Retreating Ashore: The Flaws Of Offshore Balancing – Analysis


By Frank G. Hoffman*

(FPRI) — The current issue of Foreign Affairs contains an article promoting a distinctive U.S. grand strategy, penned by two established scholars, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Steve Walt.  These academics combine their intellects and advocate a clear alternative to today’s strategy of deep engagement and the prevailing, but weakening, consensus on the role of the United States in the world. Their proposal has profound implications for U.S. diplomacy, global influence, and military spending.  This is a strategy that directly contradicts the policy inclinations of the presumptive Democratic nominee running in the upcoming U.S. Presidential campaign.  But it does reflect elements that have been heard from several other contenders including Mr. Trump.

Their article reminds me of the quip about the Holy Roman Empire: the empire was not very holy and was certainly not Roman in character.  Likewise, Mearsheimer and Walt’s strategy of Offshore Balancing (OSB) really does not have anything to do with being “offshore” and it does not balance either.  A more accurate appellation would be “Retreat Ashore” or “Come Home and Hope.”

Offshore balancing is a well-recognized strategy advocated by a wide range of academics as an alternative U.S. grand strategy for the United States.  However, different advocates use the same term to cover a range of possible strategies for the United States that include outright retrenchment to a detached form of presumed strategic primacy.  Mearsheimer and Walt are among the alchemists in the former category.  What is common amongst these advocates is a desire to pull back, take less risks, seek far less engagement with the world, and step back from today’s allies, partners, and forward bases and a make a sharp shift to the Continental United States.

To its advocates, Offshore Balancing has three particular virtues that are appealing.  First, it would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the chances that the United States would get involved in another conflict like Iraq.  Since America need not control the Middle East on a day-to-day basis with its own forces; it can focus on other priorities while also making sure that no other foreign power establishes hegemonic status in the region.  Collecting intelligence and maintaining pre-positioned equipment, however, are okay.

Next, Offshore Balancing rejects the use of military force to reshape the politics of the region or conduct engagement projects.  It avoids what the authors call “social engineering” and avoid meddling in local politics by promoting democracy.  Like many libertarians and advocates of retrenchment or Strategic Restraint, this strategy seeks to avoid intensive or frequent entanglements or any international role or effort not directly tied to core U.S. interests.

Third, as the offshore balancer, the United States would be in the position to husband its own resources, and keep its powder dry until absolutely necessary. “By husbanding U.S. strength,” Professors Mearsheimer and Walt note, “offshore balancing would preserve U.S. primacy far into the future and safeguard liberty at home.”

By not seeking hegemony or primacy in global affairs, OSB precludes any extensive forward presence or global police duty.  Instead of protecting our own interests in key regions, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that “…the United States should turn to regional forces as the first line of defense, letting them uphold the balance of power in their own neighborhood.”  This allows the United States to carefully preserve its limited power, attention and resources for critical tasks.  Some argue that it shifts burdens from our treasury to that of others—presuming that others are willing and able to step up to that role and do so in a positive way.  Both are big assumptions that are worth examining critically.  Rather than balancing, their argument is more about avoiding imperial pretensions and encourage more burden sharing.  Instead of balancing, it is about shifting risks, costs, and burdens:

Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: pre­serving U.S. 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 encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.

Another alleged benefit is this strategy is that it sheds burdens on us and forces our allies to take up their own defense investments.  The chief benefit of this concept is the presumption that it costs less compared to the current strategy and its large defense expenditures.  As one advocate, Texas A&M’s Christopher Layne, maintains, “A strategy of preponderance  is burdensome, Sisyphean, and profoundly risky.” Mearsheimer and Walt agree, “in general, Washington should pass the buck to regional powers.”

While Offshore Balancing claims some historical evidence and some relevant geostrategic advantages as the basis for an American strategy, there are a few distinct disadvantages from a pragmatic perspective.  By passing the buck, Mearsheimer and Walt want to have their cake (America’s core interests preserved) and eat it too (a smaller and less costly defense establishment).   The authors note that the U.S. represents only 46% of the NATO Alliance’s aggregate GDP but that our defense spending “contributes” 75% of NATO’s military spending.  This is a canard however, as it compares the total US defense establishment as if all these resources were devoted to the defense of NATO countries.  Obviously, U.S. defense spending far exceeds the regional-oriented European states.  Just as obviously the $535B U.S. defense budget includes resources for homeland defense, military health care, a large American R&D establishment, numerous domestic military bases, and a sizable strategic deterrent. Some of our budget directly supports either our own homeland security or our interests in Asia.  But these resources are not directly related to NATO defense and thus the comparison is meaningless.  Untested by the pair is the presumption that by withdrawing our forces from Europe and Korea, there will be substantial savings.

Some advocates of this approach would abandon many, if not all, of America’s treaties and security obligations.  Walt and Mearsheimer are vague on this in their Foreign Affairs article but many advocates explicitly reject NATO or our bilateral Pacific partners as obligations.  Dr. Mearsheimer has called for U.S. withdrawal from NATO  in the past. No mention is made about other allies or partners, and presumably Israel is also left adrift to care for itself, until it is nearly overrun.

The biggest flaw in their argument involves allied state behavior if this strategy became operative. This approach argues that it exploits the capabilities of regional players in their own neighborhood where they have vital interests in order to preserve stability.  Instead of risking resource overstretch by the extensive investment in building up and posturing U.S. military forces around the globe, Japan, South Korea and our NATO allies would be expected to provide more for their own national and regional security commensurate with their interests.  These major regional powers would police themselves in their interaction with other powers.

But this assumes that regional powers share our interests and have the will and capacity to stabilize the region.  China’s actions (and Russia’s in the Black Sea or Iran’s in the Persian Gulf) suggest that these assumptions are frail.  Mearsheimer and Walt fail to consider the possibility that such countries will not take advantage or operate against U.S. allies negatively.  Their hope is an illusion belied by the rising level of geopolitical competition of the last several years.  Withdrawal from East Asia and the Pacific or Europe is not likely to have a stabilizing effect on these region.  This produces a very reactive strategy that arguably increases the chances of a war breaking out, for example in Korea or in the South China Sea.

The fourth problem relates to the law of unintended consequences.  As Dr. Hal Brands has noted, this version of OSB appears to offer numerous benefits at little risk, but in fact, the risks and liabilities including greater nuclear proliferation, are indeed quite significant.   Critical allies like Japan would face a stark choice having to hedge against a lack of commitment from the United States and would need to appease or negotiate a subservient position to Chinese hegemonyOther scholars have noted this particular fatal flaw in OSB:

In East Asia today, U.S. allies rely on U.S. reassurance to navigate increasingly fraught relationships with a more assertive China precisely because they understand that they will have great trouble balancing Beijing on their own. A significant U.S. retrenchment might therefore tempt these countries to acquiesce to, or bandwagon with, a rising China if they felt that prospects for successful resistance were diminishing as the United States retreated.

A related strategic and operational disadvantage that Mearsheimer and Walt fail to recognize is the presumption that U.S. forces will have the capability to regain access to key regions during crises.  Offshore balancing places our forces back at home, far from future flashpoints.  The further one distances U.S. capabilities from its interests in critical regions of the world, the slower and harder it is to make an effective response.

Having abandoned Asia or the Middle East, returning after being absent for some time is not a matter of simply sailing back.  Having unburdened ourselves of forward stationed forces and basing, port and airfield infrastructure will be needed to deploy forces at great distances, we should be more realistic about the time and cost involved in generating combat power overseas in the absence of access.  Regaining access and bringing forces to bear will be harder and take longer for future U.S. Presidents under such a strategy. Embedded in OSB is the notion that American credibility, commitment and capabilities can be “surged” at will.  That’s not how the world works.  More likely, our perceived detachment would undercut U.S. crisis management actions and our diplomacy.  Certainly, it would make U.S. policy actions reactive and belated.

My preferred alternative to OSB was published in Orbis several years ago.  This option, which I deliberately titled “Forward Partnership,” rejects OSB’s assumptions, its reactive character, and reduces the distance it puts between the U.S. and its friends.  This strategy accepts that unilateral action in this century is a bankrupt method and that alliances and multilateral responses are in our interests.  This strategy embraces the need to engage broadly with designated partners and friends to preserve regional stability without extensive forward-stationed forces.  As suggested by the name, this strategy operates forward with alliances and partners to leverage cooperative and preventive actions to preclude conflicts before they occur.  It uses forward-deployed naval power and Special Operations Force assets to generate and sustain preventive actions and promote true partnerships (vice dependencies).  The strategy focuses on critical national interests in the global commons, ensuring access to critical markets and resources, for ourselves and our partners.  Rather than husbanding our forces ashore in California or Norfolk this strategy is forward with our partners, retaining our regional access, our influence, and our interoperability with our friends.  Far better than detachment, this strategy is more reassuring and actually balances.  It also provides a flexible deterrent posture that is able to move where and when needed.  This element, flexible presence without costly stationary posture, is a far better tool for balancing than what Mearsheimer and Walt offer.

In short, OSB–as presented by academics–is less of a strategy about how to secure U.S. interests more efficiently, and is more of a dodge.  As presented, it is not a strategy that advances our core interests. Overall, this strategic approach cedes the initiative and our national interests to another power until that power, a friend or foe, takes actions that we deem unacceptable. There is something to be said for restricting imperial overstretch and for calibrating U.S. interests with greater discipline, but sacrificing U.S. leadership and contributions to global stability is simply a retreat, and one that is ill-timed.

If there was a strategy destined to accelerate the unraveling of world order, and the establishment of the United States as accelerator to the demise of global stability, this is it.  Certainly, in the face of rising revisionist powers and constrained resources, we should not ignore the value of collective security.  Surely, as Jakub Grygiel has persuasively argued, we can do more to arm our allies along the frontiers of freedom.  Nor should we shrink from the embattled peripheral countries where allies and partners are particularly vulnerable and where collective defense is needed to stand up to coercive states.

If adopted at this point in history, OSB would just represent another distinct step toward the disintegration of Europe and the alliance structure that has underwritten peace and prosperity for the last generation.  Rather than husband U.S. resources, it abdicates our leadership position, abandons friends and allies, and dismisses our ability to shape events.  On one hand it minimizes the possibility of making foreign policy mistakes and eliminates entanglements.  But it only does that by increasing instability however, and ensures that U.S. forces will arrive belatedly and at a disadvantage.  We need a strategy that avoids being the Crusader State, without abandoning friends and encouraging opponents. This strategy reenacts the myths of Splendid Isolation that some British policy makers mistook for strategy in the last century.   Mearsheimer and Walt’s version, one we might call Delighted Detachment, would be an even worse disaster.

OSB, as presented, is a strategy that makes a virtue out of ignoring strategic interests, eluding obligations and responsibilities, and avoiding disciplined strategic choices.  Were we living in the 1990s, at the apex of the Unipolar Era, this strategy would be relevant.  Today, it risks power vacuums, entices regional aggression, and puts U.S. military forces at both a strategic and operational disadvantage.  Developing a more viable strategy, without these defects, will be a critical task for the next President.

About the author:
*Dr. Hoffman
is a member of the FPRI Board of Advisors and a longstanding contributor to Orbis.  He currently works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington DC. This entry reflects Dr. Hoffman’s personal views and are not those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

This article was published by FPRI.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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