The (Almost) Triumph of Offshore Balancing

The fact of U.S. decline is undeniable. A new grand strategy is in order.

Although cloaked in the reassuring boilerplate about American military preeminence and global leadership, in reality the Obama administration’s new Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) is the first step in the United States’ adjustment to the end of the Pax Americana—the sixty-year period of dominance that began in 1945. As the Pentagon document says—without spelling out the long-term grand-strategic implications—the United States is facing “an inflection point.” In plain English, a profound power shift in international politics is taking place, which compels a rethinking of the U.S. world role.

The DSG is a response to two drivers. First, the United States is in economic decline and will face a serious fiscal crisis by the end of this decade. As President Obama said, the DSG reflects the need to “put our fiscal house in order here at home and renew our long-term economic strength.” The best indicators of U.S. decline are its GDP relative to potential competitors and its share of world manufacturing output. China’s manufacturing output has now edged past that of the United States and accounts for just over 18 or 19 percent of world manufacturing output. With respect to GDP, virtually all leading economic forecasters agree that, measured by market-exchange rates, China’s aggregate GDP will exceed that of the United States by the end of the current decade. Measured by purchasing-power parity, some leading economists believe China already is the world’s number-one economy. Clearly, China is on the verge of overtaking the United States economically. At the end of this decade, when the ratio of U.S. government debt to GDP is likely to exceed the danger zone of 100 percent, the United States will face a severe fiscal crisis. In a June 2011 report, the Congressional Budget Office warned that unless Washington drastically slashes expenditures—including on entitlements and defense—and raises taxes, it is headed for a fiscal train wreck. Moreover, concerns about future inflation and America’s ability to repay its debts could imperil the U.S. dollar’s reserve-currency status. That currency status allows the United States to avoid difficult “guns-or-butter” trade-offs and live well beyond its means while enjoying entitlements at home and geopolitical preponderance abroad. But that works only so long as foreigners are willing to lend the United States money. Speculation is now commonplace about the dollar’s long-term hold on reserve-currency status. It would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

The second driver behind the new Pentagon strategy is the shift in global wealth and power from the Euro-Atlantic world to Asia. As new great powers such as China and, eventually, India emerge, important regional powers such as Russia, Japan, Turkey, Korea, South Africa and Brazil will assume more prominent roles in international politics. Thus, the post-Cold War “unipolar moment,” when the United States commanded the global stage as the “sole remaining superpower,” will be replaced by a multipolar international system. The Economist recently projected that China’s defense spending will equal that of the United States by 2025. By the middle or end of the next decade, China will be positioned to shape a new international order based on the rules and norms that it prefers—and, perhaps, to provide the international economy with a new reserve currency.

Two terms not found in the DSG are “decline” and “imperial overstretch” (the latter coined by the historian Paul Kennedy to describe the consequences when a great power’s economic resources can’t support its external ambitions). But, although President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may not admit it, the DSG is the first move in what figures to be a dramatic strategic retrenchment by the United States over the next two decades.

This retrenchment will push to the fore a new U.S. grand strategy—offshore balancing. In a 1997 article in International Security, I argued that offshore balancing would displace America’s primacy strategy because it would prove difficult to sustain U.S. primacy in the face of emerging new powers and the erosion of U.S. economic dominance. Even in 1997, it was foreseeable that as U.S. advantages eroded, there would be strong pressures for the United States to bring its commitments into line with its shrinking economic base. This would require scaling back the U.S. military presence abroad; setting clear strategic priorities; devolving the primary responsibility for maintaining security in Europe and East Asia to regional actors; and significantly reducing the size of the U.S. military. Subsequent to that article, offshore balancing has been embraced by other leading American thinkers, including John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble and Robert Pape.

To be sure, the proponents of offshore balancing have differing ideas about its specifics. But they all agree that offshore balancing is based on a common set of core strategic principles.

● 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).