Before he resigned, former Defense Secretary James Mattis was reportedly working in conjunction with the Department of State to revise US policy in the Middle East. Whatever vision Mr. Mattis had will have likely died when he left office – but he had the right idea in undertaking a review. Our strategic situation in the region has changed since the turn of the century, but our basic strategy has remained largely intact. That is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it does suggest that a review of political-military strategy in the region is prudent.
Good scholarship doesn’t need to fit within a 2×2 matrix, but it sure helps make sense of things when it does. It’s in this spirit of conceptual clarity that I developed the diagram below depicting variations in the fait accompli, an age-old but underappreciated tactic of the disgruntled and strategically minded. Rather than the naked use of force or threat-making alone—situations whose logics are straightforward even if the best responses aren’t—the fait accompli is a move that pursues an advantage by making it difficult for a competitor to retaliate or counter.
This 2×2 diagram is part of a lecture I give at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies on revisionist tactics short of war — what many now call “gray zone” conflicts. Although most security studies scholars and analysts understand broadly what a fait accompli is — literally an “accomplished fact” — the tactic itself has rarely been an object of analysis (two recent rare exceptions are discussed more below). This is a serious oversight, because in the so-called “gray zone” of conflict, the fait accompli is a common means by which states pursue revisionist agendas.
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.