The Magazine

Pax Americana

A debate on the wisdom of global primacy.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By GARY SCHMITT
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American Empire

A Debate

by Christopher Layne and Bradley A. Thayer

Routledge, 168 pp., $19.95

Policy disputes in Washington often seem like the proverbial ships passing in the night. Each side may signal to the other, but for the most part they are content to stay clear of contact and be on their separate ways. To the credit of Christopher Layne, a professor at Texas A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service, and Bradley Thayer, a professor of strategic studies at Missouri State, they have set out to do their part in correcting that problem when it comes to America's grand strategy with American Empire: A Debate.

As the title indicates, Thayer and Layne lay out, respectively, arguments for and against a U.S. foreign policy whose explicit goal is maintaining American primacy on the world stage--what both call the "American Empire." Layne and Thayer are professed realists; so having power, keeping it, and using it wisely are the key ingredients of this debate. What divides the two is their estimation of the costs and benefits of a grand strategy that rests on American global hegemony.

Thayer opens the book with his case for American primacy, arguing that, indeed, America is an empire, but not a traditional one: Its influence is now mostly tied to the indirect sway and security provided by its military power, its economic muscle, and the soft power associated with its political ideals and its dominating cultural presence around the globe. Moreover, the spirit behind America's empire is the "spirit of 1776." From the get-go, Americans wanted to expand geographically and, equally important, saw their notions of political and economic freedom as "a light to the nations." In its bones, America was never a status quo power.

Yet, even if America has a hegemonic instinct, Thayer reasonably asks: Can the country pull it off? Can the United States retain its primacy, or will other powers, as most realists believe, react to such overwhelming power by challenging it? Of the available candidates for doing so--China, Europe, and radical Islam--only China presents a significant problem, according to Thayer. Europe is dying away; terrorism is a bloody nuisance but manageable--even China's longer-term prospects are iffy given its own internal problems.

And, of course, even if the United States can pull it off, should it? Here Thayer argues that, absent another realistic alternative to keep peace and stability in the world, it remains in America's interest to play the role of hegemon. It might not make us loved, but the general stability provided by the American security umbrella of alliances and forces has made the world a lot more peaceful than it otherwise would be.

For reasons of economics and the broad state of humanity, that is a pretty good return on the money.

Layne's argument is that there is, in fact, a realist's alternative to the endless pursuit of primacy: a strategy of "off-shore balancing" that amounts to a quasi-isolationist policy of selective diplomatic and military engagement. And indeed, the "offensive" realist's argument for primacy rests, Layne suggests, on paying too much attention to the lessons supposedly learned from the security problems and strategies for dealing with them that arose from centuries of competition among the powers of continental Europe. Given America's geography and weak neighbors, the security model that is far more relevant to our situation is the one adopted by maritime Britain: a small army, a big fleet, and a willingness to be quick on one's feet when it comes to finding new allies and dumping old ones.

Today's primacy advocates couple it with a policy of promoting democracy, believing that the world is a safer place when there are more democracies, not less--a thesis Layne calls the most "over-hyped and under-supported theory ever to be concocted by American academics."

According to Layne, the advantage of his alternative grand strategy is that it avoids stimulating great power rivalries, eliminates the economically disastrous consequences of "imperial overstretch," and precludes the necessity of a "national security state" in which our rights and civic culture are put at risk. Finally, it avoids the mess (e.g., Somalia and Iraq) of democracy promotion and nation-building.

American Empire concludes with brief responses by Thayer and Layne to each other's arguments, flushing out their original positions and critiques.