Should America Retrench?

The Battle Over Offshore Balancing

A U.S. Navy F/A 18 Hornet lands on the USS Nimitz in the South China Sea, May 2013. EDGAR SU / REUTERS


A quarter century after the Cold War ended, critics have renewed their calls for the United States to abandon its existing grand strategy, which they contend has both cost too much in blood and treasure and delivered too little in terms of peace, prosperity, and security. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt make this case in their article “The Case for Offshore Balancing” (July/August 2016), which charts an alternative course. Under their preferred strategy, the United States would significantly roll back the system of alliances, the forward deployments, and the onshore presence that have characterized its security posture for decades. Instead, it would husband its strength by relying on other countries to maintain the balance of power in regions crucial to U.S. interests—namely, Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf—and step in militarily only when absolutely necessary, to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. It would also forswear long-standing endeavors such as democracy promotion and nearly all military interventions (except perhaps narrowly tailored counterterrorist strikes) not aimed at preserving key regional balances.

The case for offshore balancing has superficial appeal. Its advocates claim that under the prevailing U.S. grand strategy, Washington has intervened too often in faraway conflicts of dubious importance to U.S. interests, with adverse consequences for U.S. security and international stability. According to this camp, most of what the United States has accomplished in the post–Cold War era—or, at least, most of what was worth accomplishing—could have been achieved at far lower cost, simply by letting other states fend for themselves. Offshore balancers thus promise a rare win-win: better outcomes at lower cost.

It sounds too good to be true, and indeed, it is. Once the historically dubious claims and flawed strategic assumptions are corrected, the case for offshore balancing collapses. The concept may remain popular in certain academic circles, but it is no wonder senior policymakers have consistently rejected it in practice.



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