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Offshore Balancing, US Retreat and Strategic Disorder

Waiting to board

The sun sets behind a C-17 Globemaster III as Soldiers wait to board the aircraft. Courtesy the US Army/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist on 28 June 2016.

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.

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Offshore Balancing in an Age of Austerity

US Defense Secretary Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey outlining the Defense Department’s new 10-year strategy. Photo: Erin A Kirk-Cuomo

Practitioners and academics have long contemplated United States defense policy in an age of austerity. The era of expansion under President George W. Bush spiraled into long-term unsustainability, presenting leadership with hard decisions regarding the future of American national security strategy. The Middle East, Asia, and Europe all stand to gain or lose influential elements of American power – key dynamics that will shape the conduct of international relations in a twenty-first century environment rife with unforeseen challenges. President Obama’s recent address reveals how the administration is pursuing military transformation in accord with new strategic thinking.

Conventional wisdom suggests a recalibrated focus on Asia-Pacific in the vein of great power politics. China and a potentially resurgent Russia represent a level of competition that does not exist elsewhere, and the region is all the more wary considering potential mission requirements for a collapsing North Korea. The European Union might be regarded as an economic rival in volume, though it would be hard to imagine any confrontation between longtime defense partners. There are interests in the Middle East that will continue to be the focus of the American military via less strenuous application of force and troop deployment. An unrivaled blue-water naval force, paired with air superiority under every mission parameter, meet vital American interests including defense of the homeland and maintaining a stable energy market within an open economic order. Capable power projection and global strike capability underline core force requirements for a streamlined American military prepared for a host of crisis scenarios around the world. Yet as much as the United States cannot afford to be everywhere at all times, there is a discernible expectation that partner states should increasingly help combat transnational threats and maintain regional stability. » More