Just How Much Offshore Balancing Do We Really Need?
The United States—“the luckiest great power in modern history”—is in a particularly strong position to act as an offshore balancer, considering the advantages afforded by geography and the world’s largest economy and the American public seems inclined to stay out of distant disputes. Why, then, haven’t we adopted an offshore balancing approach? At Cato’s “The Case for Restraint” conference earlier this month, William Ruger pointed to the “bootleggers and Baptists” explanation. For those unfamiliar with Bruce Yandle’s iconic article and recent book, two quite distinct interest groups were needed to sell and sustain prohibition during the 1920s. True believers made the case of moral grounds: demon rum and family breakdown. Bootleggers, those who benefited materially from the prohibition on alcohol sales, were anxious to preserve their ill-gotten gains. Legalizing alcohol sales would open the door to new competitors, cutting into the former law-breakers’ profits. The bootleggers and the Baptists, therefore, served as perfect (though uncomfortable and generally unacknowledged) allies.
A similar dynamic exists today. Some scholars make the case for primacy (also known as liberal hegemony or deep engagement), because they believe it is the best approach for maintaining relative global peace and stability. The individuals and firms, mostly inside the Beltway, who benefit from providing goods and services to the vast military required to execute such an ambitious grand strategy, join them. Indeed, primacy’s goals are so grandiose as to justify a nearly unlimited amount of military spending.
The key to breaking the foreign policy consensus, or at least prying it open enough to allow for consideration of competing grand strategies, might be a similar alliance between true-believer scholars such as Mearsheimer and Walt, and the taxpayer advocates and other interest groups who would like to see the nation allocate its resources differently (either in the form of less government spending and lower taxes, or different government spending).
Such temporary alliances of the willing have coalesced before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the unsettled political environment—in which an experienced liberal interventionist faces off against a mercurial amateur who has occasionally questioned the wisdom of the nation’s foreign policy—creates new unlikely bedfellows breathing life into a much-needed strategic debate.
Christopher A. Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.