US Primacy in the Obama Era: A State of Mind?

This is the first in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this series, members of the Defence Studies Department who participated in the symposium will examine some of the challenges and issues faced by the Obama administration in the context of challenges to US primacy at home and abroad.


The Obama era is one that has been marked by a sustained discourse over the future of American global leadership and its primacy in the international system. With the US having functioned as the sole superpower in a unipolar world since the end of the Cold War, the issue of whether US power and primacy is waning strikes at the heart of questions of world order and the balance of power in the 21st Century. Are we witnessing the end of US unipolarity? Are we returning to an era of bipolar great power competition between the US and China? Or an era of multipolarity in which multiple great powers – the US, China, Russia, Iran, Europe – all contest the international space? Are we witnessing an age of ‘decentered globalism,’ one in which there will be no superpowers, only great powers? Is this an age of new regionalism wherein regional hegemonic powers seek to impose order and stability (but in so doing generate instability) in regional spaces?

It was with some of these debates in mind that a number of scholars from three leading European institutions – King’s College, London; the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, Oslo (IFS); Sciences Po, Paris – sought to critically reflect on US primacy during the Obama era at a symposium on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges,’ at King’s College, London, on September 7th. From debates over the consequences of a rising China for the US and the motivations of the US rebalance to Asia to America’s role in the Middle East and whether Obama is pursuing a form of retrenchment, the symposium generated a variety of ideas, arguments and viewpoints but binding most of them together was a recognition that while the era of American primacy – broadly defined as an unrivalled political, economic and military preponderance of power with the US occupying a hegemonic position in a unipolar international system – may not be over, it is more contested than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

In my own contribution to the symposium I argued that the Obama presidency has witnessed a growing discourse that has sought to re-visit, re-shape and re-think America’s dominant strategic narrative, based on a recognition shared by many across the policy, media and academic worlds that the world America inhabits has fundamentally shifted away from the unipolarity that emerged at the end of the Cold War, and toward a more decentered, diffuse international system. Although Obama shared a commonly held view of the US as a nation uniquely placed to lead in the 21st century and a strong belief in the force and universality of American ideals, he brought to the presidency a more nuanced and complex world-view that was willing to apply a more critical mind to thinking about America’s role in the world. A central argument developed here is that the confluence of Obama’s own world view, ongoing shifts in world order and the urgency of domestic challenges created a space in which there was greater scope for questioning, challenging and recalibrating the dominant strategic narrative that has underpinned US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Obama, I argue, is far less wedded to notions of US hegemony and primacy than his post-Cold War predecessors, in large part due to the intellectual traditions of pragmatism and historicism that have shaped his individual and governing philosophy. Obama has sought to recalibrate America’s strategic narrative – which rests heavily on the role of the US as the hegemonic manager, organiser and custodian of liberal order – based on an understanding and appreciation of the limits of US power, the waning of US unipolarity, the erosion of American legitimacy as a source of America’s moral power, and the requirement to reposition the US in a “post-American” world through a form of retrenchment.

Although Obama continues a long line of US presidents who fundamentally believe in the inherent rightness, legitimacy and desirability of an international system based on a liberal order, shaped by open markets, democracy, cooperative security and rule-based order he understands what John Ikenberry has argued: that there is a crisis within the liberal order arising from basic shifts in power, sovereignty, security and interdependence which have eroded the stability of that order and the authority of the US as hegemonic leader. Obama intuitively understands that rising powers cannot simply be contained or isolated; the US must co-exist with these powers and find ways of cooperating. His basic position, informed by his own belief in the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, is to instinctively seek to find common ground, through dialogue and diplomacy, to position the US not as the hegemonic manager of the liberal order but at the centre of a “community of nations,” one which recognises that the continuing rise of China and other emerging powers, the growth of the EU as a major strategic actor, power shifts more broadly from West to East and North to South and the increasing prominence of non-state actors are reshaping international order. For Obama, the US may still be indispensable in providing global leadership, but he understands it is no longer the sole axis on which the world turns.

But in trying to reshape America’s strategic narrative, he has encountered a number of problems, all of which suggest that his attempt to tell a different story about American power in the 21st century has been only partially successful. First, there is a certain ambivalence evident both in public opinion polls and Obama’s own narrative of America’s place in the world as to just what that role in the world should be. At times, there has been a clear willingness to take a back seat, a clear absence of will to stomach the costs and consequences of continuing to act as the hegemonic manager of a liberal global order; yet there also persists an appetite to remain the world’s only superpower which is proving hard to shake. In this regard, primacy is a state of mind as much as a reflection of material power. The pursuit of global hegemony is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, America’s political elites blinded by a “unipolar fantasy” that will likely remain the recurring obsession of America’s official imagination. It is hard to foresee Obama’s successor, whoever that may be, discarding this obsession; Hilary Clinton has already lamented Obama’s self-described doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” (more formally calibrated as “strategic patience” in the 2015 National Security Strategy) as not being an “organizing principle” worthy of “great nations” and none of the GOP contenders appear to share Obama’s world-view, with the possible exception of Senator Rand Paul.

Second, Obama’s unrelenting use of drones as well as other controversial policies and practices has fuelled a disjuncture between the narrative Obama has sought to project of a more benign and humble US leadership, and the way that narrative is both realised and perceived. Third, by seeking, at least partially, to readjust America’s strategic narrative, he has created a space within which others can take advantage of a perceived waning of American primacy. Putin knows there is limited support for major US military intervention abroad and has exploited that ruthlessly in the Ukraine, as has Assad in Syria and ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

Yet as he nears the end of his presidency, there is evidence that his approach may not be as unrealistic or dangerous as some critics would have. His willingness to persist with a strategy of engagement has led to historic openings with Myanmar and Cuba and a potentially historic nuclear deal with Iran. Perhaps history will judge Obama more kindly for his decision to not rush into military action in the Ukraine or Syria and Iraq but to pursue a longer-term effort to resolve the crisis multilaterally, even as the refugee crisis is exposing the truly tragic consequences of inaction. As David Remnick argues, Obama’s is “not a foreign policy that offers the satisfactions of self-expression…The gains have been unshowy and incremental. But when your aim is to conduct a responsive and responsible foreign policy, the avoidance of stupid things is often the avoidance of bloodshed and unforeseen strife. History suggests that it is not a mantra to be derided or dismissed.”

Image: President Barack Obama (center) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari during a US-Afghan-Pakistan Trilateral meeting in Cabinet Room, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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