The Price of Primacy

The collapse of the Soviet Union revealed the bankruptcy of international communism. In time, the absence of a Cold War foe also exposed the bankruptcy of Washington’s global ambitions. Freed from major challengers, the United States had an unprecedented chance to shape international politics according to its wishes. It could have chosen to live in harmony with the world, pulling back its armed forces and deploying them only for vital purposes. It could have helped build a world of peace, strengthening the laws and institutions that constrain war and that most other states welcome. From this foundation of security and goodwill, the United States could have exercised leadership on the already visible challenges ahead, including climate change and the concentration of ungoverned wealth.

Instead, Washington did the opposite. It adopted a grand strategy that gave pride of place to military threats and methods, and it constructed a form of global integration that served the immediate interests of a few but imperiled the long-term interests of the many. At best, these were mistaken priorities. At worst, they turned the United States into a destructive actor in the world. Rather than practice and cultivate peace, Washington pursued armed domination and launched futile wars in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and in Libya in 2011. These actions created more enemies than they defeated. They killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and overextended a generation of U.S. service members. They damaged laws and institutions that stabilize the world and the United States. They made the American people less safe.

As the United States inflated military threats and then poured resources into countering them, it also failed to provide for the global common good. Although it has led some laudable efforts to address the AIDS pandemic and climate change, the overall record is grim. Since 1990, the United States, despite having only four percent of the global population, has emitted about 20 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide, the main contributor to climate change. Although China is now the world’s top emitter, the United States’ emissions per capita remain more than twice as high as China’s. American leaders have alternated between denying the problem and taking insufficient steps to solve it. It remains unclear whether humanity can prevent the overall global temperature from rising to between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels; if not, the damage may prove irreversible, and fires, droughts, and floods may proliferate.

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