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Points of Departure
Obama’s “offshore balancing” is a recipe for conflict.

Raising the flag in Kabul, 2010. (Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford)

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Matthew Continetti

The phrase “offshore balancing” did not appear in President Obama’s commencement address at West Point. It did not have to. Obama’s every word was informed by the idea that America should renounce nation-building, extended deployments, base construction, and other elements of hard power in favor of diplomacy, military-to-military partnerships, multilateral institution-building, and soft power in general. “Just because we have the best hammer,” the president said in a particularly insipid use of cliché, “does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Not the administration, nor its supporters, nor its critics have been successful in defining precisely what the “Obama Doctrine” is. But offshore balancing seems to me to be as good a way as any to describe the president’s strategy. What does it mean? Because of America’s favorable geography — oceans to the east and west, friendly allies to the north and south — its powerful military, and its commercial nature, our country need not be overly assertive in the world. The biggest threat we face is not an authoritarian and revanchist Russia, not a rising Chinese collective dictatorship, not an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, not a transnational jihadist revival. “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.”

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But even fighting terrorism does not require direct intervention or a global war against radical Islamic networks and their state supporters. “I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” The Libyans, Somalis, and Nigerians have such great command of the situation, after all. And if things get out of hand, well, that is what Predator drones are for.

The most important consideration is that America remains in the background. “By eschewing costly onshore commitments and fruitless exercises in ‘regional transformation’ and nation-building,” Stephen M. Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy, wrote in the 2011 essay “Offshore Balancing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” the strategy “would husband the resources on which America’s long-term prosperity depends and help us rebuild a society that used to be inspire [sic] others and increasingly disappoints.” By leaning out, as it were, by abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan, by reducing our “footprint” overseas, by shrinking our ground forces and fleet strength in order to spend more money on entitlements, we will shape an America of which Barack Obama and Stephen Walt can be proud. Count me out.

Offshore balancing has been tried before. In a lengthy and gripping essay on the present search for normalcy, Robert Kagan observes the following:

Although successful for two centuries in maintaining and managing its overseas empire, Britain failed to prevent the rise of German hegemony twice in the 20th century, leading to two devastating wars that ultimately undid British global power. Britain failed because it had tried to play the role of balancer in Europe from “offshore” Britons’ main concern was always defense of their far-flung empire, and they preferred to stay out of Europe if possible. Their inability or unwillingness to station troops on the continent in sufficient number, or at least reliably to guarantee that sufficient force would arrive quickly in an emergency, led would-be aggressors to calculate that decisive British military force would either not arrive on time or not arrive at all. 

The result was three major land wars in Europe — against Napoleon, against the Kaiser, against Hitler — along with a minor (though horribly bloody) war on the Crimean Peninsula. Offshore balancing did not, in the end, make Europe more peaceful, nor did it relieve the British of their global responsibilities to secure the seas and to prevent the rise of a despotic hegemon on the Continent. It was only after the conclusion of World War II, and the assumption of global supremacy by the United States of America, that a durable European peace came into view.

That peace was not secured by a strategy of offshore balancing. Rather than acting as an offshore balancer, the United States became an onshore hegemon, planting military forces throughout Western Europe and Japan, where they have remained for almost 70 years. And when the United States fought North Korea and China to a standstill in 1953, it dropped anchor in South Korea, basing tens of thousands of troops along the Demilitarized Zone for more than 60 years.



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