For three decades, U.S. foreign policy has run on inertia and called it strategy. The Cold War had ended, but the United States nonetheless retained its Cold War alliances. The Soviet Union had disappeared, but the absence of a major threat produced much the same prescription as the presence of a major threat had: just as the U.S. military had defended “the free world,” now it would become the guardian of the whole world. When problems appeared, successive administrations generally took them as reasons to expand U.S. deployments. Even if its bid for primacy had created or exacerbated those problems, Washington had the solution: more and better primacy.
Now the war in Ukraine is tempting policymakers to repeat that mistake in an exceedingly consequential way. Just when President Joe Biden had been trying to prioritize security in Asia and prosperity for the American middle class, advocates of U.S. primacy are seizing this emotionally charged moment to insist that post–Cold War path dependency prevail. Rather than pivot to Asia, they argue, the United States must now build up its military presence in Europe to contain an assertive Russia, even as it strengthens its Indo-Pacific defenses to contain a rising China. They admit their proposal would cost hundreds of billions of dollars more in defense spending and put U.S. forces on the front lines of two potential great-power wars, but they think the price is worth it.
The Biden administration should decline this invitation to wage a risky global cold war. Although the invasion of Ukraine has revealed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to take risks in the pursuit of aggression, it has also exposed the weakness of the Russian military and economy. If anything, the war has strengthened the case for strategic discipline, by offering a chance to encourage Europe to balance against Russia while the United States concentrates on security in Asia and renewal at home. Such a division of labor is fair and sustainable. It would put the United States in the best position to limit the fallout from the war in Ukraine and achieve long-term peace and stability in Europe and beyond. Primacy’s lure is strong in Washington, but a more restrained approach is better.
Since Russia’s invasion began, advocates of U.S. primacy have contended that the war demands not only an immediate response from the United States but also an enduring grand-strategic shift. Riding a wave of anti-Russian sentiment, they want the Biden administration to cast aside the new, Asia-centric posture that it had been expected to roll out. “We cannot pretend any longer that a national security focus primarily on China will protect our political, economic and security interests,” wrote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “As we have seen in Ukraine, a reckless, risk-taking dictator in Russia (or elsewhere) can be every bit as much a challenge to our interests and our security.” To keep the war from expanding, the Biden administration has boosted the number of U.S. troops in Europe to around 100,000—a level not seen in decades.
But a bid to restore global military primacy is no more merited today than it was before the invasion.