The Dark Reality of Off-Shore Balancing

The idea of off-shore balancing as an alternative “grand strategy” for the United States in nothing new. People like Barry Posen have been pursuing this theme actively since the 1990s. But with the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan to provoke thought and the imperatives generates by looming budgeting “austerity,” the argument has become increasingly prominent. Indeed, Chris Layne, a proponent of the view has declared the “(Almost) Triumph” of this position as embodied in the recently released Defense Strategic Guidance.

Just for clarity, let me quote Layne’s summary of the key strategic principles of this approach:

? Fiscal and economic constraints require that the United States set strategic priorities. Accordingly, the country should withdraw or downsize its forces in Europe and the Middle East and concentrate is military power in East Asia.

? America’s comparative strategic advantages rest on naval and air power, not on sending land armies to fight ground wars in Eurasia. Thus the United States should opt for the strategic precepts of Alfred Thayer Mahan (the primacy of air and sea power) over those of Sir Halford Mackinder (the primacy of land power).

? Offshore balancing is a strategy of burden shifting, not burden sharing. It is based on getting other states to do more for their security so the United States can do less.

? By reducing its geopolitical and military footprint on the ground in the Middle East, the United States can reduce the incidence of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism directed against it. Islamic terrorism is a push back against U.S. dominance and policies in the region and against on-the-ground forces in the region. The one vital U.S. interest there—safeguarding the free flow of Persian Gult oil—can be ensured largely by naval and air power.

? The United States must avoid future large-scale nation-building exercises like those in Iraq and Afghanistan and refrain from fighting wars for the purpose of attaining regime change.

Now, I am actually quite sympathetic to many of these position. But I do think that there is a certain level of disengenuousness in the way many proponents of this view make their arguments. The short version is that the argument is usually pitched as a cheaper and less provocative way of securing world order instead of the primacists’ preference for an active “policing” function.

The problem is that the offshore balancers tend to focus on the “offshore” part. That is the popular part, of course. It looks cheaper. It promises to avoid future Iraqs and Afghanistans. It suggests an tough-minded approach to the problem of free-riding. But what it does not do is acknowledge the implication of a strategy posited on the importance of “balancing.”

In an off-shore balancing world, a nation secures its interests not by contributing to the provision of public goods, but rather by ensuring that no rival becomes dominant in its sphere. It is a designed to prevent the emergences of threats, by ensuring that those threats are locally-focused and locally balanced.

Think about China. How does an off-shore balancer plan to deal with China. Well, an off-shore balancer sees rising Chinese power as a potential threat, but believes that this threat will most immediately be felt by its neighbors. As long as the United States does not take the primary role in containing China, it is assumed that this role will be taken up by its threatened neighbors, either individually or collectively. So, the off-shore balancers believe that if we limit our role in Asia, for example, some combination of India, Japan, Korea, and ASEAN will emerge to check Chinese power. Our role then becomes to ensure that neither side becomes dominant, and to intercede if major imbalances to occur.

Now, most critics of off-shore balance focus on the issue of whether local actors will respond as assumed. They fear this will not occur, and that rather without the United States in the forefront, those local actors will allow themselves to be, essentially, Finlandized. Or, if not that, that at the very least coordination problems will hamper balancing. I disagree with this criticism. I accept the off-shore balancers’ assumptions about state behavior. States will seek to balance rivals in the absense of an outside security guarantor.

The question we really need to pose is whether that is the kind of world we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world that is riven by a large number conflicts as states maneuver to balance each other internally (i.e. arms racing) and externally (i.e. alliances)? The problem with the off-shore balancer position is that it is a strategy for exploiting global disorder rather than promoting global order.

Now, the reason this approach is so appealing to Realists is that they see global disorder as the natural condition. So promoting a policy that will both encourage this “reality” and take advantage of it strikes them as eminently sound. But look, most of the realist predictions from the end of the Cold War have fallen flat. Revisit, if you will, John Mearsheimer’s “Back to the Future” piece from 1990, in which he suggests, inter alia, an explosion of hyper-nationalism in Europe and proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly to a security-conscious Germany. Now, yes, we’ve have various hiccups in the Balkans, and economic conditions are causing major stresses in Europe, but Mearsheimer’s vision of increasing security competition in Europe was simply wrong. It was not a natural, inevitable condition. The U.S. role — and indeed NATO expansion which I, like Mearsheimer, opposed — probably played a role in preventing the emergence of this sort of Europe, but also, perhaps, did other institutions and norms.

The point is, it is easy to understand why the Realists support off-shore balancing, but it is also important to note that there is good reason to believe that the Realists are overly pessimistic about the inevitability of disorder.

Now, joining the Realists are folks who argue for restraint on principle. In some cases this is economic principle, in other cases a genuine commitment to Washingtonian dictums about “entanglements.” They have a skeptical view about the ability of the U.S. to promote global order. These folks are often called isolationists, which is a wholly unfair label, but I’m just trying to situate these people in the popular debate. Think of the folks over at CATO, for instance, Chris Preble as an example. Their view, in general, is that American involvement in both costly and often counter-productive. Looking over the past decade and a half of American foreign policy, it is hard to deny that they have a point. Their take, on the whole, is not that we should adopt a Machiavellian strategy of exploiting global disorder, but rather that American policy responses are ineffective and/or inefficient. Their view is pessimistic, at least about American power. Not gleefully pessimistic like the Realists who see opportunity in the pessimism, but rather resigned to a certain degree.

Now, there is a flip-side here, namely that many of these proponents of restraint see less need for U.S. involvement, in some cases because they trust balancing to work without much U.S. intervention, in other cases because they believe norms and institutions are globally well-enough established to mute the return of full-blown power politics. Many people might consider this view naive. But, well, I think it is essentially true. I think that if you look at the emerging world powers, there is a commonality of interests in an open, liberal economic order, in which interstate aggression remains pathologized, and where states can concentrate on domestic economic development with minimal attention to security competitions.

I think even the Chinese fall in this category, despite their military buildup. Why? Well, even the Chinese are largely focused on defensive measures. We tend to see anti-access, area-denial capabilities as a threat because they may limit our ability to defend Taiwan. And indeed, they may. But, in the bigger picture, these are defensive capabilities, and, on the whole, probably stabilizing rather than destabilizing.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that while I agree with the “off-shore” part, I want to distinguish myself from the “balancer” part of the equation. And furthermore, my argument suggests the importance of continuing to work actively — through local allies ideally — to continue to build institutions and norms that will preempt security competitions. I think this is doable, but it requires active engagement. It does not require large deployments, but it does require something more than just faith in the effective functioning of balancing dynamics.

A world in which arms races and security competitions are common is not, I believe, in the United States interests. I don’t want us to be a “balancer.” The real issue, it seems to me is whether we can do more to avoid that consequence off-shore or on-shore. I don’t know the answer for sure, of course. I think greater restraint and greater cooperation will allies is the best course of action, but what I do know is that the “off-shore balancer” scheme to exploit security rivalries is fundamentally flawed.

We need to continue to focus on strategies to promote global order rather than exploiting global disorder. Hence, I think of myself as a proponent of restraint rather than “off-shore balancing.”

2 comments to The Dark Reality of Off-Shore Balancing

  • atheist

    Now, there is a flip-side here, namely that many of these proponents of restraint see less need for U.S. involvement, in some cases because they trust balancing to work without much U.S. intervention, in other cases because they believe norms and institutions are globally well-enough established to mute the return of full-blown power politics. Many people might consider this view naive. But, well, I think it is essentially true.

    Strange, isn’t it, how simple sense can seem naive? While pessimism is taken as realism? One must always be strive to clarify ones own mind and ones own perceptions. Thanks for this extended meditation on the value as well as failures of offshore balancing.

  • [...] There are two interesting pieces worth reading on offshore balancing that have come out recently, both of which deserve a read. First, there is Christopher Layne, a stalwart defender of the policy, writing in The National Interest. He offers one of the more cogent explications of the policy available, though I disagree with him on certain aspects of his explanation, or preferred implementation. Then, read this piece by Bernard Finel, whose criticism reflects an understanding of offshore balancing that is often lost ev…. [...]

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