Many analysts and scholars see the Asia-Pacific as the central region shaping the early 21st century. With the rise of China as both an economic and military power, the increased tension on the Korean Peninsula, and the expansion of trade flows through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, it is simply impossible to develop an effective grand strategy without accounting for developments in East Asia and the Western Pacific (1). The debate over how best to address growing challenges in Asia is complex and multifaceted (2). It requires deep knowledge of U.S. military capabilities, regional economic trends, and sociological forces shaping inter-state relations. Therefore, it is frustrating to see such a dearth of novel theorizing on how best to engage with the region (3). Of course, think tanks and academics have developed “new” theories, but in reality, these novel approaches are usually nothing more than old concepts with a new name. This lacuna is troubling because it allows deeply misguided strategies to gain support simply on account of them being radical or new. Unfortunately, we are already witnessing this dynamic in the debate over offshore balancing.
Offshore balancing has been advocated by a number of prominent realist scholars for decades, but it has never received much support from policymakers. Advocates of offshore balancing like Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Christopher Layne contend that the U.S. can safely retrench, minimizing its global military presence and intervening only when a regional power threatens to rise to the status of regional hegemon (4). To use Walt and Mearsheimer’s words, “Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary” (5). At first glance, this strategy certainly seems persuasive. With Trump supporters questioning the role of NATO and Sanders supporters arguing that the U.S. should end its frequent and often-unproductive interventions in the Middle East, there does appear to be somewhat of a domestic consensus that the U.S. should reduce its global commitments.
However, a strategy of offshore balancing comes with a number of severe risks that are often under-appreciated by academics and voters alike. It is very clear that the United States military – despite all of its aging equipment and readiness gaps – is significantly more powerful than even its closest rivals (6). However, this does not mean that the U.S. can win any and all wars it faces, and this is the biggest weakness in offshore balancing as a theory. International relations scholars in academia measure power in very abstract terms. For example, they use measurements like GDP, population size, steel production, etc. (7). While this does a fairly good job of describing the global military balance in general terms, it is insufficient for analyzing specific contingencies and scenarios. However, because neither academics nor voters are, as a general rule, experts in military strategy, they often commit the error of assuming that abstract military power means guaranteed military success.
The problem with this view is that it ignores the role that geography and individual weapons systems play in determining the outcome of a battle. Although it would be nice if the U.S. were able to station all of its soldiers at home, surging them overseas only when a regional challenge emerged, this ignores the logistical and tactical problems of deployments. Were the U.S. to withdraw its forward deployed units, it would no longer possess prepared bases in potential hotspots, thus complicating logistics. Furthermore, the U.S. would have to deploy while contending with harassment from enemy aircraft, naval units, and A2AD (anti-access area denial) weapons systems like the Chinese DF-21D (8). In other words, the U.S. would face a much more challenging deployment to hostile regions of the world were it to abandon its global presence.
It is also unclear that the U.S. would be able to maintain its fruitful security relationships with ideologically aligned states. For example, NATO forces and command networks are deeply integrated, using common designations, command structures, and aircraft control hand gestures. This may seem superficial, but it is not. The commonality found in NATO is what makes the alliance so effective: Italian helicopters can land on American destroyers in a fleet commanded by a French admiral all because NATO forces use the same organizational principles. To maintain this high level of cooperation, however, the U.S. drills constantly with NATO allies. A U.S. withdrawal from Europe would weaken inter-military ties and thus make future cooperation exceedingly difficult. Moreover, as Frank Hoffman points out in a piece for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “[offshore balancing] assumes that regional powers share our interests and have the will and capacity to stabilize the region,” but this may not be the case (9). It is not at all clear that a U.S. withdrawal from Asia would catalyze a renaissance in Japanese and South Korean defense capabilities. It is also not clear that their interests would entirely align with those of the United States. South Korea, for example, is far more sanguine about China’s rise than the U.S. and Japan are, and it would therefore be unlikely to adopt the kind of counterbalancing posture vis-à-vis China favored by the United States.
Furthermore, a withdrawal from East Asia would likely encourage nuclear weapons proliferation. U.S. security commitments to Japan, for example, have been crucial in containing Japanese leaders’ nuclear aspirations (10). Korea, too, has relied on credible U.S. security guarantees to undergird its defense posture against the North (11). With North Korea’s nuclear weapons program rapidly advancing, South Korea would be faced with tough choices were the U.S. to end its security guarantee (12). Proliferation is not guaranteed, of course. Japanese and Korean policymakers might view the repercussions of nuclear acquisition, such as sanctions or diplomatic isolation, as too severe. However, the empirical record suggests that absent external security guarantees, strong states facing acute security challenges will take extreme actions to guarantee their safety (13). Were rapid proliferation to occur, it would massively increase regional instability and raise the odds of a major conflict breaking out that pulls the United States back into the region, thus undermining the entire justification for pursuing offshore balancing. This is because new nuclear states lack the experience necessary to safely manage and organize their arsenals. Early command and control networks are often underdeveloped, and rival states are more likely to misread the intentions of new nuclear states because they lack established norms for dealing with nuclear neighbors (14).
Clearly, offshore balancing contains severe risks that vastly increase the risk of conflict breaking out in the Asia-Pacific. Why, then, does offshore balancing receive such support? The primary argument for retrenchment is that it reduces U.S. defense spending, thus yielding significant gains. With allies forced to defend themselves, the logic goes, the U.S. will be able to reduce the amount it spends. Or, as Donald Trump would put it, our allies are ripping us off and they need to pay their fair share. However, this kind of reasoning is simplistic and inaccurate because it only considers the costs of a global presence and fails to account for the economic gains. Of course maintaining a global military presence is incredibly expensive (15). However, the cost of forward deploying soldiers, ships and planes to allied territory pales in comparison to the cost of fighting a major war caused by U.S. retrenchment. In other words, U.S. forward basing is an insurance policy. It comes with a pricey premium, but that premium is more than justified given the grave consequences of a major war in East Asia. It’s also unclear whether troops stationed abroad are a net cost for the U.S. After all, allies like Japan and Korea pay for a significant amount of the costs associated with forward deployed soldiers and materiel, and a recent report by the nonpartisan RAND Corp. suggests that “The direct budgetary savings [of retrenchment] may be substantial, but the indirect trade costs are likely to be far larger” (16). The report goes on to say that “Policymakers who reduce [alliance] commitments would face… the future problems of a poorer United States” (17).
Offshore balancing is a sucker’s bet. It might lead to short-term savings, but when one extends the time horizons out from years to decades, it becomes clear that a policy of offshoring balancing would increase the likelihood of a great power war, while also shrinking the U.S. economy by reducing bilateral trade flows. Like a lot of radical and novel approaches to public policy being thrown around this year, offshore balancing seems intuitively smart: It allows the U.S. to focus on the home front and stop bankrolling lazy European and Asian partners. However, this view is faulty and misguided, and it belies a fundamental lack of knowledge about America’s role in the world. The common perception of the United States as being aloof and sheltered from world events has never been accurate. Even before its rise to superpower status, the U.S. played a major role on the world stage (18). To abandon the system that has served U.S. interests so well and helped undergird one of the most stable and peaceful periods in human history is foolish and naïve (19). We certainly need new and innovative strategies for dealing with friends and foes alike, but rejecting America’s position as the global liberal hegemon would only make the U.S. weaker and the world less safe.
(1) Maliniak, Daniel, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney. “Notes From the Ivory Tower.” Foreign Policy. February 3, 2015. Web. October 7, 2015.
(2) For example, see Friedberg, Aaron L. Beyond Air-Sea Battle: The Debate Over US Military Strategy in Asia. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.
(3) Mazarr, Michael J. “The World Has Passed The Old Grand Strategies By.” War on the Rocks. October 5, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(4) Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen Walt. “The Case for Offshore Balancing.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2016. Web. October 7, 2016; Layne, Christopher. “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy.” International Security 22(1) (1997): 86–124.
(5) Walt and Mearsheimer, 71.
(6) O’Hanlon, Michael E. and David Petraeus. “America’s Awesome Military.” Brookings Institution. September 30, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(7) Braumoeller, Bear F. “Has The American Military Fallen Behind?” The Monkey Cage. May 4, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(8) Jackson, Van. Interview with Deny Roy. Pacific Pundit. August 8, 2016. Podcast Audio.
(9) Hoffman, Frank G. “Retreating Ashore: The Flaws of Offshore Balancing.” Geopoliticus. July 5, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(10) Hoey, Fintan. “Japan and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Security and Non-proliferation.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39(4) (2016): 484-501.
(11) Jang, Se Young. “The Evolution of US Extended Deterrence and South Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39(4) (2016): 502-520.
(12) Lewis, Jeffrey. “North Korea’s Nuke Program Is Way More Sophisticated Than You Think.” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(13) Monteiro, Nuno P. and Alexandre Debs. “The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation.” International Security 39(2) (Fall 2014): 7–51.
(14) Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
(15) All data is from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “Military Expenditure Database.” Stockholm: SIPRI, 2015. http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex.
(16) Egel, Daniel, Adam R. Grissom, John P. Godges, Jennifer Kavanagh and Howard J. Shatz. Estimating the Value of Overseas Security Commitments. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. Web.
(18) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
(19) Ikenberry, G J. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.
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Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.