Europe, however, is just the start. Mearsheimer described a similar realignment of strategy needed for U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf—not, he noted, the Greater Middle East. Syria, Israel and Egypt are not of strategic importance to the United States, he said. The Gulf, in contrast, is critical to the global oil market on which the U.S. economy depends. The goal here should be for the United States to prevent the only plausible rising nation in the region, Iran, from becoming a regional hegemon. This would be achieved largely via a limited rapprochement with Tehran, seeking simply to incentivize the Islamic Republic not to dash for nuclear weapons once the recently implemented nuclear deal expires. Rapprochement, however, is unavoidable: “There is no military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem,” Mearsheimer said. Bombing Iran’s nuclear sites would only buy a few years, at best. Opening the bomb doors on a nascent nuclear program was considered and rejected before, twice, with the Soviet Union and then China. Otherwise, the United States should get out of the Persian Gulf while retaining the capability to jump back in if necessary—Mearsheimer’s “offshore balancing” strategy.
One starting point, Burt offered, is to revive the formal distinction between “ally” and “partner,” terms which have become all too interchangeable in Washington as of late. There are countries in the Middle East, Burt said, that are often called American “allies” but simply aren’t because of a lack of mutual commitments. A revival of the formal distinction would go a long way in controlling the scope of U.S. guarantees in the region.
Is Asia a different story? Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, asked the panelists whether there is a way to view China other than as a hegemon, citing the growing economic engagement and interdependence in East Asia.
“No,” responded Mearsheimer. “I believe the Chinese are bent on dominating Asia.”
“All my experience talking to Chinese leaders behind closed doors tells me they have every intention of running East Asia, eventually, the way we run the Western Hemisphere. They do not like the United States in their backyard. They talk in private about pushing us out beyond the first island chain, and then pushing us out beyond the second island chain.”
U.S. military force will be needed in the region, he concluded. U.S. allies and partners are unable to balance against China’s hegemonic ambitions on their own.
That both the president and the Republican front-runner have thrown the spotlight on the dilemmas of U.S. allies demonstrates that this has become, unexpectedly in an election year, an issue in the limelight, garnering serious consideration. For both Burt and Mearsheimer, the underlying issue remains the same: What supports U.S. security?
“The United States is a remarkably secure great power, despite all this talk about how dangerous the world is today,” Mearsheimer said. “The world is not dangerous today.” For example, he noted, getting out of the Middle East, becoming an offshore balancer, would go a long way in ameliorating (but not eliminating) America’s terrorism problem. More to the point, Mearsheimer explained, there is a clear solution to the problem of European, Gulf and Asian allies and partners demurring at the prospect of providing for their own defense in their own regions. Instead, he said, “We ought to free ride on them.”
John Richard Cookson is managing editor at the National Interest. You can follow him @JRCookson.
Image: Flickr/Naval Surface Warriors.