Obama’s Offshore Dominance

Its a little late in coming, but I wanted to post some thoughts on Peter Beinart’s thoughtful recent description of President Obama’s evolving approach to US grand strategy as ‘offshore balancing.’

Stephen Walt has already responded, and there have already been some great posts on the broader issue of what really counts as offshore balancing, here, and here.

One of the difficulties in the endless debate over how to taxonomise US strategic behaviour is that many folk naturally emphasise techniques or goals (or means and ends) at the other’s expense. Perhaps this reflects a deeper reflex in Washington foreign policy debate, where the overriding goals of American diplomacy are debated far less intensively than the means. Muscular liberals might agree with Neoconservatives that the ultimate goal is American benevolent primacy in the world, which in turn would advance American and global security, but they disagree at times over how to get there (consensual multilateralism and institution-building or hawkish unilateral action, etc). At times this can lead to a certain ‘narcissism of small differences.’ So there is a temptation to stress the ‘offshore’ aspect and downplay ‘balancing.’ As Peter Beinart characterises it:

One way of understanding America’s shifting policy in the Middle East is that we’re moving offshore. Instead of directly occupying Islamic lands, we’re trying to secure our interests from the sea, the air and by equipping our allies. That’s in large measure what the Obama administration is trying to do in East Asia, too.The central message of Obama’s trip last week to Australia was that the U.S. finally is focused on restraining China’s rise in the Pacific. And how will the U.S. do that? A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding, the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.

This echoes the approach of the likes of Robert Pape, who argues (especially in the context of how to reduce anti-American terrorism) for a lighter footprint and a more naval-oriented military posture. And to be sure, it is important to consider that a big part of driving down the costs of American strategy could be moving offshore and avoiding large-scale expeditionary land commitments.

But offshore balancing, at least as it has been formulated since the first generation of post World War Two realists all the way to contemporaries such as Barry Posen, Christopher Preble and Christopher Layne, is a bigger and more demanding creature than that.

It isn’t just an alternative path to maintaining American hegemony abroad, or to making hegemony cheaper. It proposes a substantively new role for the U.S. in the world. As Brian C. Schmidt argues observantly in a paper he gave a while back, it is an argument that the US abandon the pursuit of unipolar primacy in the world. Its about ‘ends’ as well as ‘means’, or at least, it argues that America’ security interests are better served by accommodating what is inevitable, the return of mulitpolarity.

Take Obama’s recent Defence Strategic Guidance, and the stance he articulated recently, orienting the US strategically towards East Asia while scaling back its onshore commitments, de-emphasising prolonged counter-insurgency and nation-building missions and ramping up investment in drones and cyber capabilities.

While it may be tempting to define this – as some of Obama’s defenders and supporters do- as a fundamental grand strategic shift, it really isn’t. Its an attempt to pursue the existing, inherited grand strategic goal (the preservation of American primacy) while adjusting the ever-shifting mix of military supremacy, deterrence, reassurance, democratisation and liberalisation, in an apparently increasing important part of the world where the economic weight and political ambition is moving. (It is also, incidentally, a softly expressed but unmistakable confirmation that America is drawing down its military protectorate in Europe).

The title of Obama’s Defence Strategic Guidance gives the game away: ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership.’ Which is a polished, euphemistic way of saying that America is not abandoning its role as No. 1, the guardian of world order. Offshore Balancers who go beyond tactics and techniques and methods do not usually share this ambition. In fact, they regard the pursuit of primacy and the vehicle to pursue it -a vast, forward-leaning military-strategic presence, a set of permanent formal alliances, and the attempt to remake the world in America’s image – as pernicious, exhausting, prone to inviting ‘free riding’ from others and creating security dilemmas unintentionally, as well as damaging American democracy at home. If America isn’t to embrace an amoral cynicism in place of the Pax Americana, they argue that it can better embody and repair its values at home, as an example to the world.

The main challenge for offshore balancing, in trying to navigate a mid-point between isolation and hegemony, is how to operationalise such a role, and how to give it geopolitical shape. In other words, precisely where would US forces be parked if they aren’t just to pack up and go home, and how should the US prepare for the possibility of competitive balancing or even bandwagoning if its onshore presence its reduced? On that note, I’m writing a little pamphlet that will be published later in 2012, all being well.

The suspense must be killing you.

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