “primacy” is the view that the United States rules and all must accept our power. It is the new buzz word in Washington. Nothing about the idea, though, is new. The drive for global primacy is what sunk us into Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and all of our other overseas disasters. This pernicious doctrine — now summed up in a single word — has sapped American power and palpably weakened the United States. Nonetheless, it is widely accepted in the corridors of American power. That guarantees future failures on the scale of those that have already cost us dearly in blood and treasure.

Primacy is the demon spawn of “exceptionalism.” It is based on the belief that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” the only force standing between civilization and barbarism. Wherever there is conflict or trouble or upheaval in the world — and even where there is none — the pursuit of primacy requires that the United States intervene. This doctrine holds that no problem in the world can be solved without American guidance. It ignores overwhelming realities. The solutions we propose are often impractical because they are based mainly on what is good for the United States. Affected nations and peoples reject them. Our visionary projects — we will liberate millions, show them the benefits of free enterprise, and bring them under our benevolent wing — collapse amid unimaginable human suffering. Just as bad, at least from the perspective of an American, they undermine our security, turn entire regions against us, and degrade our national life by absorbing resources we need for schools, urban reconstruction, and other projects that, unlike foreign wars, truly contribute to our national strength.

Primacy assumes that there is only one good way to live, and Americans have found it. It tells us that countries willing to submit to our power are friends, and the others are enemies. Worst of all, it means that “enemy” countries cannot be tolerated or allowed to survive while they navigate their path through history. They must be crushed — or at least made to realize that rejecting American power is a recipe for trouble.

This would be a dangerous policy in a world the United States dominated. It is even more self-defeating in today’s multipolar world. Promoters of the primacy idea believe that we know what the world needs better than the world itself knows.

Fair Use excerpt from Boston Globe. Read entire article here.


  • Stephen Kinzer

    Stephen Kinzer is an American author, journalist, and academic. A former New York Times correspondent, he has published several books, and writes for several newspapers and news agencies.

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