Politics & Policy

America’s Global Retreat

Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers (front to back) USS Campbell, USS Lassen, and USS Shoup on maneuvers
“Offshore balancing” is the latest bright idea for retreating without admitting it.

Selecting strategic options for the United States is a parlor game that thousands of people are always playing. And nothing gets these deep strategic thinkers more excited than a new idea that promises everlasting global stability at half the cost of the last idea. One of my favorites, of recent vintage, is “offshore balancing.” The logic here rests on the premise that America can withdraw all its military forces from a region and come back in later to “tilt” the balance if things start going in a direction we disapprove.

When has this ever worked? Well, never.

The world has had three long periods of peace that were so profoundly different from the typical course of events that historians have named them: the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, and the Pax Americana. The first two ended in catastrophe, when the hegemonic power decided to withdraw its military forces from its far-flung areas of interest. In the second case, Britain actually pursued a stated strategy of “balancing” in Europe, without ever building a force that could assure a balance. Britain’s land forces were, in fact, so small that the soldiers referred to themselves as “the old contemptibles.” Supposedly, when Bismarck was asked how he would deal with the British Army if it landed in northern Germany, he replied that he would have it arrested. Predictably, in 1914 Britain’s ineffectual balancing collapsed in a welter of bloodshed that left a generation of European manhood dead or maimed.

Now, American policymakers are opting for a similar global retreat. But we are not telling the world that. Instead, we are saying, “Don’t worry — we’ll be right over the horizon.” One imagines the poor folks in England watching the last Roman legion leave. There they were, casting a nervous look over their shoulders at the barbarian hordes ready to pounce, while being told: “Don’t worry — we’ll be right on the other side of the Channel in Gaul. We’ll be back if you need us.”

The people of the world are not stupid. They are looking at America’s withdrawal and seeing it for exactly what it is — retreat. “Offshore balancing” has a geostrategic translation that the rest of the world readily comprehends: “We’re out of here. Good luck.” The Pax Americana — or, as some call it, the Long Peace — was not maintained by “over-the-horizon” forces. Rather, it was kept by the forward deployment of combat troops in many of the world’s most dangerous locations. This came with a cost, but the price was never as dear as the cost of war; nor will it ever be.

Does anyone really believe that North Korea is deterred by President Obama’s talking about an Asian pivot, supported by a small “offshore balancing” force of Marines in Australia? When did 3,566 miles away from the action become over the horizon? These Marines would not be much farther from any possible threat if we just had them reside with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.

Want another dumb idea? How about the growing movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons? Starting, of course, with the stable and peaceful powers that possess a proven record of restraint this past seven decades. The premise of the Global Zero movement is that, if the U.S. and Russia disarm, the rest of the world will follow suit — nuclear utopianism at its finest. Forget about the absurdity of getting North Korea, Iran, or other global pariahs to follow along, and, instead, focus on the main assumption: that a nuke-free world is a peaceful world. It is time for a dose of reality. In a world without nuclear weapons, global politics would revert back to what we witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. One should need no reminding that Hitler did not require nuclear weapons to start a war that killed more than 50 million people.

Going hand in hand with these two initiatives is the growing notion that big state-against-state wars are a thing of the past. The underlying premise of this idea is that the world is so economically integrated that no nation would risk its wealth and future prosperity by engaging in a costly and destructive war. This is an idea with a long pedigree. It was first popularized by Norman Angell in The Great Illusion, which arrived in bookstores on the eve of World War I. The fact that by 1913 the world had achieved levels of economic integration not seen again until the early 1990s did nothing to stop the cascade toward war. Remarkably, Angell, after adding another dubious strategic concept — collective defense — reissued his volume in 1933 — the year Hitler rose to power — and was then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Truly, this is the triumph of hope over experience.

Until the laws of human nature are repealed, war will be a normal part of the human condition. The current Long Peace was built upon the nuclear standoff between America and the U.S.S.R. and the forward-deployed commitment of American military forces. As America retreats from both policies, the world will surely have to endure increased instability and eventual war.

America’s continued diplomatic involvement is not enough. Only the fully committed power of the global hegemon — the United States — can ever hope to maintain the stability required to avoid disastrous inter-state wars. One is, however, left to decide when commitment has wavered to the point that it turns into mere involvement, which brings to mind an old analogy concerning a ham-and-egg sandwich: The chicken was involved; the pig was committed. Likewise, an offshore-balancing force might be involved, but the four American combat divisions staring down a Soviet Guards Tank Army in Germany’s Fulda Gap were committed.

The world needs a committed America, not an involved America.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.