Where do you fit in? Today’s four schools of thought on strategic policy: Post-Modern Globalists, the Multipolarity School, the Eurasianist School, and the Classical Primacy School

Transactional Primacist: Whether he knows it or not, that is what Donald Trump is (Megan Varner/Getty Images)


The Western conversation on statecraft and defence in our times appears to have reached new peaks of strife, cacophony and sheer multiplicity and divergence of views even on basic tenets and assumptions of policy. Modern democratic societies traditionally possessed of free speech have never been short of strong debates and varied opinions on the big questions regarding the most advisable course of action in international affairs.

But in the past – even the recent past – these exchanges, for all their sharpness, were anchored in a greater corpus of shared beliefs.

One of these beliefs that has informed the worldview of generations of statesmen and foreign policy experts has been the Western ascendancy in the world system, and the fact that this was a good thing. Today there are disagreements on both – and much more.

The reasons for this intellectual fragmentation are not difficult to discern. It is an incontrovertible fact that the West, which has dominated global affairs for hundreds of years, is now experiencing an unprecedented challenge to its collective power and standing, primarily from the rise of China.

This is happening at the same time as a certain dysfunction in the Western mind – brought, on by the postmodern intellectual development, in different guises, of the Marxist infection that began in the 19th century – has now metastasized across our governing classes and cultural elites.

Today’s foreign policy debate thus has to take place in the context of a highly destabilising mix of unprecedented external systemic pressure and internal loss of coherence and inversion of values – which is striking deeper than ever, at the very roots of Western civilisation and philosophical traditions.

No wonder there is confusion even on fundamental ideas such as what constitutes “realism”, with every faction under the sun seemingly trying to appropriate the label for themselves, from ultra-isolationists to the most aggressive hawks.

But stronger and increasingly clearly delineated intellectual positions are also coming into sharper focus. In this respect, the debates over the Ukraine war and over how the US should deal with the China challenge are serving to separate some of the conceptual waters.

We can arguably distinguish four schools of thought when it comes to the political-intellectual “camps” that are fighting over the West’s strategic policy today.

These are but broad categories that group people and perspectives by what they have most in common; as such, they are not exclusive and the views and positions of some figures may spill over across other factions. But this classification may help bring some understanding to the debates of our times.

  1. The Postmodern Globalist School This school represents the incumbent elite that, by and large, populates Western foreign policy and defence establishments. In their ranks are found the high priests of the US and European “strategic community”, often holding tenured professorships, running the biggest and most influential think tanks, or enjoying a post-retirement career from high level official government jobs as consultants, authors or all-round “sages”. 

They are the “rules-based international order” and “liberal democracy” stalwarts who pontificate on the “moral” aspects of this or that policy, virtue-signal about “human rights” and inveigh against “tyrants” and “illiberal democracy” such as that supposedly overseen by Viktor Orban in Hungary.

This is the Davos and Munich Security Conference crowd, aligned to all the pieties and nonsensical policies of our times, from Net Zero to EU’s integrationist agenda (with its end point, the United States of Europe).

They also form the backbone of the “transatlantic community”, but, as with almost everything else – and unlike the generation before them – they’ve made an idol out of NATO and of most of the other key tenets of their worldview, which they worship uncritically with religious fervour.

This explains the unhinged fury they unleash upon those, like Trump or the erstwhile Brexiteers, who threaten to slaughter their sacred cows: such acts are seen not as merely foolish mistakes (which could be a topic of reasoned debate) but as impieties that are beyond discussion ab initio.

Like all schools of thought, Postmodern Globalism includes sub-groups and factions that sometimes cross over in interesting ways. The Neocons – from Cheney to Rumsfeld and Bolton – notorious for their disastrous post-9/11 adventurism, readiness to bomb other peoples, and ideological commitment to democratising the whole world, if possible, at the point of a gun, are only the most prominent example.

But the biggest and most nefarious faction – which, unlike the relatively niche neoconservatives, has actually marched through all the institutions during the “unipolar” era – are the mainstream Liberal Internationalists. Unlike the cynical, “red in tooth and claw”-Neocons, the bleeding-heart Liberals are motivated by the rule of law and Biblical levels of self-righteousness that can be equally ferocious when it comes to the use of force in the cause of so-called “justice”.

For all their faults, the Postmodern Globalists fundamentally believe in a world system set to Western standards, in which “the West” – however loosely defined – remains the dominant organising force.

As with all postmodernists who reject reality for “ideology” and “constructed” aberrations, they’ve become lost in their own hypocrisy. They are sympathetic to Third World calls for “reparations” for colonial-era “sins”, and push for high foreign aid spending, but instinctively they are convinced this is the way to shore up the West’s – and their own – position in the world. There are also genuine cases, among them, of true believers in things like aid spending for its own sake and out of a desire to “help others” (with other people’s money, of course).

  1. The Multipolarity School. In an earlier age this would have been called “the balance-of-power” school. But today’s notion of Multipolarity – or Poly-centrism as it is often known primarily in Russia – carries much more meaning, across multiple dimensions, than the “mere” Realpolitik outlook associated with a Bismarck-type approach to foreign affairs or with the original pragmatism of the balance of power construct negotiated by the likes of Castlereagh and Metternich at Vienna in 1815. 

Today’s Multipolarists hold to a few core, shared tenets: from (Western) declinism to the inexorable – and even welcome – rise of China. Many of them are also deeply impressed by new anti-West formats like BRICS and tend to accept theories about at least the existence if not the superiority of the so-called “civilisational states” like, supposedly, Russia and China.

Multipolarists have a hefty dose of scorn for the current state of the West and are starry-eyed about its enemies and their “achievements” – even if they cannot always bring themselves to praise the likes of Beijing publicly.  

There are two main sub-schools or branches of Multipolarity thinking. Engagement Multipolarists are essentially demoralised, defeatist Postmodern Globalists. They are a hybrid or “transition” sub-school of foreign policy thinking that is currently rising through the ranks in Western establishments, challenging the Postmodern Globalist ascendancy.

It holds to the old “rules based international order” doctrine – at least declaratively – but at the same time it advises engaging with China and other rivals or unsavoury partners on pragmatic grounds. 

Not necessarily admirers of the West’s rivals, Engagement Multipolarists are nonetheless willing to compromise some of their principles and “make room at the table” for the autocracies, on account of the latter’s supposed power as well as the “justice” of their “demands”. On Ukraine, they mostly hew to the Postmodern Globalist NATO consensus.

The rising star of this branch of Multipolarity is best observed in the UK, where the Government’s 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (Britain’s highest strategic document) was explicit that we have “definitively” transitioned to a “multipolar world”.

It further noted – in complete opposition to the Biden doctrine – that “today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’”, a statement that overturns the main Postmodern Globalist tenet. At the same time, though, Britain remains a pillar of the “free world” with all its liberal-internationalist trappings, institutions and so on.

But in a British context the struggle between the two factions – the incumbent Postmodern Globalist establishment and the rising Engagement Multipolarists – can be seen clearly in the vicious Whitehall “wars” over decisions like banning Huawei from Britain’s 5G network, which are precisely over engagement with Beijing.

The second distinctive branch of the Multipolar school are the Bloc Multipolarists.

Like the others, they fundamentally believe that the West has definitively lost its position of primacy in the world, but they come to different conclusions as to what is to be done. Instead of engagement, they believe in its opposite: drawing sharper distinctions with our rivals and dividing the world into “spheres of influence” or blocs. These are often the Mearsheimer-type “realists” who expound on the necessity of pushing Ukraine into a “negotiated” peace with Russia.

They think in terms of “grand bargains” with our systemic rivals and in the possibility of long-term co-existence of very different geopolitical alignments and sub-systems on the same planet – an old dream that goes back to the early Cold War, or indeed to the Fascist and Imperial Japanese visions for how the world should be run.

Interestingly, this has also endured as one of the core ideas behind the EU, whose raison d’etre is to create a continental bloc that can “compete” with the others in Asia and America. It is precisely for this reason why a fascist like Oswald Mosley became such a strong champion of a European union.

All types of Multipolarists masquerade as “realists”. Listen to them and you will hear endless reasons why the West can’t do this or that, why it has to compromise with its rivals to various degrees, and why various forms of retrenchment – at the expense of erstwhile allies – represent good strategy “in the national interest”.

Indeed, a splinter group of the Bloc Multipolarists – the so-called “Isolationists” – positively reject the concept of primacy and foreign entanglements in the first place.

All this, again, comes from a fundamentally defeatist mindset: these are people who have convinced themselves that “China is the future” – or versions thereof – and that the West is doomed. Unlike the Eurasianists, however, Multipolarists do not like the results of their analysis.

  1. The Eurasianist School. The name of this school references the concept most closely associated with Alexandr Dughin, one of Putin’s court intellectuals. Stripped down of all the extra nonsense, the core Eurasianist belief is that the degenerate West, overrun by godless progressive liberalism is in terminal decline in every sense: culturally and socially, but also economically and – in the longer term – militarily as well. In this reading of world affairs, the future belongs to the “family-values”, Church-inspired ultra-conservatism – and the “normality” that it will restore to Christendom – all coupled with the stupendous technological and manufacturing power of China.

No matter that the Chinese Communists are by history, culture and by Marxist-Leninist definition not just non-Christian but full-on atheists: they compensate, in Eurasianist eyes, through their fervour against that most hated of Western ideas, individualism, and the notion of personal choice – not to mention democracy.

Tightly entwined with all this is the other great “Eurasianist virtue” that both China and Russia share: a working model of vigorous authoritarianism that operates through a strong State and is able to get things done.

This heady mix of virile political-military power, performative “traditionalism”, intense anti-individualism, and monumental achievement (in China’s case) works wonders on increasingly-significant sections of Western societies and political parties, particularly – but not only – on the far Right.

Many of the older forms of Leftwing politics also make soft targets for this kind of propaganda, especially when it comes to the classic Left-wing critiques of “individualism”, Western/American “imperialism” – including the “neoliberal economics” associated with degenerate Capitalism – but also the in-built socialist appreciation for the power of the State in the service of the “people”.

In Western foreign policy discourse, Eurasianism translates into anti-NATO, anti-American, anti-EU, anti-Ukraine, pro-“peace” and anti-“globalist” positions. Eurasianists will readily recite the familiar Kremlin-style charge sheet against the West, starting with Kosovo, Iraq and Libya, continuing with “NATO’s aggressive expansion”, and, of course denouncing the supremacy of the dollar, Western sanctions policy and so on.

The conceptual meeting point of all those of a Eurasianist persuasion in foreign policy is the doctrine of non-intervention, long cherished by every autocrat past and present. This is where Eurasianists come closest to the more extreme, isolationist versions of Bloc Multipolarists.

  1. The Classical Primacy School. The Primacists are conservative realists who essentially take their cue from “the greatest generation” of statesmen and strategists: the conquerors of the Second World War and the creators of the post-war world order – from Eisenhower, Marshall, Truman and Acheson to Churchill, Bevin or Ismay and many others – with its international institutions and security system grounded in American military power and informed by a sober understanding of what war means. For all these same reasons, Primacists are often dismissed as out of touch with today’s “realities”, intellectual relics from a bygone age.

Essentially the Primacists are old-school Machiavellians who care about mantenere lo Stato, a phrase which in today’s globalised world we may adapt as maintaining the status quo. They are proud of the historical achievements of the West and believe that the postwar world order has worked well in the interests of Western peoples – and that the first priority is to try to maintain and shore it up.

Unlike the Multipolarists, Primacists are not declinists: while acknowledging the West’s problems they are not ready to throw in the towel. They retain an optimistic view of what the Western alliance, led by America, can still achieve – if it gets its act together. 

They differ from the Postmodern Globalists too, in that the Primacist view of the world is based on power, not on constructivist notions like “rules-based international order”. They are realists in the Kissingerian (rather than Bismarckian, or Realpolitik) mould, which is to say they hold to a form of higher realism that prioritises the role of power over morals not from an inherent amorality but because they understand that without victory in the geopolitical competition no defence of liberal principles is possible at all.

The Primacist prescription for strategic policy centres on old-school military competition, and even roll-back: restoring the West’s military capacity, and strengthening its political-military alliances, in order to secure or recover strategic positions around the globe in order to contain and balance-out the power of the new Axis of Russia, Iran and China.

They are fundamentally optimistic about the West’s underlying resources and ability to reform and bounce back from its current low ebb, and they tend to believe that adversaries like China and Russia have more and deeper problems of their own than commonly acknowledged.

Classical Primacy, as its name implies, rests atop the classical tradition of what today we call “strategic thinking”, going back to Thucydides. It draws on the body of knowledge about the conduct of war – the quintessential issue in relations between independent polities – as revealed by historical experience.

In other words, it precedes the multiplicity of “international relations theories” and the reams of “intellectual” contortions about foreign policy produced from the 20th century onwards with the academic mainstreaming of these subjects. It also operates not with “values” – another innovation of modern politics – but with “principles”.

Classical Primacy reflects the true, natural or common-sense realism of statecraft throughout the ages – well summarised by Machiavelli in The Prince – which, quite sensibly, holds that being first in the pecking order of your surrounding “system” is the best position, and that achieving and maintaining that status is a matter of (military) power coupled with cunning, self-serving diplomacy – including useful alliances and other means of influence.

So there isn’t much room, under the banner of this School, with its rich heritage, for significantly distinct sub-currents or branches; but two dispositions or flavours of Classical Primacy may be usefully noted as applied to the context of our times.

The first is Reactionary Primacy, now a vanishingly-small faction which is essentially driven by an imperial mindset and that concentrates the more hardcore-radical and intransigent energies and perspectives found amongst Classical Primacists.

The Reactionaries of this school are adamant that we need to double down on the postwar paradigm of Western power, American exceptionalism and a US-led “free world”, while driving hard reforms at home and ditching all distinctively liberal-internationalist prescriptions.

The second grouping comprises the Transactional Primacists who likewise subscribe to all the headline beliefs of Classical Primacy – especially the vital, bottom-line need for a strong America as the prime mover and ordering power in the world – but are more flexible on the methods for achieving that bottom-line. As shown in these pages, Donald Trump is a representative of this sub-category – as is, by and large, Elbridge Colby.

Transactional Primacists take perhaps a too honest view of the problems with Western power, thus running the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. They are willing to reprioritise foreign policy goals and to acknowledge that not all aspects of the status quo can be saved in the first instance – hence the retrenchment calls from figures like Colby for the US to switch focus from Europe to Asia, which are wrongly read as a form of American “retreat”.

Transactional Primacists are therefore ready to leave room for détente and tactical adjustment of the international system by negotiation with the autocracies – but, crucially, from a position of strength. This essentially harks back to the Kissingerian conception of détente – and especially its de facto successful implementation under Reagan – recently re-articulated in a typically expert fashion by Niall Ferguson.

The struggle for influence

Naturally, all these foreign policy schools of thought correspond or are connected to political movements. Their influence over the actual policy direction of key Western powers – and, eventually, the West as a collective of free and open nations – is therefore strongly tied to the electoral fortunes of their political associates.

The Postmodern Globalists still rule across most of the West, but the Liberal Internationalist elite is now on the backfoot, squeezed between the “second coming” of Applebaum-type Neocon hawks (and their European equivalents, like Kaja Kallas) on the back of the Ukraine war, and the rise of the Engagement Policycentrists who are driven by China’s growing power.

The Eurasianists are currently confined to the far Right fringes of the European political community and to some of the true-isolationist groupings in the United States.

Theirs might look like a hopeless cause, but a more correct analogy is with the completely marginal position occupied by the Bolsheviks right up to 1917. A war that went the wrong way for the Imperial establishment of the time and a political revolution run by incompetents suddenly opened the way for a shock Bolshevik takeover at lightning speed. So the Eurasianists should not be dismissed as a false problem.

In their turn, Reactionary Primacists look to be the weakest grouping. They are fighting a rearguard political-cultural battle against both postmodern liberal extremism and the radical, populist backlash – while their foreign policy solutions involve such high levels of military spending and economic re-orientation of Western states as to be practically unfeasible except in a revolutionary situation.

Nonetheless, they are closest to the mark, at least in theory, in terms of what needs to be done; and their arguments can help stiffen up others who reject the notion of inevitable Western decline.

But the most interesting and also important intellectual battle over foreign policy in this period is that between the Bloc Polycentrists and the Transactional Primacists.

Both claim a “realist” reading of the global balance of power, recognising that the West is in decline. But the former believe it’s irreversible and want to save what they can from the Western position through appeasement dressed up as “accommodation”, while the latter believe it’s still all to play for and have a hardnosed recovery agenda centred on re-building our strength and confronting our adversaries.

Who will win this Game of (foreign policy) Camps is no mere academic question: the outcome will determine the West’s future.