I am writing this because I saw a tweet thread about "primacy" that was, um, greatly annoying.
1) Good discussion involving @MaxBoot @charlie_simpson @stephenwertheim @MaxAbrahms involving NDS Commission report and virtues of American primacy. I am not neutral (was lead writer for NDS Commission report and agree with most of what it says) but thread raises key issues.— Hal Brands (@HalBrands) December 14, 2018
This one thread reminds me how I am and am not a Realist. Reading Ken Waltz's Theory of International Politics in grad school changed my career because I found his take (and I realized Later John Herz's, etc) on the security dilemma to be compelling. I didn't need to study arms races because I found this simple idea--that the unilateral effort by a country to improve its security will threaten its neighbors/adversaries who will then respond in kind, leaving the first country worse off. This idea made so much sense to me. Yes, lots of folks have revised it, questioned it, developed it, but for my view of IR, Waltz said it and I buy it.
So, the pursuit of primacy is a bad idea because it will antagonize other states, make them redouble their efforts, causing the state pursuing primacy to expend yet more resources and yet find itself being ever more challenged and losing its advantage.
However, structural realism a la Waltz is indeterminate--multipolarity may be worse than bipolarity (I am not so sure) but it isn't always going to be the Germans and Japanese. Brand includes this tweet:
10) Maybe against Russia, but not China. But main point is that free-riding is a feature of current system, not glitch. We have seen what happens when fully armed Germany and Japan, living in regions not pacified by superpower, have to fend fully for themselves. Not good.— Hal Brands (@HalBrands) December 14, 2018
Um, Japan is not the same country it was in 1936 and Germany is not what it was in 1939. Domestic political institutions and dynamics matter greatly. I am not worried about these countries becoming authoritarian regimes that seek to gobble up the neighbors. I am worried that the US is becoming an authoritarian regime that will ... give up its role as a key stabilizer in international relations.
And, for those fans of Neo-Classical Realism, I am not one of you. While I see some key Realist logics about the nature of IR, I find myself more persuaded by the roles played by interests and institutions at both levels. I need to read more NCR, but the stuff I have read thus far makes me think that it is oxymoronic--neither classical nor realist. That synthesis paves the way to incoherence. But that is a fight for another day.
Anyhow, when anyone pushes for American primacy, remember that the US got into this position by accident--the collapse of the USSR. It was fun while it lasted (well, sometimes), but maintaining it requires lots of things to happen that aren't going to happen. So, rather than pursuing it, the US should get used to the basic realities of International Relations--one can be first among equals, but the quest to dominate ends in horror and tears.