Offshore Balancing in an Age of Austerity

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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.

Major twenty-first century challenges of WMD proliferation, counter-terrorism, and cyber warfare are better assuaged through effective cooperation. Reducing US troop commitments abroad will force allies to increasingly invest in their own security requirements, where appropriate, and this better addresses individual state needs through sensibly governed policy. Europe understands its sovereign security requirements better than an American-driven NATO. The US will retain unmatched ability to conduct special operations and counter threats posed by non-state actors, but it cannot achieve this success alone – it will be in the American interest to ensure strong allies abroad are capable of contributing to necessary force requirement in any regional crisis.

Partial integration of British and French force structure is a sign of things to come for Europe. Japan and South Korea are making unheralded inroads toward defensive pacts beyond the US regional presence. New military commitments in Australia further strengthen three big allies in the Pacific, and the recent arms package with Saudi Arabia helps check a potentially aggressive Iran in the Persian Gulf – to say nothing of the special relationship with Israel. Stalwart allies are in the process of expanding capability and responsibility; efforts that not only relieve pressure on an overextended US military, but also strengthen allied states aligned against regional competitors.

Offshore balancing has returned as the time-tested strategy for American security in the near-term. President Obama and his national security team recognize the volatility of anticipating threats to the national interest, and military force remains a vital policy tool within a complex portfolio of options. With regard to the strategic review, President Obama is quietly stressing the importance of regional alliances in a challenging twenty-first century environment. Balancing against great powers and reducing on-the-ground troop commitments is the first step toward a strategic clarity that recognizes an America committed to global leadership, but is pragmatically sound in application and concert with allies around the world.

Michael Miner is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a graduate of Dartmouth College.

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