Shades of Gray
A couple weeks ago I highlighted a solid paper produced by the New America Foundation regarding a new approach for securing rather than controlling the commons. I both praised and critiqued the paper, though the former certainly overshadowed the latter. Bryan McGrath, over at the excellent maritime strategy blog Information Dissemination, wrote a thoughtful criticism of his own, mostly of the paper, but also of my praise for it. McGrath’s response to both the paper and my posts was good, but in the process he slew some offshore balancing strawmen, and that didn’t sit right with me.
Rather than embark on a point-by-point rebuttal, I’m going to focus on his conclusion that offshore balancing is useless (neo)isolationism, which is representative of the most common arguments against offshore balancing. Like most who are opposed to offshore balancing, McGrath reduces a complex strategic concept to its most simplistic – and therefore absurdist – form without allowing for the inherently wide range of possible implementations.
McGrath’s overall argument is that Lalwani and Shifrinon’s paper is:
[j]ust another example of a neo-isolationist strand of offshore balancing which combines loathing of “free-riders” with conjured-up “insecurity” posed by our own powerful naval force presence–without seeing the obvious potential for real (rather than conjured) insecurity flowing from abandoned “free-riders” arming themselves with new vigor. They make nice noises about the maintenance of “sufficient” combat power to protect our interests, without any real proposal on how to maintain such a force against further budget axes—sure to fall when the American people and their representatives wake up to the expensive luxury that is ships operating off San Diego, Guam and Diego Garcia–not deterring anyone nor reassuring anyone.
McGrath mistakenly links offshore balancing to (neo)isolationism. That’s not entirely surprising; the very name implies it to a degree. Given the fact that Robert Pape is the head cheerleader, with some help from the Cato Institute, offshore balancing is always going to be linked with (neo)isolationist thinkers. Because of this association, offshore balancing is generally understood in a literal sense: rather than forward deploy troops in various regions around the world, the argument goes, we should just park the US Navy over the horizon so it can intervene when necessary.
But this is a distorted and overly simplified view of offshore balancing. Moreover, this view is only one possible operational component of the larger offshore balancing strategy.
Offshore balancing is actually part of a realist strategic worldview, not a (neo)isolationist one. The basic idea is that one country uses friends and allies to check the rise of (potentially) hostile powers (see John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics for the Full Monty). Rather than committing your own military resources to preventing another power from challenging you, you let friends and allies shoulder that burden. The end results is that a country such as China is too busy worrying about India, Japan, and other countries to challenge the U.S. directly.
This isn’t a novel idea: the U.S. has engaged in offshore balancing at numerous times in history. Support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, and support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan are just a few examples. Now, I understand that the response to this might be that in none of those instances did offshore balancing work: we ended up fighting World War II, Saddam Hussein became our enemy anyway, and, well, we all know how Afghanistan turned out. But I want to point out that if you assume that U.S. national debt is already a crushing problem and that entitlements are not going away, given the woeful state of the U.S. economy, the inevitable conclusion is that the U.S. Department of Defense cannot continue simultaneously acting as the Japanese, Saudi Arabian, and Western European Departments of Defense too. Offshore balancing must be part and parcel of any U.S. national security strategy going forward because we can’t afford to guarantee everybody’s security by ourselves. Somebody else has to step up to the plate.
The problem with offshore balancing is how to operationalize it. Lalwani and Shifrinson ran headfirst into this problem. They focused on the maritime commons and removed it from a strategic context which, as McGrath notes is problematic. I will be the first to admit that operationalizing it is tricky, and to be frank, I don’t exactly know how to do it. Luckily, that’s not my job… yet.
Regardless, removing the U.S. security blanket does not imply—as McGrath and other offshore balancing opponents would have us believe—that the U.S. would necessarily abandon our friends and allies, allowing those regions to descend into Hobbesian anarchy. The U.S. would obviously have to manage any transition from global primacy to security provider of last resort. We could still provide security for various countries while those countries reinforced their conventional military defenses, thus mitigating an arms purchase free for all. We would presumably do this regardless to make sure that the U.S. was the country providing those arms.
Most importantly, it is not necessary for various smaller powers to reach parity with stronger regional powers. For example, our East Asian allies do not need the ability to fight a major conventional war with China; they simply need the ability to prevent any possible Chinese military action from becoming a fait accompli by delaying the Chinese military long enough for the U.S. Navy to sail to the rescue (with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, of course). And of course, we should assume that the U.S. will continue to provide a nuclear umbrella for our friends and allies in order to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The point is that the redeployment of military forces from East Asia to Hawaii or Guam does not necessarily imply the total abandonment of that region. There is a middle ground between the extremes of acting as Japan’s Department of Defense, providing100% of their security, and abandoning them in totality.
Which leads me to my next point—the state of the debate.
By linking offshore balancing to (neo)isolationism, McGrath commits what Patrick Porter calls an isolationist heresy. Porter writes:
Isolationism has become an inflated concept wielded to close down debate. This is due to the narrowness of the strategic debate in Washington. A diarchy of liberal internationalists and muscular nationalist hawks places all other ideas under the shadow of a Wilsonian tradition, in which the U.S. has no choice to secure itself but to dominate and convert the world… Both major parties have marginalized contrary visions. Those who argue for a withdrawal from global primacy are only to be found on the political fringes of American conservatism and progressivism. In such a narrow political intellectual market, the richness of competing traditions of American statecraft is reduced to caricature… The word ‘isolationist’ has also been emptied of meaning and become a rhetorical device to stifle and delegitimize dissent.
McGrath’s argument inadvertently falls into this reductionist trap. By (mistakenly) reducing a complicated strategy like offshore balancing to simple (neo)isolationism, McGrath and others are able to paint their opponents as naïve, prop up the isolationist strawman, then knock it down. McGrath repeatedly puts quotations around “free rider” and “insecurity” as if to imply that these concepts only exist in the minds of those realists who dare propose a scaled back approach to America’s role in the world. In fact, free riding and insecurity are very real byproducts of a global primacy, power projection force posture. Full stop. That’s not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether we accept these byproducts as the cost of doing business. That’s a debate in which I’m willing to engage.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the toxic domestic political climate has skulked into the realm of foreign policy in the form of ideological simplicity. Tax. Spend. Cut. Three words dominate political discourse in a stark duality without a middle ground. Our foreign policy debates shouldn’t be similarly reduced to black or white affairs. We don’t have to choose between total isolationism and global primacy. There is a middle ground, and we desperately need to find it, sooner rather than later.
Update: Be sure to read Tom Wright’s insightful comments below. He makes some salient points that are a must read for this debate.