Why Offshore Balancing Won't Work

An analog medical balance. Pixabay/Public domain

It’s less a strategy than an attitude toward strategy.

Offshore balancing: a superior U.S. grand strategy! Unless you try to execute it—in which case doubt abounds. A strategy that’s not actionable is no strategy at all.

Over at Foreign Affairs, nevertheless, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard professor Stephen Walt are back with their latest manifesto on behalf of offshore balancing. They’re nothing if not indefatigable. Read the whole thing and hurry back.

In a nutshell, offshore-balancing proponents beseech U.S. leaders to offload less-than-pressing commitments onto powers that inhabit contested rimlands; retire from those rimlands, trusting to the “balancing” logic that beguiles scholars of “realist” leanings to keep the peace; and go back only when local powers prove incapable of keeping some overbearing neighbor in check.

The conceit is that states take league to resist would-be hegemons—and usually succeed. The gods of strategy help those who help themselves.

Professors Mearsheimer and Walt improve on most entries in the offshore-balancing genre. They say they want to preserve American primacy, both within the Western Hemisphere and preferably across the globe. They admit that—in certain extreme circumstances—Washington must forward-deploy “enough firepower to the region to shift the balance” in friendly powers’ favor. U.S. forces, then, may have to be onshore before the outbreak of war to steady the equilibrium.

And, in a passage sure to warm the hearts of Asia hands, the coauthors aim their strategy at one particular would-be hegemon. Mearsheimer and Walt entreat American leaders to undertake a “major effort” to offset a domineering China that’s accumulating the trappings of great power. Good stuff.

Part of that effort must be to halt China’s effort to rewrite the rules of the maritime legal order in the South China Sea, laying claim to a massive swathe of the global commons and its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones. How America could accomplish that from what amounts to an offshore stance—with the forces that would accomplish it stationed mainly in Japan, far to the north—remains an open question. If anything, Washington needs to boost its forward presence in Southeast Asia following last week’s ruling from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which put an end to Beijing’s claim that regional waters belong to China by right.

A China thus stung could prove tough to deal with. Accordingly, the coauthors’ approach marks a welcome turnaround from two years ago, when Mearsheimer, in the latest edition of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, pronounced it a “fact” that “present-day China does not possess significant military power.” That was far from true in 2014. It’s less and less true every day, as the People’s Liberation Army amasses armed might at sea and aloft. Credit Mearsheimer in particular for amending his views to keep pace with the times.

Especially given the concept's appeal. Offshore-balancing logic is seductive if not compelling in some respects. Concentrating effort—measured in manpower, resources of assorted types, policy energy—where it matters most is Strategy 101. Yet great powers commonly flout such teachings. They take on commitments willy-nilly, forgetting that even the mighty have limits. A great power accomplishes little if it tries to do everything, everywhere, all the time. Indiscipline attenuates its power. Economizing on commitments, by contrast, permits statesmen and commanders to deploy finite assets at a manageable number of places on the map, making themselves strong where it counts.

All that notwithstanding, great-power leaders find it hard to prune back commitments, complying with prudential logic. Why? Allies clamor for support. Theaters, campaigns, and issues attract constituencies within the foreign-policy apparatus. Constituents see “their” enterprises as commanding paramount importance, and loudly oppose cutbacks. Politicking deflects strategy making from a purely rational course.

But beyond all that, the logic of great power exhibits a ratchet-like character. Seldom do statesmen cancel commitments. Doing so, they fear, would annul their credibility as trustworthy allies, and potentially shatter the whole imperial enterprise. Historians make much of Great Britain’s pre–World War I retrenchment in the Americas and the Far East, where London negotiated understandings with local powers to safeguard its interests, precisely because shedding burdens is so rare in history.

Husbanding strength for genuinely crucial endeavors, then, is at once essential and perversely difficult. Restoring discipline to American strategic thought represents a worthwhile cause.