The Skeptics

Just How Much Offshore Balancing Do We Really Need?

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have an article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs making the case for offshore balancing. In many respects, it is a familiar argument. Both men have been full-throated advocates for offshore balancing for years, and they make a very strong case. Walt previewed the argument at last month’s Advancing American Security conference, which drew a large crowd.

Indeed, the case for offshore balancing is not new, but the foreign policy elite remains as committed as ever to fixing the world’s problems. That requires an active foreign policy and frequent military interventions. The public harbors deep doubts about such an ambitious grand strategy, with 57 percent of Americans in a recent Pew poll agreeing with the idea that the United States should “deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs the best they can.” At a recent dinner meeting that I attended, a number of the elites lamented the public’s reluctance to get involved in distant disputes, with one complaining that Iraq seemed to cast too long a shadow. “Can’t we just get over it?” he seemed to be saying. Another placed the blame squarely on Barack Obama who had, she said, failed to make the case for global leadership.

It took the only elected official in the room to bring the discussion back down to earth. This rising star explained that there were only two cases in recent memory that he would characterize as “supermarket moments”, when his constituents were so exercised about an issue that they came up to him in the supermarket to make their opinions known: the debate over Obamacare, and Obama’s proposal to intervene in the Syrian civil war in August 2013. In the latter instance, the message was crystal clear—the United States should stay out. (This anecdotal evidence is corroborated by similar stories and polling data at the time.)

I consider myself an offshore balancer of sorts, though Mearsheimer and Walt might disagree. Without getting too cute about it, our differences revolve around how much balancing is necessary, and how far offshore one can be in order to satisfy offshore balancing requirements. For example, does over-the-horizon count as offshore? I think so. And does the international system resemble a game of Jenga, when even the slightest false move threatens to topple the whole edifice? Or is it generally stable and resilient, able to withstand the occasional small skirmishes and disruptions?

Mearsheimer and Walt imply the latter, and fix on a narrow conception of when active balancing is required. Under offshore balancing, they explain in the Foreign Affairs article, “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.” The need for balancing, therefore, depends upon the behavior of a few potential rising regional powers, and the other countries in the region who should take the lead in checking them. If such a challenger seems poised to upset the regional order, and if others are unable to prevent it, then the United States could come in to tip the scales back to the status quo ante.

The implication in their article is that such instances are rare. “The aim,” they continue, “is to remain offshore as long as possible, while recognizing that it is sometimes necessary to come onshore.” This is not rare enough for my tastes. There are very few instances in which it is necessary for the United States to behave this way to restore regional balances. The exceptions to the rule of nonintervention are worthy of serious discussion.