Offshore balancing does not mean that the United States should ignore the rest of the world. But it should maintain a substantially lower profile outside of Northeast Asia, Europe and the Gulf, and it should rely on diplomacy and economic statecraft, not military force, to protect its interests in areas of little strategic importance. Washington should also get out of the business of trying to spread democracy around the globe, and more generally acting as if we have the right and the responsibility to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries. This behavior, which violates the all-important principle of self-determination, not only generates resentment toward the United States, but also gets us involved in nation building, which invariably leads to no end of trouble.
Specifically, offshore balancing is the best grand strategy for ameliorating our terrorism problem. Placing American troops in the Arab and Muslim world is a major cause of terrorist attacks against the United States, as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape’s research shows. Remember what happened after President Ronald Reagan sent marines into Beirut in 1982? A suicide bomber blew up their barracks the following year, killing 241 service members. Reagan had the good sense to quickly pull the remaining marines out of Lebanon and keep them offshore. And it is worth noting that the perpetrators of this act did not pursue us after we withdrew.
Reagan’s decision was neither surprising nor controversial, because the United States had an offshore-balancing strategy in the Middle East during this period. Washington relied on Iraq to contain Iran during the 1980s, and kept the rapid-deployment force—which was built to intervene in the Gulf if the local balance of power collapsed—at the ready should it be needed. This was smart policy.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the United States, once again acting as an offshore balancer, moved large numbers of troops into Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait. After the war was won and victory was consolidated, those troops should have been pulled out of the region. But that did not happen. Rather, Bill Clinton adopted a policy of dual containment—checking both Iran and Iraq instead of letting them check one another. And lest we forget, the resulting presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons that Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States. The Bush administration simply made a bad situation even worse.
Sending the U.S. military into countries in the Arab and Muslim world is helping to cause our terrorism problem, not solve it. The best way to fix this situation is to follow Ronald Reagan’s example and pull all American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, then deploy them over the horizon as part of an offshore-balancing strategy. To be sure, the terrorist challenge would not completely disappear if the United States went back to offshore balancing, but it would be an important step forward.
Next is to address the other causes, like Washington’s unyielding support for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Indeed, Bill Clinton recently speculated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for about half of the terrorism we face. Of course, this is why the Obama administration says it wants to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But given the lack of progress in solving that problem, and the fact that it is going to take at least a few years to get all of the American troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we will be dealing with al-Qaeda for the foreseeable future.
Offshore balancing is also a better policy than global dominance for combating nuclear proliferation. It has two main virtues. It calls for using military force in only three regions of the world, and even then, only as a matter of last resort. America would still carry a big stick with offshore balancing but would wield it much more discreetly than it does now. As a result, the United States would be less threatening to other countries, which would lessen their need to acquire atomic weapons to protect themselves from a U.S. attack.
Furthermore, because offshore balancing calls for Washington to help local powers contain aspiring regional hegemons in Northeast Asia, Europe and the Gulf, there is no reason that it cannot extend its nuclear umbrella over its allies in those areas, thus diminishing their need to have their own deterrents. Certainly, the strategy is not perfect: some allies will want their own nuclear weapons out of fear that the United States might not be there for them in a future crisis; and some of America’s adversaries will still have powerful incentives to acquire a nuclear arsenal. But all things considered, offshore balancing is still better than global dominance for keeping proliferation in check.
Oddly enough, before being blown off course by 9/11, the Bush administration realized the most serious challenge that the United States is likely to face in the decades ahead is dealing with a rising China. If the People’s Republic grows economically over the next thirty years the way it has in recent decades, it is likely to translate its economic might into military power and try to dominate Asia as the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. But no American leader will accept that outcome, which means that Washington will seek to contain Beijing and prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. We can expect the United States to lead a balancing coalition against China that includes India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, among others.
Of course, America would check China’s rise even if it were pursuing global dominance. Offshore balancing, however, is better suited to the task. For starters, attempting to dominate the globe encourages the United States to fight wars all around the world, which not only wears down its military in peripheral conflicts, but also makes it difficult to concentrate its forces against China. This is why Beijing should hope that the American military remains heavily involved in Afghanistan and Iraq for many years to come. Offshore balancing, on the other hand, is committed to staying out of fights in the periphery and concentrating instead on truly serious threats.
Another virtue of offshore balancing is its emphasis on getting other countries to assume the burden of containing an aspiring regional hegemon. Global dominators, in contrast, see the United States as the indispensable nation that must do almost all of the heavy lifting to make containment work. But this is not a smart strategy because the human and economic price of checking a powerful adversary can be great, especially if war breaks out. It almost always makes good sense to get other countries to pay as many of those costs as possible while preserving one’s own power. The United States will have to play a key role in countering China, because its Asian neighbors are not strong enough to do it by themselves, but an America no longer weakened by unnecessary foreign intervention will be far more capable of checking Beijing’s ambitions.
Offshore balancing costs considerably less money than does global dominance, allowing America to better prepare for the true threats it faces. This is in good part because this strategy avoids occupying and governing countries in the developing world and therefore does not require large armies trained for counterinsurgency. Global dominators naturally think that the United States is destined to fight more wars like Afghanistan and Iraq, making it essential that we do counterinsurgency right the next time. This is foolish thinking, as both of those undertakings were unnecessary and unwinnable. Washington should go to great lengths to avoid similar future conflicts, which would allow for sharp reductions in the size of the army and marine corps. Instead, future budgets should privilege the air force and especially the navy, because they are the key services for dealing with a rising China. The overarching goal, however, should be to take a big slice out of the defense budget to help reduce our soaring deficit and pay for important domestic programs. Offshore balancing is simply the best grand strategy for dealing with al-Qaeda, nuclear proliferators like North Korea and the potential threat from China.
Perhaps most importantly, moving toward a strategy of offshore balancing would help us tame our fearsome national-security state, which has grown alarmingly powerful since 9/11. Core civil liberties are now under threat on the home front and the United States routinely engages in unlawful behavior abroad. Civilian control of the military is becoming increasingly problematic as well. These worrisome trends should not surprise us; they are precisely what one expects when a country engages in a broadly defined and endless global war against terror and more generally commits itself to worldwide hegemony. Never-ending militarization invariably leads to militarism and the demise of cherished liberal values. It is time for the United States to show greater restraint and deal with the threats it faces in smarter and more discerning ways. That means putting an end to America’s pursuit of global dominance and going back to the time-honored strategy of offshore balancing.Image: Pullquote: The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight.Essay Types: Essay