American Strategy and Offshore Balancing by Default


Offshore Balancing is much more attractive as an academic notion than a real-world strategic approach.


For much of its history, the United States has only wished to be left alone to focus on its domestic affairs. But history has not left America, the sole superpower, alone.  In the hope that it might start to, an unlikely coalition of academics, libertarians, and progressives promote Offshore Balancing as American’s new grand strategy.  But it already is, and it isn’t producing results.

In a January 2012 essay, Texas A&M Professor Christopher Layne claimed that the Obama Administration’s “Defense Strategic Guidance” represented a grand strategic shift from Primacy to Offshore Balancing, one which he had predicted would occur in 1997.  Layne attempted a consensus definition of Offshore Balancing thusly:

-Fiscal and economic constraints require that the United States set strategic priorities. Accordingly, the country should withdraw or downsize its forces in Europe and the Middle East and concentrate its military power in East Asia.

-America’s comparative strategic advantages rest on naval and air power, not on sending land armies to fight ground wars in Eurasia. Thus the United States should opt for the strategic precepts of Alfred Thayer Mahan (the primacy of air and sea power) over those of Sir Halford Mackinder (the primacy of land power).

-Offshore balancing is a strategy of burden shifting, not burden sharing. It is based on getting other states to do more for their security so the United States can do less.

-By reducing its geopolitical and military footprint on the ground in the Middle East, the United States can reduce the incidence of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism directed against it. Islamic terrorism is a push back against U.S. dominance and policies in the region and against on-the-ground forces in the region. The one vital U.S. interest there—safeguarding the free flow of Persian Gulf oil—can be ensured largely by naval and air power.

-The United States must avoid future large-scale nation-building exercises like those in Iraq and Afghanistan and refrain from fighting wars for the purpose of attaining regime change.

We believe Layne is correct: the Obama Administration has chosen Offshore Balancing as its grand strategy.  And after five years of seeing Offshore Balancing at work, it is clear that it is incompatible with American world leadership, something to which proponents of Offshore Balancing should acknowledge in the spirit of intellectual honesty.  This should not be a problem for them because, as a group, they express no great attachment to American global primacy and leadership.  For most libertarians and progressives, America’s global power is a concern of the second-order in comparison to their divergent but equally ambitious domestic political agendas.

Some Offshore Balancers, however, believe a strategic needle can be threaded, one in which the United States can remain the dominant world power with all of the benefits conferred thereby, but with a decidedly less engaged military presence around the world (we believe Layne fits into this category).  They would have us believe that a lower profile would increase our power, as we would not expend resources and energy supplying protection to nations who can afford to provide their own, while reducing the degree to which we irritate terrorist groups simply by our presence.  But such an argument presupposes that the benefits of disengaging militarily from volatile regions outweigh the consequent costs: diminished capacity to influence events in a manner consistent with U.S. interests.

When one encounters a politician (not an academic) who sounds like an Offshore Balancer, we must conclude one of the following is true. Either he or she does not value American global primacy and leadership, and would be content with foreswearing that role in favor of a diminished profile and whatever economic fruits would flow therefrom (and presumably whatever penalties accrue, too).  Or, he or she simply doesn’t understand what is required to maintain global primacy and leadership and believes we can resource it “on the cheap.”  In the first case, the politician is unlikely to find a receptive constituency for his message, as Americans continue to derive some pride and benefit from the position we occupy.  In the second, the politician’s views warrant closer scrutiny.

The Obama Administration’s response to the 2009 Iranian election violence, its “leading from behind” approach to what become Operation Unified Protector in the Libya, its uneasy response to the Egyptian crisis, and its confused policy with respect to the Syrian civil war all indicate a straightforward Offshore Balancing approach to international events, which discourages a direct role in influencing events.  We mean here not to be overly critical of the Administration’s individual policy choices.  Indeed, we have some sympathy for the President’s uniformly unattractive options – particularly vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria – and we are against reactive and poorly thought-out interventions abroad.  But we are disappointed by his administration’s “paralysis by analysis” in place of decisiveness and, more dangerously, its adherence to a worldview that devalues direct American power and influence.  Until now, international relations theorists had to guess what  “America the Superpower” would look like as an Offshore Balancer.  No longer.  Because that is now what we are.  And while we remain the theoretical global hegemon on the strength of our comparative political, military, and economic power, our position of leadership is diminished.  This is not because of our economic troubles, but because of our choices on the world stage.

L’Affaire Snowden suggests Russia’s current perception of our power.  Mr. Assad’s views on the consequences of crossing our “red lines” provide another example.  The murder of a diplomat and three others in Libya illustrates the perspective of terrorists in the Maghreb.  And China’s adolescent muscle-flexing over small disputed territories in Asia (that it refers to as “core interests”) is an ominous sign of Chinese aspirations for regional dominance that have not attenuated in the face of the U.S. “Rebalance to Asia,” which has thus far been little more than a rhetorical exercise.

True Offshore Balancing (and by this we mean not a brand designed to protect domestic political agendas, but that of the academy) presumes a level of discernment in policymakers that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  Decisions must be made in a timely fashion in order to protect balances of security that are favorable to our interests, lest intervention become unduly expensive in blood and treasure, leading to a Hobson’s choice between great sacrifice and doing nothing.  This is why Offshore Balancing is so much more attractive as an academic notion than a real-world strategic approach.  Ultimately, it offers unsatisfying solutions to complex problems.  And to the extent that it does have a degree of merit as a construct for approaching global challenges, this merit is only on display when it is alloyed with more realistic approaches (that will inevitably be condemned by purists).

To staunch the flow of power and prestige, the United States should dial its Grand Strategy meter more in the direction of Selective Engagement, similar to the foreign policy doctrine of President George H.W. Bush, and away from Offshore Balancing.  The world needs the United States.  True realism is about disaggregating the “ought” from the “is.” It would be nice if the world did not require American power to underwrite freedom of the commons and the relative global stability painstakingly and deliberately built and maintained since the end of World War II.  But that is not the world we live in.

As hard as this is to comprehend in a town gripped by the sequester, we need to look very hard at the cuts we make in the defense budget.  More specifically, we need to ensure continued investment in those elements of the Joint Force that allow us to be forward deployed, engaged and powerful where our interests are at stake.  But none of this will happen as long as Offshore Balancing remains our grand strategy by default.  In fact, such cuts are the predictable result of an Offshore Balancing approach, and the combination relegates the nation to diminished world leadership.


Bryan McGrath is the founding managing director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a niche consultancy specializing in Naval and national security issues.  A retired Naval Officer, Bryan spent 21 years on active duty. His final duties ashore included serving as Team Lead and Primary Author of the US Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.”

Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.  



Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin, Flickr