American Strategy and Offshore Balancing by Default

August 27, 2013

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

10 thoughts on “American Strategy and Offshore Balancing by Default

  1. With due respect to the authors, this essay is an almost perfect illustration of the logical fallacy of begging the question. It is asserted that offshore balancing is incompatible with “American global primacy and leadership,” and that this results in “diminished capacity to influence events in a manner consistent with U.S. interests.” But where’s the evidence? Where, even, is the argument?

    Global primacy and leadership are not worthy objectives in and of themselves, but only if they serve American interests. American global primacy was unchallenged in the 1990s; where is the evidence that this meant the U.S. was more able to influence events abroad in its favor? Did events in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea, Georgia, Yemen, Tanzania, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc etc etc suggest tremendous American capacity for positive influence? Or 9/11? Where are the foreign policy successes that justify and validate the tremendous effort and resources American administrations have dedicated to the maintenance of “global primacy and leadership”?

    I would argue that unquestioning acceptance of the supposed value of “primacy” is perhaps the biggest obstacle to making sensible policy choices as we bring the current wars to a close and face a future of declining budgets. The argument made here easily translates into blind – and totally unrealistic – advocacy for larger budgets (and sometimes for more intervention), while basically eliminating any incentive to prioritize cuts or to make intelligent choices about posture and force structure changes. After all, if “primacy” is the objective, then the answer is always “more.”

    Perhaps it would help to advance the debate if the authors could specify one recent instance where “global primacy” has allowed the USG to resolve some overseas contingency in a manner consistent with American interests.

    1. Chris: Thanks for your comment. Not to repeat myself, but I’d like to draw your attention two sentences in the piece that perhaps address some your concerns (but clearly I will need to address more of them in a follow-up piece): “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.” Global primacy has allowed America to do what we mention in this sentence for decades now. There is, of course, plenty more, but I’ll save it for a future article on WOTR.

  2. >”the dominant world power with all of the benefits conferred thereby”

    All the benefits conferred? Like no fees for checked luggage? Pick any car in the aisle and go? Free ice cream on your birthday?

    It’s far from clear that the economic benefits of primacy are all that large. For one recent analysis with good economic data, see Dan Drezner’s article in International Security ( As the previous commenter notes, dismissing academics (i.e., people who’ve actually studied the issue) who argue that primacy isn’t worth it, on the grounds that they are academics, does not disprove their claims.

  3. Implicit in this piece is that “American global primacy and leadership” is a choice. But that’s only true for as long as the US has _economic_ primacy and leadership, military capability flows from economics. It’s no more natural for 5% of the world population to have global primacy than it was for 1% of the world’s population to have global primacy in the late 19th century. Just as Britain had to give up her hyperpower role in the face of economic progress in the US and Germany, so the US can no longer cling to that role in the multipolar economy of the 21st century.

    It’s painful when you have a Jackie Fisher telling you the new reality, forcing you to throw off the comfort blanket of old assumptions – but it has to be done otherwise you will make bad decisions as you try to cling to a mythical primacy which is no longer rooted in economic reality.

  4. While the US economy will likely at some point be overtaken by China’s in gross size in the not too distant future, there is not a one to one correlation of total economic weight to military power. On a per capita basis, the US will still be “richer” in essence, and in many categories of innovation and invention this richer per person “capacity” will continue to outstrip China for some time. We also have significant military capabilities that will not simply whither away.

    Even more long term China has a massive demographic problem that is a ticking time bomb for them, the way the rising US and Germany didn’t have when “overtaking” Britain, which the US didn’t really do until after WWII (quite some time after the US economy was larger) and, well, Germany, I guess we know how that worked out for them.

    So I think it’s too early to say the writing’s on the wall and throw in the towel.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I also find it hard to believe when some people talk about the unbearable burden of defense in regards to the economy when we are currently spending around 2% less GDP on it now than during the cold war, when there were many boom cycles of economic growth and pretty good trough to trough, crest to crest growth. As little should be spent on defense to be *effective* but we’re nowhere near the point where we spend so much on defense our system will collapse from over-militarization as has happened to other societies in the past. If anything, I think there’s solid historical evidence for wiggle room on the upside.

    1. Sure there’s not a 1:1 correlation between gross economic output and military power – but it’s still the single most important factor. That’s why Luxembourg and Qatar don’t have military influence, but China and Russia matter. Or eg look at India’s space programme when they have 100m’s of citizens on <$2/day.

      The per capita thing works both ways – if wages are lower, you can afford a battalion of soldiers when your richer opponent can only afford a company, and equipment tends to be cheaper too. Sure, the US may have the best technology – but they will be bringing the equivalent of one Me262 and a King Tiger to the fight, China will bring 10 B-17's and 20 Shermans. How did that work out last time?

      The US obviously has a big advantage in its accumulated inventory ($3tn? I think I've heard), but that's got to be set against its global expectations – China's military ambitions are much more geographically restricted.

      Plus it's not just about China – we reached a small landmark last year with Asia outspending Europe on defence for the first time. I'm not saying the US will suddenly become irrelevant – but the world is becoming more multipolar, and US strategy needs to adapt to that rather than still thinking they're Britain in 1870.

      1. I think the big difference between us now and Britain in 1870 is that Britain eventually went from the clear powerhouse (of sorts, remember their Army was always small and couldn’t achieve much on the ground on it’s own against any other continental power, it was just able to beat up locals with spears for the most part once the RN carried it around) to being eclipsed resoundingly by the US and USSR, not to mention equaled potentially by Germany. I think now we’re going to go from being the only pole in the world, to still the biggest, err, pole in the now multipolar tent. (Excuse the non-intended implications that can be taken from that choice of words.) Yes this is a reality change, but a significantly different one in both scale and kind than Britain faced in the late 19th to mid 20th century. And while Asian defense spending is increasing we still have strong local allies in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and should be rolling out the welcome mat like crazy to India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The PI are suddenly re-discovering they kind of miss us too.

        And we can get into a long force structure discussion if you want, but I generally agree that we need some numbers more than I think we’re going to get with an all stealth air force (tacair at least) and some other acquisition choices. I’m all for Silent Eagles and Super Hornet Block III’s as stop gaps while we crash design two new fighters, one AF one USN, and buy just enough JSF to keep production lines warm and meet ally commitments. I’m also for frigates again in the Navy too, not the LCS. I’m even OK with buying a foreign design but the patriot in me still says lean towards the Hunington Ingalls Patrol Frigate proposals. But in today’s procurement environment these discussions are basically, well, academic.

  5. the comparison with britain’s situation is extremely problematic, britain had to contend with 5 growing rivals, russia in asian mainland, japan in pacific, Germany and France alternating in europe (france from 1919-1929) and the U.S generally, one can throw in italy in the mediterranian as well. moreover, what led to the eventual downfall of britain was not any of the other continental powers, it was done in by another insular power – the U.S (after the second world war).
    compare that with U.S’s situation today. China would have to contend with its neighbors first and then the U.S. moreover, the Chinese themselves would at some point of time realize that it better not compel the U.S to allow the Japanese, Koreans to have their own nukes, the yearning for a multipolar world in China after all is neither uniform nor undebated