Between Hegemony and Balance of Power – The US in Asia

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Defining a contemporary grand strategy for the United States that is no longer hegemony but is not mere traditional balance of power, strategists have turned their attention to: “offshore balancing”.  Bizarrely this grand strategy has attracted a variety of strategists from across the ideological spectrum –  from neo-conservatives through offensive realists and realists all the way to liberals.  So what is this grand strategy that has become increasingly offered up for the United States – and why has it become attractive to such a variety of strategists?

One of the longtime proponents of  offshore balancing is Christopher Layne currently at Texas A&M.  Layne poses  this grand strategy (see: “Offshore Balancing RevisitedThe Washington Quarterly Vol.25, N0.2 (Spring, 2002) as an alternative to hegemony.  As he suggests:

Offshore balancing is predicated on the assumption that attempting to maintain US hegemony is self-defeating …  Offshore balancing is a grand strategy based on burden shifting, not burden sharing.  It would transfer to others the task of maintaining regional power balances; checking the rise of potential global regional hegemony; stabilizing Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf/Middle East.  In other words, other states would have to become responsible for providing their own security and for the security of the regions in which they live (and contiguous ones), rather than looking at the United States to do it for them.

Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast has proposed that offshore balancing emerges “when the money and bravado have run out.”  And realist Stephen Walt from Harvard makes the same point:

The bottom line is clear and unavoidable: the United States simply won’t have the resources to devote to international affairs that it had in the past.  … The era when the United States could create and lead a political, economic and security order in virtually every part of the world is coming to an end.

So if I can put it indelicately, what offshore balancing is really is, is “hegemony on the cheap”.  Thus Walt argues in “The End of the American Era” articles:

Instead of seeking to dominate these regions directly, however, our first recourse should be to have local allies uphold the balance of power, out of their own self-interest.  Rather than letting then free ride on us, we should free ride on them as much as we can, intervening with ground and air forces only when a single power threatens to dominate some critical region.  For an offshore balancer, the greatest success lies in getting somebody else to handle some pesky problem, not eagerly shouldering that burden oneself.

So whether it is from the right or the left the attraction is there – to maintaining stability but without the US shouldering the burden.  The strategy certainly has been advocated for the United States in the Middle East and in East Asia.

Walt has provided a short list of core principles (see “Rethinking US Grand Strategy: The Case for ‘Offshore Balancing'” PowerPoint Lecture August 2009):

  • US remains only great power in the Western Hemisphere (“regional hegemony) – more on that principle for another day;
  • US helps maintain balance of power in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf;
  • US relies as much as possible on regional allies and “passes the buck” to them whenever possible;
  • Key: US deploys significant air/ground forces only when balance of power is in jeopardy;
  • US does not pursue regime change, nation-building, or other forms of social engineering;
  • US does not disengage: Offshore is neither isolationism nor a strategy for radical disarmament.

So there we are.  Now historically we’ve seen offshore balancing employed particularly by the British in Europe – more on this in the near future.  But it is evident that strategists are contemplating employing this strategy vìs a vìs especially Rising China in East Asia.

But how realistic is the strategy?  On first review this does not seem an advantageous approach notwithstanding the promise of less cost – highly attractive in age of austerity.

First, while shifting the burden to allies may seem attractive, it creates for lack of a better term a principal-agent problem.  Simply, it is much more difficult to try and influence others to do the balancing that otherwise you’d be doing yourself.  Allies may not do it leading you to have act – possibly catch up.  Or allies may prove to be too aggressive raising prematurely the real possibility of conflict that might draw you in, notwithstanding your desire to lower the temperature in the region and avoid conflict.

Secondly, and this is evidently the case in East Asia, your allies may have frictions with each other rendering it extremely difficult to obtain the united push back against the rising power that you’d like.  In East Asia the United States has security relations with both Korea and Japan.  But we find that the two are at loggerheads over the Liancourt Rocks – the Dokdo’s in Korea and Takeshima in Japanese.  In the South China Sea the United States is relying largely on Vietnam and the Philippines.  Here there are significant questions around the military capabilities of these “allies” in the contest with China.

So what appears to be beneficial theoretically, may not prove to be in practical diplomacy/security terms.  More on this soon.

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