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Primacy and Its Discontents: American Power and International Stability

Primacy and Its Discontents: American Power and International Stability edited by Michael E. Brown et al. MIT Press, 2009, 412 pp.

Primacy and Its Discontents is a collection of 11 essays by distinguished international relations theorists originally published in the International Security Journal. It resulted from a study group commissioned by Harvard president Larry Summers and chaired by Graham Allison to investigate US primacy in international relations. The starting point for this investigation was the “unipolar moment”—the end of the bipolar international political environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as the sole remaining superpower. US primacy in world affairs is analyzed in the context of competing schools of thought in international relations theory. The authors are all well known in IR theory circles, including Kenneth Waltz, the originator of structural realism theory. The foreword was written by Graham Allison, author of Essence of Decision, a seminal book on strategic decision making.

Although many perspectives are represented in this collection, all share similar investigations into the enduring nature of US dominance. The book is logically arranged into three parts. Part I has two essays examining “the sources, limits and prospects of U.S. primacy.” Why is the United States the sole superpower? William Wohlforth argues that benign US dominance is a natural outgrowth of relative superiority in “economics, military, technical, and geopolitical sources of power,” and this condition as better than multipolarity as a source of international stability. Wohlforth sets the tone for the remaining essays in that he sees US primacy as uncontested and necessary for the near term. Barry Posen compliments Wohlforth’s perspective by analyzing how US military power contributes to primacy through “command of the commons”—the land, air, and sea domains where US forces have unprecedented strength and capabilities relative to second-tier competitors.

The five essays in Part II see US primacy as a passing moment in history that will be superseded by other states balancing against US power by increasing their internal capabilities or through external alliances. These contributing theorists reject the conclusions of Wohlforth and Posen based on power balancing and structural characteristics of the international system that prevent states from achieving permanent dominance. Christopher Layne wrote two essays. “The Unipolar Illusion” is an extensive look at history and theory related to how states balance against hegemonic powers. His second article, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited,” was written 11 years after the original and updates his thesis to include revised assessments of states now balancing against US dominance, to include China, which were not considered great powers at the end of the Cold War. Kenneth Waltz provides a comprehensive assessment of arguments against the realist perspective and agrees with Layne that the “unipolar moment” will not last. Liberalism finally has a say in the final two essays of Part II by John Ikenberry and John Owen. They acknowledge enduring US primacy based on power considerations but also look at how economics, state institutions, and international structures constrain US hegemony.

The final section explores soft balancing against US primacy. Robert Pape and T. V. Paul each contend that balancing is taking place but through means short of military power. Their arguments are rebutted by Stephen Brooks, Keir Lieber, Gerard Alexander, and Wohlforth reappearing to savage soft balancing assumptions.

The essays are accessible to nonspecialists despite being written from the lens of international relations theory. Terms are defined and discussed in detail throughout, providing the reader with a deeper understanding of how each of the schools of IR theory interprets the political environment. Since the book begins with essays based on realism and neorealism, readers have a basis of understanding the criticisms of the liberalism theorists that follow. Realism explains international relations from the standpoint of “international anarchy” where states have no governing authorities outside of what powerful states decide in their self-interest. Liberalism accepts that self-interest and anarchy are present in the system, but that states find their self-interest advanced by institutions that might restrain the powerful to a degree, but also protect the weaker states to mutual advantage.

The primary contention between the schools of thought is the concept of balancing between states. Hard realists assume that other states lack power to balance against the United States and apply strategies that adjust to that reality. A consequence, expressed by Wohlforth, is that the United States should continue to seek primacy to prevent other powers from challenging its supremacy. Neorealism does not recognize hegemonic permanency. The structure of international relations tends toward rebalancing between states. Christopher Layne warned that primacy cannot last, because of structural patterns in the system that will see the emergence of strategic competitors to the United States, regardless of perceived benign intentions. Liberalists also share the view that, in the long run, US hegemony cannot last, but their theory depends on internal political structures as the source of balancing. Because the United States is perceived as a liberal power, other liberal states will not seek to balance against US interests. Although soft power balancers provide convincing arguments, their critics point out that there is little to no evidence to support their theory, outside the usual diplomatic disagreements that arise despite good relations. For example, Germany is identified as having applied soft power against the United States to restrain it from using force in Iraq but then allowed US basing for the attack from German soil.

Primacy and Its Discontents is an excellent reference source for IR specialists and strategic practitioners. Despite essays which date from 1993, the book as a whole is still topical, especially in light of recent discussions related to the decline of US power. Neorealist Christopher Layne would not be surprised. Rather than US power declining, he sees a natural rebalancing taking place today, with the associated caveat to adjust strategic policies to reflect that reality. Another school of IR thought, constructivism, is omitted from this book. It would be interesting to see how constructivists view US primacy through their lens of ideas and culture.

LTC Kurt P. VanderSteen, USA, Retired

US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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