Beyond Primacy: American Grand Strategy in the Post-September 11 Era

By Sloan, Elinor | International Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Beyond Primacy: American Grand Strategy in the Post-September 11 Era

Sloan, Elinor, International Journal

IN SEPTEMBER 2002, THE ADMINISTRATION of George W. Bush released its National Security Strategy for the United States. Academics, policy-makers, and members of the media around the world immediately seized upon the document's notable move away from the cold war strategies of deterrence and containment and towards the option of conducting pre-emptive military operations against emerging threats.

While this is indeed a momentous change, it has overshadowed an even more significant development. With its new strategy document the United States indicated its decision to go beyond its traditional grand strategy of primacy, which it had been pursuing consistently since the end of World War II, to create a 'balance of power in favor of freedom.' This new strategy captures a potentially seismic shift in emphasis that holds the possibility of transforming the nature of great power relations and, with it, the global security landscape.


A grand strategy is a state's theory about how, in an anarchic international security environment, it can most assuredly 'cause' security for itself.(1) In choosing a grand strategy, a state will define its interests and objectives, identify threats to its interests and objectives, and decide in response on the most appropriate political, military, and economic strategies to protect those interests.(2) These activities collectively make up the state's grand strategy.

The choices of policy-makers will depend in part on their view of how the world works. In the United States, there are essentially two perspectives. First, a balance-of-power system according to which America, although by far the most powerful state in the world, is still considered one nation among many and must therefore adhere to the historical ground rules of equilibrium. Second, a unipoiar world in which one state enjoys hegemony. This is the world of empire.

Within these worlds there are a number of possible grand strategy choices:(3)

Isolationism is grounded in the balance of power perspective. It holds that in most cases power will balance naturally and a state should become involved only insofar as events directly threaten its territory. Security is achieved by avoiding 'entangling alliances.'

Offshore balancing is grounded in a balance-of-power perspective. The primary objective is to preserve peace among the great powers. Security is achieved through action to redress the balance once a threat is apparent.

Selective Engagement is also grounded in the balance-of-power perspective. Again, the primary objective is to ensure peace among the great powers. But here security is achieved through proactive engagement in some areas of the world to guard against or prevent threats to the balance arising.

Preserving primacy is grounded in the unipolar perspective. The primary objective for the hegemonic state is to preserve pre-eminent power. Security is achieved by maintaining a preponderance of power, principally through multilateral measures.

Imperialism is also grounded in the unipolar perspective and its primary objective is also to preserve pre-eminent power on the part of the hegemonic state. Security is achieved by maintaining a preponderance of power, principally through unilateral measures.


Throughout the cold war the United States pursued a grand strategy of guaranteeing its security by maintaining primacy in its sphere of influence. It sought to create and maintain a US-led world order based on preeminent US political, military, and economic power and on American values; and to maximize US control over the international system by preventing the emergence of rival great powers.(4) It strove not only to contain the Soviet Union, but also to consolidate its pre-eminent position in Western Europe and northeast Asia. This helps explain, for example, why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US-Japan alliance did not end with the Soviet Union - both alliances were established as much 'for' something as 'against' something.

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