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Principle and prudence in U.S. foreign policy

From the end of World War II until the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States pursued a bipartisan grand strategy of “primacy,” the purpose of which has been to underwrite a liberal world order based on free trade and the law of nations, an arrangement very much in the interest of the United States and its friends and allies. This grand strategy has included alliances and support for international institutions, including the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic system.

This approach was justified by the belief that war and depression can best be avoided in a world where the interests of states are not always at odds but can be coordinated by diplomacy, trade, commerce, and global finance. The trade wars of the 1930s, generated by mercantilist policies and economic nationalism that fueled global depression, helped to plunge the world into a real and devastating war in 1939.

The grand strategy of primacy is based on Robert Gilpin’s theory of “hegemonic stability,” which holds that a “liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global “invisible hand.” Instead, such a system requires a “hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security.” Great Britain provided this service during the 19th century. The United States has done so since 1945. In both cases, the hegemonic power assumed the role not out of altruism but because it was in its national interest to do so.

This bipartisan approach was abandoned by President Obama. The outcome has been a foreign policy that is at best a-strategic and at worst anti-strategic, lacking any concept of how to apply limited resources to obtain our foreign policy goals because this administration has articulated no clear goals or objectives to be achieved.

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