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Shades of Gray

October 17, 2011

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.

  1. October 17, 2011 2:00 pm

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on Off Shore Balancing (OSB) but couldn’t restrain myself any longer from posted some thoughts/ criticisms on how it applies to US strategy in the Asia Pacific. Excuse the length of the comment but hopefully they’ll be helpful.

    First, you rightly dismiss the conflation of neo-isolationism and OSB as a strawman but you’re playing with some straw of your own. It is not accurate to say that current US policy is to provide for 100% of the security of its allies in Asia. The current posture is a mix of security provision and burden sharing. Now you may think that the middle ground is too far to one pole. Fine. But it’s a little unfair to position OSB as the only position that recognize the twin risks of free riding and the security dilemma. Probably the clearest data point for this is the fact that Asian states are spending much more on their defense as their security environment worsens. According to IISS’s latest data, Australia, South Korea, Japan, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore all increased their defense spending significantly over the past few years. So who do you think is a free rider and why? It’s easy to identify them elsewhere (almost all of western Europe for example) but not so clear cut in Asia.

    Second, your argument is a very US centric position that seems to take no account of the actual debate underway in Asia. I can’t think of many non-Chinese Asian defense planners outside of Taiwan who would agree that the only thing they need to do is to delay a Chinese attack for long enough to allow the US to arrive. Rightly or wrongly, they judge US credibility according to hard metrics, which include the proximity of forces. They also believe that their closeness to the US would be untenable if the US was off shore, defined as some reduction of the US presence in the region. The Australian defense white paper was quite good on this but you also hear it all the time at conferences and meetings. Now some of it is part of the normal burden sharing bargaining game but there’s a real concern there too. As long as OSB-ers basically ignore these regional concerns, it’s hard not to think of it as an abstract position. Bottom line, it’d be more persuasive if you backed up statements about what America’s Asian allies want with quotes/ evidence from them.

    Third, there is a case to be made that US policy at the moment is actually off shore balancing– e.g. that the soon to be announced US military presence in Australia is completely compatible with OSB– but in that case there is actually little substantive difference between primacy and OSB. I’ve asked some leading OSB-ers for specific examples of how OSB differs from current Asia strategy and they are unable to offer anything significant. It seems that the policy works a lot better in the Middle East or Europe (although in Europe the cost savings are insignificant). So, bottom line here is it would be terrific if OSB-ers could be clearer on how their strategy toward China differs from what the US is doing right now. If it’s pretty much the same then can we agree to agree.

    Fourth, there’s an assumption through much of the OSB case that China will correctly interpret the strategic shift as not diminishing US commitment toward its allies. But we know that China recently misinterpreted the financial crisis as a significant data point of a terminal US decline. Why are you confident that the misperception dynamic would not take hold here?

    Finally, I think the main reason many of us are uncomfortable with OSB in the Asia Pacific is that its advocates are asking the US to undertake a massive strategic experiment to change a strategy that few think is actually broken. You say that the debt is the primary driving force behind this shift but a) that’s actually contested, and b) there are other savings to be found in the budget (wars of choice in the Middle East, for instance). For OSB to take hold in Asia policy I think OSB-ers will need to do a lot more to show how the current bipartisan consensus is strategically flawed.

    Again, apologies for the length of the comment. I think this is an important debate. Hopefully these thoughts will add to it.

    • wjrue permalink
      October 17, 2011 3:49 pm


      All great points. First, a confession: I am nowhere close to being an Asia expert. Not even a little. This is important because this is the region, as I think you implicitly note, that provides the hardest case for OSB. It is all kinds of shades of gray that requires more understanding of the region than I probably have. That said, my concern is with the strategy itself being written off before we can get to the part of the debate where discuss its feasibility. That’s my argument in a nutshell: OSB is too often conflated with neo-isolationism, which is 1) incorrect and 2) unhelpful. It is less about advocating a new force posture and approach to East Asia.

      I did not mean to imply that OSB is the only view that recognizes the free rider problem and security dilemma. Providing 100% of security for our East Asian allies may have been a bit too much rhetorical flair on my part, but I don’t think it’s wildly off the mark either. For instance, you note that defense spending has increased by various countries throughout the region. My question is what has that extra money done for those countries? Has it provided a real increase in military capability that allows for a corresponding US withdrawal of assets? Are Vietnam and the Philippines now in a position to defend their claims on the Spratly Islands without US assistance? If that increased spending isn’t providing those countries with any real increase in security or capability, then what good as that as a data point? What does that tell me (other than those countries are not spending their defense dollars wisely)?

      I’m not necessarily advocating a different force posture in East Asia nor that the current consensus is flawed (at least not totally). I would definitely agree that Europe, Africa, and the Middle East are those areas where savings should be looked for first and where the case for OSB is much plainer. Again, the Asia Pacific region is the hard case. If we can find enough savings by decreasing our commitments in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, then our whole discussion is moot–we can carry on in East Asia. I’m okay with that. But, I’m not sure enough savings can be found there. For instance, even if claims that there is $1 trillion in savings to be had from winding down Afghanistan and Iraq are are found to be accurate–highly dubious from what I understand based on CBO scoring–that’s still only a fraction of the overall national debt. I do agree with you that there are plenty of other areas for savings in our budget (entitlements); I think we might disagree whether those savings (or revenue increases) are politically possible. If they are not politically possible and you believe that the national debt must be reduced, then we’re back to looking at things like US military commitments around the globe. Those who do not believe that the national debt is a big problem and must be reduced at all costs will find nothing to like about OSB period, but that’s a separate debate.

      In the end, you’re probably correct in noting that OSB is already current policy in East Asia. We would likely disagree to what extent, but that’s okay because I think there is some room for debate there. I’m not sure what, if any, radical changes I would offer as alternatives. Just as the burden is on OSB proponents to show how the current approach is flawed and a viable alternative, I think that advocates of current policy have the burden to demonstrate things like how do Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea affect the American taxpayer? So long as freedom of navigation is maintained, what do I care if the Spratly Islands are claimed by China with force? For that matter, why does de facto Taiwanese independence matter? (Okay, this last one is extreme, but the point is that I think the time has come to re-visit some fundamental assumptions and premises that have dominated US policy for the last 50 years.)

      All that said, I think we might agree more than we disagree. My point is simply that we should be able to have a debate over the efficacy of an OSB strategy that allows us to proceed to operational issues like the ones we’re debating in East Asia. But too often this does not happen because I’m branded as a neo-isolationist and written off before the debate occurs.

      Thanks for your detailed comments. No apology necessary for length. Comments like yours are the ones I like to read, even if they make what I wrote look stupid. Chime in any time.


  2. October 18, 2011 1:23 pm

    Hi Jonathan,
    Thanks for your response. I’m glad you’ve been writing about this and think it’s a debate well worth having.

    Let me completely agree with you that labels can often stymie debate rather than facilitate it. I’ve heard a lot of analysts who support some retrenchment in US grand strategy express frustration that their opponents pigeon-hole them as neo-isolationists in an attempt to end the discussion before it starts. However, it’s also true for those who support the status quo. For instance, senior OSB-ers like Desch, Mearsheimer, and Pape sometimes label the Status Quo group as global primacists, liberal imperialists, and so on in an effort to frame the discussion to their benefit. I’m not sure any of this labeling gets us anywhere. I suspect we’d be better off arguing where we really agree and disagree on the substance without the labels.

    Having said that, I would like to explore some of the conceptual differences that go beyond the labeling, again by using the Asia-Pacific as an example mainly because it’s widely regarded as the theater most likely to determine the path of the first half of the 21st century.

    There is a U.S led regional order in the Asia-Pacific. It’s not just a figment of the American imagination. It’s perceived and lived by America’s allies, partners, and friends in the region. Rightly or wrongly, (and putting my cards on the table, I see it as rightly) they see this order as largely indivisible. What happens in the South China Sea or Taiwan is inextricably linked to their fate and the fate of the order as a whole. Now, the interesting thing is that they tend to see the process as more important than the outcome. When assessing the viability of the order as a whole, It doesn’t really matter if China gets this island or that island at the end of the day if the process is seen to be legitimate and within the bounds of the existing order. It’s the legitimacy of the process that the U.S. has committed to uphold. That’s why Clinton said what she said in Hanoi in July 2010 about the multilateral resolution of territorial disputes. And it’s why Taiwan policy is so conditional (i.e. accepting one China but also saying there can be no hostile take over).

    This brings me to a key philosophical difference in the debate. OSB-ers tend to argue that the U.S. must make the argument on a case-by-case basis why the future of some island in the S China Sea (or Taiwan) is in the American national interest. Indeed, you made this point in your comment. I like to think of this approach as a relatively narrowly drawn definition of the national interest because it doesn’t define each challenge or problem as part of the order as a whole (which would require a rather expansive notion of the national interest). With a narrowly drawn definition of the national interest, it is easier to reduce the number of military commitments and it is much harder to justify the current strategy. My sense is that this difference is at the core of the debate and is worth discussing further. The hard question for me is where to draw the line– clearly the US cannot do everything nor should it. The hard question for you is how destabilizing would the shift toward a narrow self interest be and is the game worth the candle.

    There’s another side to this that I think renders OSB somewhat problematic in the present context. Conceptually, OSB is usually intended as a strategy to protect the existing equilibrium. Other states can effectively stalemate each other and if the equilibrium is ever truly upset the US can intervene to restore the equilibrium. In other words, it is a status quo strategy most of the time. However, most of the time is not all of the time. In the present context, the US led international order is the status quo. OSB would be a revisionist strategy since its implementation would likely transform international politics. This revisionism contradicts, I think, the sensibilities of most realists, particularly those of a defensive realist inclination. Bill Wohlforth basically makes this point, better than I’ve done here, and uses it to explain why OSB has much less resonance now than one might expect.

    If OSB is a revisionist strategy, it is incumbent up its supporters to unpack the details of how it would work in practice. How do you draw the distinction between those areas you’ll defend and those you won’t (how Acheson got into trouble in 1950)? How do you prevent rising powers from perceiving a vacuum and opportunity that creates conflicts that wouldn’t otherwise occur? I’m not sure there is an answer to these questions, at least not an answer that offers a high probability of success (as distinct from something that just might work). The specter looming in the background is the risk of an uncontrollable escalation leading to a pre 1914 style scenario within a decade or so. Again, I’m not sure this is overly pessimistic, especially for realists, for whom pessimism is an inherent part of international politics.

    On your other points, I agree that the budgetary savings from the Middle East and Europe will not be massive but I guess where we differ is that I see the strategic costs of retrenchment as far outweighing a financial benefit that would accrue from it. This probably hinges on how much of an existential threat the national debt is deemed to be. On defense budgets in Asia, my understanding is that the increased spending does help them defend themselves but it is the context of greater insecurity so everyone has to do more to preserve the status quo, including the US.


  3. October 19, 2011 9:42 pm

    Mr. Rue–thanks again for the civil exchange on this topic. I have a quibble to raise though. Your latest post seems to indicate that I equated OB with Neo-isolationism (henceforth NI)—but I did nothing of the sort. I equated the NAF brand of OB neo-isolationism, and I wrote of other OB’s who generally sound like NI’s. That there are NI’s who hide behind OB does not mean all OB’s are NI’s, nicht wahr? That said, you’ve done a great job of identifying OB’s who are not NI’s, and I couldn’t agree more.

    • wjrue permalink
      October 20, 2011 8:51 am

      Bryan (forgive me for taking this liberty, but we’re pretty informal around here),

      Thanks for stopping by, reading, and providing some clarification. I certainly didn’t purposefully misrepresent your argument–I misread or mis-inferred it–so my apologies. There is such a fine line between the two camps though. The academic lines are quite clear, but as my friend Dan Trombly noted yesterday (further elucidated in a post at his own blog as these academic debates intersect with policy, lines get blurred, ideas are misappropriated, etc. This is partly because OSB is more than just working through friends and allies–it’s purposefully sowing or taking advantage of discord between different countries in order to direct their resources elsewhere and to shape conditions better suited to one’s interests. But, that’s antithetical to the very basis of American foreign policy (at least on conscious level). I think it’s also because operationalizing this stuff is hard, but maybe that’s just me.

      The purpose of my post was to simply make some space for OSB to get a fair hearing, something that because of the association with thinkers you and I highlighted, doesn’t always happen. This is a fascinating debate and one that needs to be had. Again, thanks for stopping by and I look forward to continuing this debate or having new ones.



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