The curious case of offshore balancing
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.