In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
THE RISKS OF RETREAT
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.
Offshore balancers argue that their strategy represents the United States’ traditional approach to global affairs, and one that has consistently proved effective in advancing U.S. interests. In reality, however, U.S. policymakers have pursued offshore balancing only when they have been overly focused on avoiding short-term costs, such as those associated with overseas military deployments, and have thus been willing to accept a high level of strategic risk. The results have been ambiguous at best and disastrous at worst, which is why the strategy has so often been discarded in favor of a more engaged approach.
In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, the United States pursued a version of offshore balancing, by relying on regional governments to uphold power balances in Europe and East Asia. Those efforts failed, forcing the United States to enter World War II and launch major campaigns in both theaters. After sacrificing more than 400,000 American lives and spending the equivalent of $4.1 trillion today in the process, the United States rightly discarded offshore balancing as too costly and risky a way of defending its interests in those regions. Instead, U.S. policymakers committed the country to an onshore military presence that continues seven decades later, as well as to an ultimately successful effort to shape the internal politics and security dynamics of those areas.
The United States’ next foray into offshore balancing, in Cold War Korea, ended no more successfully. In 1950, North Korean troops—responding in part to the U.S. withdrawal from South Korea the previous year—overran nearly the entire peninsula. U.S. forces then intervened, and, after some 36,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and the equivalent of $320 billion today was spent, the United States once again shifted to an onshore strategy, which has helped prevent a recurrence of the Korean War to this day.
The United States’ longest reliance on offshore balancing has come in the Middle East—from 1945 until 1990 and again from 2011 to 2014. The United States did make brief onshore interventions (notably, in Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1982–84 and in Libya in 2011), but it primarily used economic aid, diplomatic support, covert intervention, and arms transfers to get major powers such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to defend a favorable balance of power. Even after the Iranian Revolution knocked out a key U.S. partner, the United States stuck with offshore balancing, supporting Saddam Hussein as the price of maintaining an acceptable balance of power in the Gulf, while also developing the over-the-horizon military capabilities needed to intervene in an emergency. It ended up having to do just that in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to overrun crucial Saudi oil fields, thereby threatening the regional balance and bringing yet another experiment in offshore balancing to a bloody conclusion.
The subsequent discovery of an unexpectedly advanced weapons-of-mass-destruction program in Iraq, along with concerns over the weak Gulf states’ ability to balance against Baghdad on their own, convinced U.S. leaders to shift to an onshore strategy, which President George W. Bush doubled down on after the 9/11 attacks by invading Iraq. President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from the country at the end of 2011 marked a shift back to offshore balancing in the Middle East, with the exception of Afghanistan, on the periphery of the region. But the rapid advance of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in 2014 convinced Obama to commit nearly 5,000 U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, along with thousands more operating from air bases and ships in the region.
In short, when leaders have tried offshore balancing, the strategy has tended to fail in costly ways, convincing them to shift to a more forward-leaning approach. Thus, Mearsheimer and Walt’s sunny claim that “for nearly a century, . . . offshore balancing prevented the emergence of dangerous regional hegemons and preserved a global balance of power that enhanced American security” masks a much darker reality: offshore balancing has succeeded only if one considers World War II, the Korean War, the Persian Gulf War, and the rise of ISIS an acceptable price for remaining offshore. If this is success, one shudders to imagine what failure might look like.
Offshore balancing’s costs are not limited to the wars that must be fought when regional balances collapse. There are also the costs of maintaining those balances even when the strategy appears to be working. Offshore balancing requires the United States to become more dependent on morally bankrupt regimes, subordinating all else to the narrow realpolitik requirement of short-term stability. In the Middle East alone, offshore balancing tied the United States to its partnership with the ill-fated shah of Iran during the 1970s and caused it to turn a blind eye to Saddam’s domestic terror, international aggression, and widespread use of chemical weapons during the 1980s. In both cases, the consequences for human rights, as well as for longer-term regional stability, were problematic, to say the least.
To make matters worse, offshore balancing encourages nuclear proliferation. Throughout the postwar era, maintaining an onshore presence has given the United States leverage to restrain allies’ nuclear ambitions while also mitigating the insecurity that might otherwise have driven such countries as Germany, Japan, and South Korea to pursue the bomb. Withdrawing offshore threatens to have the opposite effect. It is no surprise that South Korea expressed nuclear aspirations when the United States gestured at withdrawing its troops from the peninsula during the 1970s, or that Taiwan did likewise when U.S. rapprochement with China appeared to jeopardize the United States’ commitment to the island’s security. Offshore balancers may wave away the dangers of proliferation; given the destructive power of nuclear weapons, policymakers can hardly be so cavalier.
Mearsheimer and Walt further obscure the costs of offshore balancing by being fuzzy about when and where the strategy has been tried. They treat the decades-long commitment of hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe, as well as tens of thousands to Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and other Asian allies, as part of an offshore-balancing strategy, rather than acknowledging it to be the reverse. This flexibility allows Mearsheimer and Walt to simultaneously credit the adoption of offshore balancing for the Cold War peace in Western Europe and Northeast Asia and blame its abandonment for the war in Vietnam. In reality, the opposite reading—at least insofar as Western Europe and Northeast Asia are concerned—would be more historically accurate.
Mearsheimer and Walt use a similar accounting gimmick to inflate the benefits of offshore balancing. They claim that it would dramatically reduce defense expenditures. But because host nations usually subsidize the costs of U.S. forward deployments, the savings of going offshore are often negligible. Moreover, the costs of rapidly moving forces back onshore during a crisis must also be considered, and those costs—as in World War II and the Korean War—can be prohibitive. The United States would thus save significant amounts of money only if it eliminated the very forces needed to fight its way back onshore, an approach that would look more like full-fledged isolationism than the minimalist strategy Mearsheimer and Walt propose.
Furthermore, the notion that offshore balancing would suddenly defuse the terrorist threat is wishful and even dangerous thinking. As the rise of ISIS has demonstrated, terrorist groups can mobilize even after the United States has withdrawn from a region. In fact, such groups may find it easier to operate in the subsequent security vacuum. To be sure, onshore deployments serve as a convenient rallying cry for terrorist propaganda, forming part of Osama bin Laden’s casus belli against the United States in the 1990s, for example. But as al Qaeda’s own propagandists have made clear, other irritants—above all, U.S. backing of authoritarian Arab regimes—also figure prominently in the jihadist indictment of U.S. policy. By forcing Washington to redouble its support for such regimes as pillars of regional stability, offshore balancing might actually fan the flames of jihadist resentment.
HARDER THAN IT LOOKS
Not only is the case for offshore balancing based on bad history and miscalculated costs and benefits; it also rests on several flawed (and mostly unstated) assumptions. First, Mearsheimer and Walt assume that once Washington disengages from a region, it will still be easy to sense and react to adverse shifts in the balance of power. Ideally, in their view, the United States would remain offshore until some intervention was required, but before a D-Day-style invasion became necessary. Yet although the right moment for intervening can sometimes be seen in hindsight, identifying it in real time, amid enormous uncertainty, is far harder. Even alert and determined leaders have found it impossible to time onshore interventions perfectly, as President Franklin Roosevelt discovered in Europe and East Asia, President Harry Truman discovered in Korea, and President George H. W. Bush discovered in the Persian Gulf. In each case, the president realized the need for onshore intervention, or gathered the necessary political consensus, only after a regional balance had been fundamentally disrupted or overturned. Offshore balancing simply offers too little margin for error.
Second, Mearsheimer and Walt make heroic assumptions about the United States’ ability to reach faraway places without its current network of global deployments. They would have the United States end those commitments but then rush back if a regional hegemon appeared. Today, the United States can indeed rapidly project combat power in the Middle East, the Pacific, and Europe, but only because of the global network of bases and logistics chains developed to maintain the grand strategy that offshore balancing would jettison. Had the United States not had forces and bases in Europe in 1990, for example, it would have been nearly impossible to project decisive military power into the Persian Gulf so soon after Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. Take away an onshore grand strategy, and you take away the capacity for timely force projection on which offshore balancing relies.
Third, offshore balancing assumes that the United States can get other countries to do more of its dirty work simply by doing less itself. Mearsheimer and Walt claim that the United States’ globe-spanning military presence incentivizes its regional partners to free-ride and that the United States should instead pass the buck and “make its allies do as much of the heavy lifting as possible.” But there is little reason to believe that the United States’ absence would motivate others to act in accordance with U.S. interests. On the contrary, it is far more likely that Washington can influence other states when they are confident about its commitment to their security. The painful experience in post-Saddam Iraq illustrates the case. Although the Iraqi government never fully lived up to U.S. expectations, it came closest to fulfilling them during the 2007–9 surge, when the U.S. commitment was at its greatest. By contrast, the Iraqis underperformed most from 2012 to 2014, when the United States withdrew its troops.
Fourth, Mearsheimer and Walt assume that the American people do not care about anything other than realpolitik, so policymakers should back the strongest horse that will serve U.S. security interests, regardless of the impact on democratic norms or human rights. In reality, Americans expect their allies to abide by minimum humanitarian standards, and when they fail to do so, policymakers come under pressure to use U.S. influence to improve the situation. To be sure, the American public is not willing to pay any price and bear any burden to shape the internal politics of other states. But nor is it willing to turn a blind eye to these concerns forever, as offshore balancing requires.
And it would not be wise to do so. As the political scientist Tony Smith has demonstrated, U.S. democracy-promotion programs—including economic aid, diplomatic pressure, covert action, and even the occasional military intervention—have helped foster a world that is more liberal and more congenial to U.S. values and interests. By tossing aside any concern with democracy and human rights, offshore balancing would surrender a crucial aspect of the United States’ long-standing effort to shape a favorable international order.
Finally, offshore balancing assumes that the free flow of commerce, decline of great-power conflict, and global economic growth that have defined the post-1945 world would sustain themselves without the underwriting of global security that U.S. power and overseas engagement have provided. Mearsheimer and Walt thus minimize the positive role that U.S. grand strategy has played in promoting a favorable world order and fail to see how a retreat would threaten that very achievement. Why, offshore balancers seem to say, should we bother with so much diet and exercise when we feel so healthy?
The basic claim of the case for offshore balancing is that it maximizes American security and influence while it minimizes risks and costs. Yet the opposite is closer to the truth. If U.S. policymakers embraced offshore balancing, they would be discarding a grand strategy that has led to many of the greatest successes of U.S. foreign policy because of a few undeniable setbacks and replacing it with an approach that has produced some of the United States’ costliest wars.
Perhaps someday, American power will have eroded to the point where the United States has no choice but to accept those risks and retrench as fundamentally as Mearsheimer and Walt suggest. But until then, U.S. officials should resist the siren song of offshore balancing.
MEARSHEIMER AND WALT REPLY
In “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” we argue that if a potential hegemon emerges in Europe, Northeast Asia, or the Persian Gulf, Washington should commit resources to preserve a favorable balance of power and, if necessary, fight to defend it. If no potential hegemon is present, however, the United States should remain offshore and let regional powers uphold the balance.
Hal Brands and Peter Feaver reject this recommendation and contend that the United States should continue its failed pursuit of its existing grand strategy, liberal hegemony. But they repeatedly misrepresent our argument and offer a dubious account of the relevant history—unwittingly underscoring the superiority of offshore balancing.
Brands and Feaver begin by claiming that we want the United States to remain offshore in Europe, Asia, and the Gulf, intervening in those regions only after war has broken out and a hegemon is about to win. This assertion allows them to accuse us of wanting to roll back current U.S. alliances in all three areas and to suggest that had U.S. policymakers adopted our approach in the late 1940s, there would have been no NATO, no strategy of containment, and no Cold War victory.
This predictable attempt to make us sound like isolationists is wrong. In our article, we make it clear that the United States should deploy forces onshore before war breaks out if the regional powers cannot check a rising hegemon, and we describe the United States’ Cold War alliances as a clear-cut example of this policy. Moreover, we recommend the continued deployment of U.S. forces in Asia to counter any future Chinese attempt to dominate that region. Contrary to what Brands and Feaver say, Washington’s alliances and force postures during the Cold War and in Asia today are wholly consistent with offshore balancing.
In effect, Brands and Feaver portray U.S. policy in much of the first half of the twentieth century as textbook offshore balancing but claim that Cold War containment represented the “reverse” of that policy. Not so: the United States followed the core logic of offshore balancing from 1900 to 1990 and embraced liberal hegemony only after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Under offshore balancing, the United States exploits its favorable location and calibrates its overseas commitments according to what is happening in key regions. Under liberal hegemony, by contrast, those factors hardly matter. The United States is supposed to deploy forces around the globe under any and all circumstances, whether it faces a single peer competitor, a complex multipolar world of contending great powers, or no serious enemies at all. No matter what the world looks like, the recommendation is always the same: the United States should try to run it. But as the past 25 years have shown again and again, this approach leads to costly quagmires and repeated foreign policy failures.
Indeed, it is telling that Brands and Feaver never say what U.S. interests are or attempt to specify priorities among them. Instead, they justify the deployment of U.S. forces almost everywhere by assuming that doing so guarantees peace. Again, Brands and Feaver are mistaken. They suggest that the United States could have prevented World War II had it committed troops to Europe before the conflict started. But Europe was a simmering cauldron of great-power rivalry in the interwar period, and in all likelihood, even an enormous U.S. military presence there would not have calmed the continent. It’s hard to believe that U.S. troops would have proved sufficient to deter Hitler or put an end to the suspicions between Berlin and Moscow. Moreover, committing a large army to Europe would have ensured that the United States was involved in the bloodbath of World War II from the beginning. From an American perspective, it was better to enter that conflict as late as possible and let others bear the brunt of the fighting.
Events since 1945 provide abundant evidence that a large U.S. military presence does not always ensure peace. Such a presence in East Asia failed to keep the United States out of two bloody wars there during the Cold War (Korea and Vietnam), and despite the tens of thousands of troops in the region today, few would deny that there is a serious possibility of military clashes between China and the United States over the East China and South China Seas, Taiwan, or the Korean Peninsula. Nor did a major U.S. military presence in Europe prevent the Balkan wars in the 1990s or the current war in Ukraine, which could escalate into a broader conflict involving the United States. And in the Middle East, repeated U.S. military engagement since the end of the Cold War has not kept the region from becoming engulfed in wars—and in fact caused many of those wars.
This is no accident, because pursuing liberal hegemony, as Brands and Feaver advocate, not only fails to guarantee peace around the world; it also leads to foolish wars. The belief that the United States should be committed all over the world produced the Vietnam War, a clear departure from offshore balancing. That same thinking lay behind the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq—which Feaver supported and we opposed—as well as the failed U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Libya. The United States has also interfered in Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, among other places, with little to show for it. Brands and Feaver trivialize these costly failures as “a few undeniable setbacks,” but they were in fact an inevitable consequence of the misguided attempt to garrison the world and spread democracy by force.
Brands and Feaver also reject offshore balancing by saying that “although the right moment for intervening can sometimes be seen in hindsight, identifying it in real time, amid enormous uncertainty, is far harder.” But deciding whether and when to intervene is much easier under our strategy, since offshore balancers, unlike liberal hegemonists such as Brands and Feaver, provide clear criteria to inform that decision. But if the United States has vital interests everywhere and U.S. intervention guarantees peace, as they maintain, then it should have intervened to prevent every Arab-Israeli war, all three Indo-Pakistani wars, the Iran-Iraq War, the First and Second Congo Wars, and so on. By their logic, Washington should keep expanding its overseas military presence until the entire world is at peace.
Lastly, Brands and Feaver write that offshore balancing makes the United States “more dependent on morally bankrupt regimes,” insisting further that “Americans expect their allies to abide by minimum humanitarian standards.” History shows otherwise. The United States allied with Joseph Stalin in World War II and tacitly with Mao Zedong in the 1970s—both of whom murdered millions of their own citizens. Washington has also propped up numerous Latin American dictators, today backs a military regime in Egypt and a harsh theocracy in Saudi Arabia, and continues to turn a blind eye to, if not support, Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians.
International politics is a dangerous business, and moral tradeoffs are sometimes necessary. By committing U.S. power more selectively, however, offshore balancing requires such compromises only when the United States faces imminent threats to its vital interests. By encouraging the U.S. military to get involved everywhere, Brands and Feaver’s approach often forces Washington to rely on dubious allies in far-flung regions. Once committed to defending them, of course, it has little leverage over their behavior.
Given liberal hegemony’s many flaws, it is no wonder U.S. foreign policy has failed so often in recent years. One does wonder, however, why Brands and Feaver continue to defend it.