The cu­ri­ous case of off­shore bal­anc­ing

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Daniel W Drezner The writer is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplo­macy at Tufts Uni­ver­sity.

THE cur­rent is­sue of For­eign Af­fairs con­tains the lat­est ad vice about grand strat­egy from uber-re­al­ists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Case for Off­shore Bal­anc­ing: A Su­pe­rior US Grand Strat­egy.” Some of the open­ing para­graphs: Amer­i­cans’ dis­taste for the pre­vail­ing grand strat­egy should come as no sur­prise, given its abysmal record over the past quar­ter cen­tury. Asia, In­dia, Pak­istan, and North Korea are ex­pand­ing their nu­clear ar­se­nals, and China is chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo in re­gional wa­ters. In Europe, Rus­sia has an­nexed Crimea, and US re­la­tions with Moscow have sunk to new lows since the Cold War. US forces are still fight­ing in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no vic­tory in sight. De­spite los­ing most of its orig­i­nal lead­ers, al Qaeda has metas­ta­sized across the re­gion. The Arab world has fallen into tur­moil — in good part due to the United States’ de­ci­sions to ef­fect regime change in Iraq and Libya and its mod­est ef­forts to do the same in Syria — and the Is­lamic State or ISIS, has emerged out of the chaos. Re­peated US at­tempts to bro­ker Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace have failed, leav­ing a two-state so­lu­tion fur­ther away than ever. Mean­while, democ­racy has been in re­treat world­wide, and the United States’ use of tor­ture, tar­geted killings, and other morally du­bi­ous prac­tices has tar­nished its im­age as a de­fender of hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law. …

There is a bet­ter way. By pur­su­ing a strat­egy of “off­shore bal­anc­ing,” Wash­ing­ton would forgo am­bi­tious ef­forts to re­make other so­ci­eties and con­cen­trate on what re­ally mat­ters: pre-serv­ing US dom­i­nance in the Western Hemi­sphere and coun­ter­ing po­ten­tial hege­mons in Europe, North­east Asia, and the Per­sian Gulf. In­stead of polic­ing the world, the United States would en- courage other coun­tries to take the lead in check­ing rising pow­ers, in­ter­ven­ing it­self only when nec­es­sary. This does not mean aban­don­ing the United States’ po­si­tion as the world’s sole su­per­power or re­treat­ing to “Fortress Amer­ica.” Rather, by hus­band­ing US strength, off­shore bal­anc­ing would pre­serve US pri­macy far into the fu­ture and safe­guard liberty at home. …

Un­der off­shore bal­anc­ing, the United States would cal­i­brate its mil­i­tary pos­ture ac­cord­ing to the dis­tri­bu­tion of power in the three key re­gions. If there is no po­ten­tial hege­mon in sight in Europe, North­east Asia, or the Gulf, then there is no rea­son to de­ploy ground or air forces there and lit­tle need for a large mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment at home. And be­cause it takes many years for any coun­try to ac­quire the ca­pac­ity to dom­i­nate its re­gion, Wash­ing­ton would see it com­ing and have time to re­spond.

The es­say is new but the idea is pretty old. Off­shore bal­anc­ing has been around for a while — it’s in Mearsheimer’s “Tragedy of Great Power Pol­i­tics,” for ex­am­ple. But the ar­ti­cle does up­date how the con­cept of off­shore bal­anc­ing would ap­ply to the present sit­u­a­tion. Mearsheimer and Walt’s con­crete pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude: “Es­chew­ing so­cial engi­neer­ing [i.e., democ­racy pro­mo­tion] and min­i­miz­ing the United States’ mil­i­tary foot-print” abroad. In North­east Asia, “rely on lo­cal pow­ers to con­tain China” while recog­nis­ing that this strat­egy “might not work,” at which point the United States should “throw its con­sid­er­able weight be­hind them.” “In Europe, the United States should end its mil­i­tary pres­ence and turn NATO over to the Euro­peans.”

“With re­spect to ISIS, the United States should let the re­gional pow­ers deal with that group and limit its own ef­forts to pro­vid­ing arms, in­tel­li­gence, and mil­i­tary train­ing.” “In Syria, the United States should let Rus­sia take the lead.” “For now, the United States should pur­sue bet­ter re­la­tions with Iran.”

And now I am very puz­zled, be­cause there are three prob­lems that I can’t sort out af­ter read­ing this es­say. First, just how dis­tinct is off­shore bal­anc­ing from the sta­tus quo of “lib­eral hege­mony”? Both strate­gies are com­fort­able with US hege­mony in the Western hemi­sphere. Be­cause Mearsheimer and Walt ac­knowl­edge China’s con­tin­ued rise, both strate­gies ad­vo­cate the US re­bal­ance to East Asia. Off­shore bal­anc­ing is em­phatic about light­en­ing the US mil­i­tary foot­print and aban­don­ing regime change in the Mid­dle East. But, hey, what do you know, Pres­i­dent Obama feels the same! In­deed, Mearsheimer and Walt’s ob­ses­sion with the ills of democ­racy pro­mo­tion is par­tic­u­larly puz­zling, be­cause this is a plank of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy that has been slowly de-em­pha­sized over the past decade. My ba­sic point, how­ever, is that right now there is way more over­lap be­tween off­shore bal­anc­ing and the sta­tus quo that they would care to ad­mit.

The over­lap is not per­fect, how­ever, which leads to the sec­ond puz­zle: How is off­shore bal­anc­ing sup­posed to deal with Rus­sia? That is clearly the coun­try where off­shore bal­anc­ing de­vi­ates the most from the sta­tus quo. And al­though I share Mearsheimer and Walt’s scep­ti­cism about Rus­sia aug­ment­ing its great power sta­tus any fur­ther, I’m far less san­guine about choos­ing this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment to sig­nal US dis­en­gage­ment from Europe. Rus­sia might not ac­tu­ally be a po­ten­tial hege­mon for all of Europe, but Moscow is sure act­ing like it thinks it could be.

Off­shore bal­ancers tend to think that states that ex­ag­ger­ate their own great power ca­pa­bil­i­ties even­tu­ally burn out. That is true in the long run. In the short run, how­ever, mat­ters tend to be far messier, as res­i­dents in Ukraine and the Baltics would note. I’m way more com­fort­able with the role that US de­ter- rence plays in Europe right now than Mearsheimer and Walt. Ideas such as “turn­ing NATO over to Europe” are the kind of moves that lead to se­vere cri­tiques of aca­demic re­al­ism:

Re­al­ism to­day is un­recog­nis­able from its an­tecedents. It pro­poses to vol­un­tar­ily dis­solve an or­der that is quite popular in Europe and Asia on the ba­sis of an untested the­ory. To dis­band or greatly weaken Amer­ica’s tra­di­tional al­liances, ei­ther tac­itly or for­mally, would be a revolutionary act. It would surely shake the equi­lib­rium. Clas­si­cal re­al­ists would have re­coiled at such an ex­per­i­ment. Mod­ern-day re­al­ists em­brace the prospect of chaos and uncer­tainty.

The last thing that puz­zles me is ex­actly how off­shore bal­anc­ing would fix the list of ills that Mearsheimer and Walt use to set up their ar­gu­ment for a new grand strat­egy in the first place. How, ex­actly, would off­shore bal­anc­ing stop Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion, tur­moil in the Arab world, ter­ror­ism or the democrati­sa­tion re­ces­sion? I’m pretty sure the an­swer is that off­shore bal­anc­ing would fix none of th­ese prob­lems. Rather, the strat­egy would sim­ply ad­vise Amer­i­cans not to worry so much about them. There might be some merit to this kind of ad­vice, but then you don’t get to use th­ese prob­lems as a mo­ti­va­tion to ar­tic­u­late a new strat­egy.

This elec­tion cy­cle is likely to prompt the big­gest de­bate about Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy in a gen­er­a­tion, and props to Mearsheimer and Walt for try­ing to sup­ply some in­tel­lec­tual am­mu­ni­tion to crit­ics of the sta­tus quo. I’m just not con­vinced that their in­tel­lec­tual fire­power is as po­tent as they think.

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