A ‘Quaint’ but Made-up US Grand Strategy

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My colleagues John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have returned to offer a new and improved version of US foreign policy.  In their recent piece “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior US Grand Strategy” they offer both a critique of current foreign policy, which they see as some variant of liberal hegemony and provide, according them a clear and superior alternative – ‘offshore balancing’:

There is a better way. By pursuing a strategy of “offshore balancing,” Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. 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.

The grand strategy is strange because it relies on a 19th-20th century notion of what is at the heart of US foreign policy – its dominance of the Western Hemisphere and implicitly,  if not explicitly ‘the balance of power’. We are back to the world of the Monroe doctrine and a geopolitical strategy that faded with the rise intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear deterrence and indeed with Walt’s own ‘balance of threat’ doctrine, that if I understand it better explained grand strategy that the ‘balance of power’.

The real dilemma, however,  in this analysis is the difficulty in understanding the concepts being examined. Their distinction between their ‘beloved’ offshore balancing and ‘fortress America’, or neo-isolation is difficult to ascertain. And their effort to dump all the errors of recent US foreign policy into the liberal hegemony, or liberal internationalism camp expands  and ultimately warps the concept beyond what most proponents would acknowledge as liberal hegemony.  In the end their description seems to cover all the worst policy efforts of US administrations in the last 30 years:

At its core, liberal hegemony is a revisionist grand strategy: instead of calling on the United States to merely uphold the balance of power in key regions, it commits American might to promoting democracy everywhere and defending human rights whenever they are threatened.

This liberal hegemony à outrance, as the french might perhaps say, seems to describe some radical interpretations of US grand strategy but it is not the pith and substance of the policy of liberal hegemony.  So it is hard to recognize liberal internationalism or liberal hegemony versus offshore balancing. Offshore balancing seems to encapsulate liberal policy and neoconservative policy, pretty much everything US policy has operationalized in the past several decades.

Let’s get serious guys.  While there is much open to criticism in recent US foreign policy, the worst excesses of US policy – the over militarization and the failed demonstration project that was Iraq can’t simply be left at the doorstep of liberal internationalism.  So you are describing a grand strategy that seems to miraculously always to work, is easily distinguishable from ‘isolationism’,  and relies on ‘balancing theory’ that has been ‘dead and buried’ for many many decades. Nevertheless they praise the grand strategy and its operational implications:

This does not mean abandoning the United States’ position as the world’s sole superpower or retreating to “Fortress America.” Rather, by husbanding U.S. strength, offshore balancing would preserve U.S. primacy far into the future and safeguard liberty at home. …  Its principal concern would be to keep the United States as powerful as possible—

ideally, the dominant state on the planet. Above all, that means maintaining hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

Unlike isolationists, however, offshore balancers believe that there are regions outside the Western Hemisphere that are worth expending American blood and treasure to defend. Today, three other areas matter to the United States: Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The first two are key centers of industrial power and home to the world’s other great powers, and the third produces roughly 30 percent of the world’s oil.


Finally, where proponents agree with our colleagues, and reject liberal hegemony, in this case in favor of what our colleagues describe as “selective engagement” continued military presence in the three key regions but shorn of democracy promotion, our colleagues suggest that these proponents would end up with liberal hegemony in the longer run:

This low-cost insurance policy [selective engagement]… would save lives and money in the long run, because the United States wouldn’t have to rise to the rescue after a conflict broke out.  This approach – sometimes called ‘selective engagement’ – sounds appealing but would not work either. For starters, it would likely revert back to liberal hegemony. Once committed to preserving peace in key regions, US leaders would be sorely tempted to spread democracy, too, based on the the widespread belief that democracies don’t fight one another.

So offshore balancing or nothing.  Finally, there appear to be certain US foreign policy actions which really get under our authors’ skins.  They keep referring back disapprovingly to these actions.  Most notably is the expansion of NATO after the demise of the Soviet Union.

There is a fair bit that in fact might appeal to at least one contender for the US presidency. It is hard not read the following statement of ‘offshore balancing’ and not think of the Donald:

In Europe, the United States should end its military presence and turn NATO over to the Europeans. There is no good reason to keep US forces in Europe, as no country there has the capability to dominate that region. … If a conflict did arise, however, it would not threaten vital US interests. Thus, there is no reason for the United States to spend billions of dollars each year (and pledge its own citizens’ lives) to prevent one.

Maybe this is in fact a job application.  I hope not.  Or, maybe this a policy portrayal of a ‘coherent’ Trump foreign policy playbook, which if you think about it is pretty hard to do.


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