Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. grand strategy has revolved around maintaining this country’s overwhelming military, economic, and political preponderance. Until now most Americans have acquiesced in that strategy, because the costs seemed to be tolerably low. But the September 11 attacks have proved otherwise. Those assaults were neither random nor irrational. Those who undertook them acted with cool calculation to force the United States to alter specific policies—policies that largely flow from the global role America has chosen. The attacks were also a violent reaction to the very fact of America’s pre-eminence.
Several tasks confront us. The most immediate is the one that rightly preoccupies the nation now: tracking down the al Qaeda terrorists and destroying their networks and their infrastructure, and waging war on the Taliban movement that harbors them. The larger task will take time, because it amounts to inventing a new American stance toward the world for the century ahead. We need to come to grips with an ironic possibility: that the very preponderance of American power may now make us not more secure but less secure. By the same token, it may actually be possible to achieve more of our ultimate foreign-policy goals by means of a diminished global presence.
Great powers have two basic strategic options: they can pursue geopolitical dominance (a “unipolar” strategy), or they can seek to maintain a rough balance of power among the strongest states in a region or around the world (a “multipolar” strategy). Since the late 1940s the United States has chosen the former course. True, even during the Cold War, when the world was essentially divided between the United States and the Soviet Union, a number of astute foreign-policy thinkers—including Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, and J. William Fulbright—argued that it was in America’s interest to encourage Western Europe’s and Japan’s revival as independent great powers to relieve the United States of what Kennan called the “burdens of ‘bi-polarity.'” But almost all American policymakers held that the United States had to contain its allies as much as it had to contain Moscow. By providing for the security of Britain, France, and (especially) Germany and Japan—by defending their access to far-flung economic and natural resources, and by enmeshing their foreign and military policies in alliances that America dominated—Washington prevented these former and potential great powers from embarking on independent, and (from the U.S. perspective) possibly destabilizing, foreign policies. This “reassurance strategy” (to use a term currently favored by policymakers) allowed for an unprecedented level of political and economic cooperation among the states of Western Europe and East Asia.
As noted, American policy since the end of the Cold War has aimed to ensure that the United States maintains its lofty perch. Every post-Cold War Pentagon assessment of national-security needs has insisted that America maintain its globe-girdling Cold War alliances, along with its Cold War defense-spending levels, even though the threat against which those alliances and budgets were ostensibly erected has disappeared. Some critics argue that this apparent stasis is born of bureaucratic inertia, or of a defense establishment’s jealous guarding of its turf (and its trough). But in fact, given the logic behind American grand strategy, this continuity is entirely justifiable. The collapse of the Soviet Union hasn’t altered the conviction among many American policymakers that a stable global economic and political order depends on Washington’s maintaining preponderance (or, according to the official rhetoric, “leadership”) over potential great powers. This means ameliorating their security problems.
The now infamous draft of the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance (prepared under the direction of the current undersecretary of defense for policy, Paul Wolfowitz), which was leaked to The New York Times in 1992, merely stated in undiplomatic language the logic that has long informed Washington’s strategy. The United States, it argued, must continue to dominate the international system and thus to “discourage” the “advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or … even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” To accomplish this Washington must do nothing less than “retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing … those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations.” In other words, America must provide its allies with what one of the document’s authors (now a special assistant to the President on the National Security Council) termed “adult supervision”: the United States must not only impose a military protectorate over Europe and East Asia—regions composed of wealthy and technologically sophisticated states—but also safeguard Europe’s and East Asia’s worldwide interests, so that they need not develop military forces capable of “global power projection.” (As Gabriel Robin, a former French representative to NATO, acknowledged, the U.S.-led alliance’s “real function … is to serve as the chaperon of Europe.” It is, Robin said, “the means to prevent [Europe] from establishing itself as an independent fortress and perhaps one day, a rival.”) Those who argue that America’s national-security spending is too high, given the end of the Cold War, often fail to appreciate the task Washington has assigned itself. The adult supervision of the world is an enormously expensive and complex undertaking, which perforce means that the United States must spend more on its military than do the next nine countries together—including Russia, Japan, China, France, Britain, and Germany.
An adult-supervision strategy entails a peculiar and recondite calculation of the world situation. For instance, although most Americans might believe that a reunified, democratic Korea would indisputably be in America’s interests, the former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard (probably the fullest and frankest public exposition of America’s post-Cold War global strategy), repeatedly explains how this development would in fact jeopardize America’s unipolar strategy: it would, he argues, reflecting views long and widely held in policymaking circles, obviate the ostensible need for U.S. troops on the peninsula, which could lead to a U.S. pullback from East Asia, which could, in turn, lead to Japan’s becoming “militarily more self-sufficient,” which would lead to political, military, and economic rivalry among the region’s states. Thus the best situation is the status quo in Korea, which allows for U.S. forces to be stationed there indefinitely.
Similar—and more urgent, given the current war on terrorism—is the thinking underlying Washington’s policy in the Persian Gulf. Why is the United States so deeply embroiled in this turbulent region? Many people, echoing a comment by Secretary of State James A. Baker during the Persian Gulf War, would probably answer with one word: oil. This answer is—and was—both true and misleading. America derives most of its oil from Alaska, Canada, the continental United States, Mexico, and Venezuela. About 25 percent of U.S. petroleum imports come from the Persian Gulf. If the United States adopted a national energy strategy, it could free itself from dependence on Persian Gulf oil. Nevertheless, Washington assumes responsibility for stabilizing the region because Western Europe and Japan are heavily dependent on its oil, and because soon China, owing to rapid economic growth, will be as well—and America wants to discourage those powers from developing the means to protect that resource for themselves. In an interview on National Public Radio early in October, Walter Russell Mead, a senior foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained the basis of U.S. policy in the terms that NSC staffers, think-tank analysts, and State and Defense Department policy planners have used for years: “We do not get that large a percentage of our oil from the Middle East. Japan gets a lot more … And one of the reasons that we are sort of assuming this role of policeman of the Middle East, more or less, has more to do with making Japan and some other countries feel that their oil flow is assured … so that they don’t then feel more need to create a great power, armed forces, and security doctrine, and you don’t start getting a lot of great powers with conflicting interests sending their militaries all over the world.”
espite its sometimes esoteric logic, America’s strategy of preponderance is seductive. In the abstract it makes sense that the United States should seek to amass as much power as possible. In this way the rationale behind U.S. strategy is analogous to that of a firm in an oligopolistic market, which drives its rivals out of business rather than risk its profits in a competitive environment. Theoretically, if a state can establish—and maintain—itself as the only great power in the international system, it will enjoy something very close to absolute security. But as history amply shows, when one state acquires too much power, others invariably fear that it will aggrandize itself at their expense. “Hegemonic empires,” Henry Kissinger recently noted, “almost automatically elicit universal resistance, which is why all such claimants have sooner or later exhausted themselves.”
More than two hundred years ago Edmund Burke warned his countrymen,
Among precautions against ambition it may not be amiss to take one precaution against our own … I dread our being too much dreaded … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard-of power. But every nation will think we shall abuse it … Sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.
Like some optimistic Britons in the late eighteenth century, many American strategists today assert that the United States, the only superpower, is a “benevolent” hegemon, immunized from a backlash against its preponderance by what they call its “soft power”—that is, by the attractiveness of its liberal-democratic ideology and its open, syncretic culture. Washington also believes that others don’t fear U.S. geopolitical pre-eminence because they know the United States will use its unprecedented power to promote the good of the international system rather than to advance its own selfish aims.
But states must always be more concerned with a predominant power’s capabilities than with its intentions, and in fact well before September 11—indeed, throughout most of the past decade—other states have been profoundly anxious about the imbalance of power in America’s favor. This simmering mistrust of U.S. predominance intensified during the Clinton Administration, as other states responded to American hegemony by concerting their efforts against it. Russia and China, although long estranged, found common ground in a nascent alliance that opposed U.S. “hegemonism” and expressly aimed at re-establishing “a multipolar world.” Arguing that the term “superpower” is inadequate to convey the true extent of America’s economic and military pre-eminence, the French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine called the United States a “hyperpower.” Even the Dutch Prime Minister declared that the European Union should make itself “a counterweight to the United States.”
American intervention in Kosovo crystallized fears of U.S. hegemony, prompting the emergence of an anti-U.S. constellation of China, Russia, and India. Viewing the Kosovo war as a dangerous precedent establishing Washington’s self-declared right to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, and asserting their support for a multipolar world, these three states increased their arms transfers and their sharing of military technology, specifically to counter American power. Also, the Kosovo conflict made apparent the disparity between America’s geopolitical power and Europe’s, inciting Europe to take its first serious steps toward redressing that disparity by acquiring—through the European Defense and Security Identity—the kinds of military capabilities it would need to act independent of the United States. If the European Union fulfills EDSI’s longer-term goals, it will emerge as an unfettered strategic player in world politics. And that emergence will have been driven by the clear objective of investing Europe with the capability to act as a brake on America’s aspirations.
Any remaining doubt that American hegemony could trigger a hostile reaction, whether reasonable or not, surely dissipated on September 11. The role the United States has assigned itself in the Persian Gulf has made it—not Japan, not the states of Western Europe, not China—vulnerable to a backlash. Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan resent America’s intrusion into regional affairs. The widespread perception within the region that the Middle East has long been a victim of “Western imperialism” of course exacerbates this animosity. Moreover, aggrieved groups throughout the Middle East contest the legitimacy of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf emirates which the United States is compelled to support, making America even more of a lightning rod for the politically disaffected. In this sense Osama bin Laden’s brand of terrorism (which aims to compel the United States to remove its military forces from the Persian Gulf, and to replace America’s client, the Saudi monarchy, with a fundamentalist Islamic government) dramatically illustrates U.S. vulnerability to the kind of “asymmetric warfare” of which some defense experts have warned.
The rise of new great powers is inevitable, and America’s very primacy accelerates this process. If Washington continues to follow an adult-supervision strategy, which treats its “allies” as irresponsible adolescents and China and Russia as future enemies to be suppressed, its relations with these emerging great powers will be increasingly dangerous, as they coalesce against what they perceive as an American threat. But that is not even the worst conceivable outcome. What if a sullen and resentful China were to align itself with Islamic fundamentalist groups? Such a situation is hardly beyond the realm of possibility; partners form alliances not because they are friends, or because they have common values, but because they fear someone else more than they fear each other.
A strategy of preponderance is burdensome, Sisyphean, and profoundly risky. It is therefore time for U.S. policymakers to adopt a very different grand strategy: one that might be called offshore balancing. Rather than fear multipolarity, this strategy embraces it. It recognizes that instability—caused by the rise and fall of great powers, great-power rivalries, and messy regional conflicts—is a geopolitical fact of life. Offshore balancing accepts that the United States cannot prevent the rise of new great powers, either within the present American sphere (the European Union, Germany, Japan) or outside it (China, a resurgent Russia). Instead of exhausting its resources and drawing criticism or worse by keeping these entities weak, the United States would allow them to develop their militaries to provide for their own national and regional security. Among themselves, then, these states would maintain power balances, check the rise of overly ambitious global and regional powers, and stabilize Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. It would naturally be in their interests to do so.
It’s always safest and cheapest to get others to stabilize the turbulent regions of the globe. Historically, however, this has seldom been an option, because if one lives in a dangerous neighborhood, one must be prepared to protect oneself from troublemakers rather than relying on someone else to do so. In fact, the only two great powers in modern history that successfully devolved onto others the responsibility for maintaining regional stability are Britain during its great-power heyday (1700-1914) and the United States (until 1945). They were able to do so because they had moats—a narrow one for England, and two very big ones for the United States—that kept predatory Eurasian great powers at bay.
As offshore balancers, Britain and the United States reaped enormous strategic dividends. While they were shielded from threatening states by geography, London and Washington could afford to maintain militaries smaller than those of Continental powers, and concentrate instead on getting rich. Often they could stay out of Europe’s turmoil entirely, gaining in strength as other great powers fought debilitating wars. And even in wartime offshore balancers have enjoyed advantages that Continental powers have not. Instead of sending big armies to fight costly Continental wars, Britain, for instance, relied on its navy to blockade those states bidding for mastery of Europe and on its financial power to underwrite coalitions against them, and stuck its allies with the greater part of the blood price of defeating those powers that aspired to dominate the Continent.
The United States, of course, followed a similar strategy during World War II. From 1940 to 1944 it confined its role in the European war to providing economic assistance and munitions to the Soviet Union and Britain and—after entering the war, in December of 1941—to relatively low-cost strategic air bombardment of Germany, and peripheral land campaigns in North Africa and Italy. The United States was more than happy to delay the invasion of Europe until June of 1944. By then the Red Army—which inflicted about 88 percent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties throughout the war—had mortally weakened Germany, but at a staggering cost.
Taken together, the experiences of Britain and America highlight the central feature of the offshore balancing strategy: it allows for burden shifting, rather than burden sharing. Offshore balancers can afford to be bystanders in the opening stages of conflict. Because the security of others is most immediately at risk, an offshore balancer can be confident that those others will attempt to defend themselves. Often they will do so expeditiously, obviating the offshore balancer’s intervention. If, on the other hand, a predominant power seems to be winning, an offshore balancer can intervene decisively to forestall its victory (as Britain did against Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon). And if the offshore balancer must intervene, the state aspiring to dominance will already have been at least somewhat bloodied, and thus not as formidable as it was for those who had the geopolitical misfortune to constitute the first line of defense.
The same dynamics apply—or would, if the United States gave them a chance—in regional conflicts, although not quite as dramatically. Great powers that border restive neighbors, or that are economically dependent on unstable regions, have a much larger interest than does the United States in policing those areas. Most regional power balances (the relative positions of, say, Hungary and Romania, or of one sub-Saharan state and another) need not concern the United States. America must intervene only to prevent a single power from dominating a strategically crucial area—and then only if the efforts of great powers with a larger stake in that region have failed to redress the imbalance. So for an offshore balancing strategy to work, the world must be multipolar—that is, there must be several other great powers, and major regional powers as well, onto which the United States can shift the burden of maintaining stability in various parts of the world.
For America the most important grand-strategic issue is what relations it will have with these new great powers. In fostering a multipolar world—in which the foreign and national-security policies of the emerging great powers will be largely devoted to their rivalries with one another and to quelling and containing regional instability—an offshore balancing strategy is, of course, opportunistic and self-serving. But it also exercises restraint and shows geopolitical respect. By abandoning the “preponderance” strategy’s extravagant objectives, the United States can minimize the risks of open confrontation with the new great powers.
Although jockeying for advantage is a fact of life for great powers, coexistence, and even cooperation between and among them, is not unusual. Offshore balancing seeks to promote America’s relative power and security, but it also aims to maximize the opportunity for the United States to be on decent terms with the other great powers. In this sense the strategy has much in common with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s vision of détente. That policy was a significant departure from previous Cold War approaches, in that the United States explicitly recognized the Soviet Union as a collaborator in, rather than a challenger to, the effort to maintain the stability of the international system. To understand this dramatic shift, contrast the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, in which that paragon of Cold War liberalism advanced the stirring but rather dangerous notion that in the struggle with communism the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden,” with Nixon’s first inaugural address, which promulgated the realistic but conciliatory message that “we cannot expect to make everyone our friend, but we can try to make no one our enemy.” This was détente’s animating sentiment.
Détente was based on the assumption (hardly contested at the time) that the USSR wouldn’t go away. Because the superpower rivalry could not be resolved without destroying humanity, there was, as Kissinger declared, “no alternative to coexistence.” Détente, then, was a strategy for managing a permanent relationship. In what Nixon and Kissinger hoped would evolve into a mature relationship, Moscow and Washington would acknowledge each other’s legitimate interests and try not to allow disagreements to poison accommodations. Détente was a shift in style with substance—or, rather, a shift in style with substantive consequences. The Soviets and the Chinese were to be approached not as alien ideologues but as intelligent adults with whom the United States should find a substantial area of common interest.
Similarly, an offshore balancing strategy would dictate that in order to coexist with the emerging great powers, or even to enjoy cooperative ties with them (in efforts to combat Islamic terrorism, for instance), the United States must start treating such powers like fellow adults. This would mean both accepting them as peers and acknowledging the legitimacy of their national interests. In concrete terms, here is how an offshore balancing strategy would apply to particular cases.
Today, not for the first time in its history, Russia is down and out as a great power. But it has come back before and probably will do so again. Moreover, for the United States, Russia is crucial as a potential ally in three regions: Europe (vis-à-vis a European “superstate,” or Germany if the EU project fails), East Asia (vis-à-vis China), and the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. As an offshore balancer, the United States would abandon plans for NATO expansion (which Russia regards as a strategic threat), and if Washington decides to undertake a national missile-defense program, it would follow through on the recent agreement to make deep cuts in its strategic nuclear arsenal to reassure Russia and China that it doesn’t seek to gain a first-strike advantage. It would allow Russia to supervise its legitimate sphere of influence—in Chechnya and in Central Asia, where it is combating Islamic fundamentalists, as well as in parts of Eastern Europe and in the states that formerly composed the Soviet Union. America’s direct sphere of influence embraces the area from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and from Greenland to Guam. Surely we can tolerate other great powers’ enjoying spheres of influence in their own parts of the world.
With respect to China, the United States would recognize that the Taiwan issue is an internal Chinese matter. Taiwan’s unresolved status is a legacy of the civil war that ended on the mainland in 1949. It is worth recalling that before the outbreak of the Korean War, Secretary of State Dean Acheson advised that the United States should extricate itself from the unfinished business of the Chinese civil war and leave Taiwan to its fate. A half century later it is time for the United States finally to do so. Washington would also fundamentally re-examine its notion of what constitutes a “China threat.” That China, the largest and potentially most powerful state in East Asia, would seek a more assertive political, economic, and military role in the region—and would even want to end America’s current strategic superiority there—hardly meets that threshold (although it is no doubt alarming to China’s immediate neighbors). The United States should also mute its criticism of China’s human-rights policy. Washington simply can’t transform China into a liberal, free-market democracy, and U.S. pressure only exacerbates the friction in Sino-American relations. Generally, an offshore balancing strategy would hold that fatalism should replace idealism in America’s attitude toward what used to be called the internal arrangements of other countries. It would also hold that our pragmatic policy choices, born of self-interest, should be embraced as such, and not clothed in altruism or idealism. Seeking to engender changes in other nations’ fundamental values so that they resemble America’s is an unreasonable goal of foreign policy. An offshore balancing strategy would accept other nations for what they are, or what their history has made them.
Unlike nearly everyone in Japan and the rest of Asia, Americans want Japan to spend more on its military, thinking that will equalize economic competition. With respect to Europe, the United States would endorse the EU’s efforts—which Washington now opposes—to acquire the military capabilities it needs to defend its interests independent of the United States. At the same time, the United States would begin a phased withdrawal from its European security commitments. To be sure, many U.S. policymakers have argued that the Europeans have demonstrated their incapacity (during the Balkan crises, for instance) to act effectively without U.S. “leadership.” But these protests are hypocritical—who can blame the Europeans for their inability to assert themselves in security affairs when Washington has for decades repeatedly squelched European initiatives that would have made that assertion possible? An offshore balancing strategy would hold that America’s strategic interest in Europe does not demand that Washington insure against every untoward event there. Disorder in the Balkans and other places on Europe’s fringes should be a matter for Europeans, who have the wherewithal to combat it, quarantine it, or, if they choose, ignore it. The United States would follow a similar policy with respect to Japan. Washington would announce to Tokyo its intention to terminate the Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty within a specified time period (say, five years), at the end of which Japan, for more thanfifty years a politically stable state, would have developed whatever military means it believes necessary to function as an independent great power. An offshore balancing strategy would turn on a simple truth: other states have at least as much interest as the United States does in secure sea-lanes, access to resources, and regional stability. The less America does, and the less others expect it to do, the more other states will do to help themselves.
Recognizing the legitimacy of other great powers’ spheres of influence offers the United States a further strategic advantage. The Persian Gulf and Central Asia show why. Russia and China both are profoundly concerned about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism on their peripheries. In Chechnya, in Central Asia (where Russian troops help to defend the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), and in the Caucasus, Moscow has fought major military campaigns to protect its southern flank against militant Islam. China, too, is combating terrorism fomented by Islamic separatists, in the Xinjiang province. Last June, Beijing and Moscow entered into a security relationship, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which also embraces three of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia), to coordinate efforts to combat the common threat to their security posed by these Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups—groups linked to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Similarly, India, a possible future great power, has been battling Islamic terrorists who are waging a proxy war on Pakistan’s behalf to wrest the disputed province of Kashmir away from New Delhi. Simply put, for reasons of security and access to oil, Russia, China, India, Western Europe, and Japan have strong reasons—stronger than America’s—to pacify Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. By adopting an offshore balancing strategy, the United States will compel them to do so.
Passing the buck would help the United States out of the impasse that securing Afghanistan promises to be. The political and military challenges the war poses underscore how difficult and costly will be the effort to restore order in the country and the region when the fighting stops. When the United States has achieved its military goals in Afghanistan, it should announce a phased withdrawal from its security commitments in the region, shifting to others the hard job of stabilizing it.
The complexities involved in that job are numerous. Washington’s very strategy of primacy, and America’s concomitant military presence in the region, are in themselves a source of instability, especially for the regimes on which the United States relies. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for instance, face doubtful prospects precisely because their close connection to Washington intensifies radical nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist opposition within those countries. For this reason none of the regional regimes in the current coalition can be especially dependable allies. Only with enormous pressure did a few of them even allow American forces to conduct offensive strikes on Afghanistan from bases on their territory. And fearing that popular anger at the U.S. military campaign will trigger domestic political explosions, many of these states pressed Washington to bring an early end to the war.
If America remains in the region indefinitely, it will have to prop up these unpopular or failing regimes. In Saudi Arabia the United States could easily find itself militarily involved if internal upheaval threatens the monarchy’s hold on power. To forestall economic collapse in Pakistan, Washington will have to donate billions of dollars in direct and indirect assistance. Finally, if the United States continues to play the role of regional gendarme, it will assume the thankless—and probably hopeless—burden of trying to put Afghanistan together again. Divided along ethnic, linguistic, and clan fault lines, the various factions inside Afghanistan cannot agree on that country’s future political organization. (The forces making up the anti-Taliban contingent seem only to agree that they resent U.S. bombing of their country.) That the outside powers have conflicting goals for Afghanistan’s future further complicates any sorting out of Afghanistan’s political structure. If ever there was a place where America should devolve security responsibilities to others, it is the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia region. Again, Western Europe, Japan, Russia, China, and India all have greater security and economic interests in the region than does the United States, and if America pulls out, they will police it because they must.
Rather than attempt to impose a Pax Americana on this endemically turbulent area, the United States should devote the resources it currently spends on this costly and dangerous job to rendering the region economically and strategically irrelevant. That is, America should pursue a national energy policy that would develop alternative sources of energy for the United States and, more important, the rest of the industrialized world. This colossal scientific and industrial effort should be our highest national-security priority (see “Mideast Oil Forever?,” by Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis, April, 1996, Atlantic). If the United States shifts responsibility for stabilizing the region to the other great powers, the real price of Persian Gulf oil will become extremely high for them. It would then be in their interests to pool resources and expertise with America in what would amount to an international Manhattan Project to obviate the need for that oil—thus dramatically reducing the revenue streams to the regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Doing so is surely a common international interest. If Washington were to spend the approximately $106 billion that—according to Earl Ravenal, a former Pentagon analyst—it is devoting this year to defending the Persian Gulf region, and if Western Europe, Japan, China, and Russia were to kick in what they would otherwise spend on policing the region, it’s hard to imagine that this goal couldn’t be achieved.
Some will assert, correctly, that if it abjures a strategy of preponderance, America will sacrifice some of the awe with which it is viewed by the world. But less awe and less influence will bring the United States more security. Some will object that the policy we advocate shuns the inspiring role of America as “the indispensable nation.” But such a grandiose vision, while pleasing to our image of ourselves, is the antithesis of statecraft, which must be guided by discrimination on the basis of power, interest, and circumstance. Historically, the most imaginative statesmen and policies have hardly been visionary. For centuries, with flexibility and subtlety, British diplomats pursued a grand strategy that aimed at nothing more inspiring than ensuring a balance of power among the states of Western Europe. This was really just tactical fine-tuning on a grand scale, and so aroused the consternation of idealists of every stripe. For their part, America’s nineteenth-century statesmen could not have been less idealistic or more pragmatic as they, by adroitly exploiting European great-power rivalries, maneuvered the British, the French, and the Spanish out of North America and established American predominance in the Western Hemisphere—probably the most stunning diplomatic achievement of modern history, and the very model of a successful multipolar strategy.
The policy we advocate is informed by the conviction that history is “just one damned thing after another”; we see no end to power politics. And we hold that the purpose of grand strategy isn’t the pursuit of new world orders but simply making the best of bad choices—to use the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s metaphor, keeping afloat in “a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination.” Ours is a grand strategy for the long haul—and so, by the lights of visionaries who see foreign policy as a means of pursuing millennialist goals, not a very grand one. But the grander its foreign-policy vision, the more a state is trapped in the tyranny of its own construct: although recent administrations display an odd compulsion to devise and promulgate such visions of America’s role in the world, those visions are in fact incompatible with the push and pull of strategy.
Finally, although some might characterize an offshore balancing strategy as isolationist, it emphatically is not. Rather, its guiding principle is a clear-eyed realism. It is a workaday policy—pragmatic, flexible, and opportunistic. But it will also bring America into a more respectful and natural relationship with the other great powers, as the United States forsakes the temptations of hegemony. “A mature great power will make measured and limited use of its power,” Walter Lippmann wrote in 1965.
It will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty, which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention, but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness … I am in favor of learning to behave like a great power, of getting rid of the globalism, which would not only entangle us everywhere, but is based on the totally vain notion that if we do not set the world in order, no matter what the price, we cannot live in the world safely … In the real world, we shall have to learn to live as a great power which defends itself and makes its way among other great powers.