This year marks the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The treaty has three separate but inter-related objectives: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapon technologies to more countries; promoting cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and pressing the existing nuclear-weapon states to disarm.
Over recent years, a somewhat geeky debate has emerged among the exponents of deterrence and assurance. Although the discussion typically occurs between Americans and nationals of an allied country, it’s overly simplistic to describe it as one between the US and its allies—the divisions aren’t that clear-cut.
The debate is part philosophical and part phraseological. At its core sits a single adjective. Some Americans (including policymakers) say that what the US offers its allies is ‘extended deterrence’. But a number of allied nationals (again, including policymakers) find the phrase underwhelming; they’d prefer that it read ‘extended nuclear deterrence’. And so we come directly to the crux of the argument: the presence or absence of the word ‘nuclear’ in the assurance that the US provides to its allies.
John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s recent Foreign Affairs article advocating a return to offshore balancing is certainly generating a debate amongst the doyens of US foreign policy. Tom Switzer, for example, clearly likes their arguments. Dan Drezner doesn’t. So perhaps I ought to begin by outlining my own position. I accept the starting point for the Mearsheimer/Walt argument: the strategic mainstream is starting to fracture as America reprioritises its domestic agenda. But I don’t accept that offshore balancing—a strategy under which the US stays ‘offshore’ from Eurasia for as long as possible and, even when it comes onshore, makes its allies carry as much of the weight as possible—would lead to favourable outcomes for either the world or America.
Despite the Mearsheimer/Walt argument that ‘by husbanding US strength, an offshore-balancing strategy would preserve US primacy well into the future’, I don’t see how international observers would perceive offshore balancing as anything other than US retreat. And those perceptions would, in turn, fundamentally weaken the credibility of US security assurances to allies and partners. Critics would paint it as the waning of the Pax Americana, and not entirely without reason.
Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.
The debate between Peter Jennings and Robert Ayson over whether DFAT does ‘strategy’ has opened up a rich vein of thinking. In essence, the debate has been less about what DFAT does or doesn’t do, and more about ‘what’s strategy?’ Peter believes strategy is a long-term enterprise, typically codified by some sort of formal document that attempts to define a grand objective for policy and identifies a means for getting there. Rob says that strategy is sequentialism—it’s the art of the next step, there are no final objectives, and who cares if it’s written down? Strategy, he says, is a state of mind, an intellectual climate.
The problem, of course, is that the word ‘strategy’ has many meanings. I don’t want to become trapped in an arid debate about whether one definition is more correct than another. For about the last decade I’ve found the best definition of grand strategy to be Walter Russell Mead’s. Mead described US grand strategy as ‘the US project for the world’, which strikes me as a nice way of freeing the concept of strategy from both its military strait-jacket and its usual academic prison. Mead accepts the ‘project’ isn’t written down. And I’m similarly unaware of anyone writing down the Australian project for the world. No-one writes it down for the simple reason that it isn’t the property of one person. Nor, I suppose, is it ever fulfilled, so there’s no sense of the objective’s being reached.