Has some good cards, including responses to the Mearsheimer article Alderete posted a little while ago
Others have. For decades “realist” analysts have called for a strategy of “offshore balancing.” Instead of the United States providing security in East Asia and the Persian Gulf, it would withdraw its forces from Japan, South Korea, and the Middle East and let the nations in those regions balance one another. If the balance broke down and war erupted, the United States would then intervene militarily until balance was restored. In the Middle East and Persian Gulf, for instance, Christopher Layne has long proposed “passing the mantle of regional stabilizer” to a consortium of “Russia, China, Iran, and India.” In East Asia offshore balancing would mean letting China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others manage their own problems, without U.S. involvement—again, until the balance broke down and war erupted, at which point the United States would provide assistance to restore the balance and then, if necessary, intervene with its own forces to restore peace and stability. Before examining whether this would be a wise strategy, it is important to understand that this really is the only genuine alternative to the one the United States has pursued for the past 65 years. To their credit, Layne and others who support the concept of offshore balancing have eschewed halfway measures and airy assurances that we can do more with less, which are likely recipes for disaster. They recognize that either the United States is actively involved in providing security and stability in regions beyond the Western Hemisphere, which means maintaining a robust presence in those regions, or it is not. Layne and others are frank in calling for an end to the global security strategy developed in the aftermath of World War II, perpetuated through the Cold War, and continued by four successive post-Cold War administrations. At the same time, it is not surprising that none of those administrations embraced offshore balancing as a strategy. The idea of relying on Russia, China, and Iran to jointly “stabilize” the Middle East and Persian Gulf will not strike many as an attractive proposition. Nor is U.S. withdrawal from East Asia and the Pacific likely to have a stabilizing effect on that region. The prospects of a war on the Korean Peninsula would increase. Japan and other nations in the region would face the choice of succumbing to Chinese hegemony or taking unilateral steps for self-defense, which in Japan’s case would mean the rapid creation of a formidable nuclear arsenal. Layne and other offshore balancing enthusiasts, like John Mearsheimer, point to two notable occasions when the United States allegedly practiced this strategy. One was the Iran-Iraq war, where the United States supported Iraq for years against Iran in the hope that the two would balance and weaken each other. The other was American policy in the 1920s and 1930s, when the United States allowed the great European powers to balance one another, occasionally providing economic aid, or military aid, as in the Lend-Lease program of assistance to Great Britain once war broke out. Whether this was really American strategy in that era is open for debate—most would argue the United States in this era was trying to stay out of war not as part of a considered strategic judgment but as an end in itself. Even if the United States had been pursuing offshore balancing in the first decades of the 20th century, however, would we really call that strategy a success? The United States wound up intervening with millions of troops, first in Europe, and then in Asia and Europe simultaneously, in the two most dreadful wars in human history. It was with the memory of those two wars in mind, and in the belief that American strategy in those interwar years had been mistaken, that American statesmen during and after World War II determined on the new global strategy that the United States has pursued ever since. Under Franklin Roosevelt, and then under the leadership of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, American leaders determined that the safest course was to build “situations of strength” (Acheson’s phrase) in strategic locations around the world, to build a “preponderance of power,” and to create an international system with American power at its center. They left substantial numbers of troops in East Asia and in Europe and built a globe-girdling system of naval and air bases to enable the rapid projection of force to strategically important parts of the world. They did not do this on a lark or out of a yearning for global dominion. They simply rejected the offshore balancing strategy, and they did so because they believed it had led to great, destructive wars in the past and would likely do so again. They believed their new global strategy was more likely to deter major war and therefore be less destructive and less expensive in the long run. Subsequent administrations, from both parties and with often differing perspectives on the proper course in many areas of foreign policy, have all agreed on this core strategic approach. From the beginning this strategy was assailed as too ambitious and too expensive. At the dawn of the Cold War, Walter Lippmann railed against Truman’s containment strategy as suffering from an unsustainable gap between ends and means that would bankrupt the United States and exhaust its power. Decades later, in the waning years of the Cold War, Paul Kennedy warned of “imperial overstretch,” arguing that American decline was inevitable “if the trends in national indebtedness, low productivity increases, [etc.]” were allowed to continue at the same time as “massive American commitments of men, money and materials are made in different parts of the globe.” Today, we are once again being told that this global strategy needs to give way to a more restrained and modest approach, even though the indebtedness crisis that we face in coming years is not caused by the present, largely successful global strategy. Of course it is precisely the success of that strategy that is taken for granted. The enormous benefits that this strategy has provided, including the financial benefits, somehow never appear on the ledger. They should. We might begin by asking about the global security order that the United States has sustained since Word War II—the prevention of major war, the support of an open trading system, and promotion of the liberal principles of free markets and free government. How much is that order worth? What would be the cost of its collapse or transformation into another type of order? Whatever the nature of the current economic difficulties, the past six decades have seen a greater increase in global prosperity than any time in human history. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Once-backward nations have become economic dynamos. And the American economy, though suffering ups and downs throughout this period, has on the whole benefited immensely from this international order. One price of this success has been main
taining a sufficient military capacity to provide the essential security underpinnings of this order. But has the price not been worth it? In the first half of the 20th century, the United States found itself engaged in two world wars. In the second half, this global American strategy helped produce a peaceful end to the great-power struggle of the Cold War and then 20 more years of great-power peace. Looked at coldly, simply in terms of dollars and cents, the benefits of that strategy far outweigh the costs. The danger, as always, is that we don’t even realize the benefits our strategic choices have provided. Many assume that the world has simply become more peaceful, that great-power conflict has become impossible, that nations have learned that military force has little utility, that economic power is what counts. This belief in progress and the perfectibility of humankind and the institutions of international order is always alluring to Americans and Europeans and other children of the Enlightenment. It was the prevalent belief in the decade before World War I, in the first years after World War II, and in those heady days after the Cold War when people spoke of the “end of history.” It is always tempting to believe that the international order the United States built and sustained with its power can exist in the absence of that power, or at least with much less of it. This is the hidden assumption of those who call for a change in American strategy: that the United States can stop playing its role and yet all the benefits that came from that role will keep pouring in. This is a great if recurring illusion, the idea that you can pull a leg out from under a table and the table will not fall over.