In the fall of 9 A.D., two entire Roman legions were suddenly annihilated in the dark, rain-lashed depths of the Teutoburg Forest. Betrayed by their native allies, and encumbered by their heavy equipment, they were caught like penned cattle in the treacherous, muddy causeways that wound in between the region’s densely wooded ravines. Over the course of three days and nights, close to 15,000 of Rome’s finest troops — along with thousands of their civilian camp followers — were hounded and ruthlessly slaughtered by Germanic tribesmen. The news of this defeat rippled like a shock wave across the Roman world, shaking the Empire’s strategic elites to their very core. The Roman historian Suetonius, always one for entertaining anecdotes, recounts how the Emperor Augustus remained deeply traumatized by the Teutoberg massacre even into his old age, shuffling around the empty marbled expanses of his palace halls and crying out for his lost legions.
For 2,000 years, the massacre has been considered one of the most perfect illustrations of imperial overstretch. According to the conventional narrative, one of the first lessons drawn from the debacle was that some peoples were too unruly and fiercely independent to understand the purported benefits to be derived from enlightened Roman conquest. Augustus, by then a world-weary septuagenarian, is reported to have told his younger, fiscally conservative successor to abandon any hope of further expansion into Germania, instructing him to “be satisfied with the status quo,” and to “suppress completely any desire to increase the empire to greater size” east of the Rhine.
Following Rome’s absorption of the British Isles, Caledonia (present-day Scotland) was another unruly province whose subjugation appeared to demand too much effort while promising little in the way of direct dividends. Edward Gibbon, in his typically well-polished prose, noted that while Caledonian incursions “were frequently repelled and chastised,” they were “never subdued,” before adding:
The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.
Indeed, fears of imperial overstretch are nothing new. Throughout history, world powers have experienced periods of self-doubt, pondering the nature of their security commitments and debating the extent and elasticity of their strategic perimeters.
At the height of the British Empire, the Raj’s strategic community found itself deeply conflicted on how to respond to Russia’s steady advances into some of the era’s few remaining neutral zones, composed of Central Asian khanates and minute Himalayan kingdoms. Those at the hawkish end of the spectrum claimed that the only way to forestall Russian dominance of the land routes toward India was to engage in a vigorous forward policy, preemptively invading or subjugating buffer states. Their opponents preached a policy of “masterly inactivity”, claiming, in the words of one of the best historians of the Great Game, that,
India’s best defense lay in its geographical setting — bordered by towering mountain systems, mighty rivers, waterless deserts and warlike tribes. A Russian force which reached India after overcoming all these obstacles, they insisted, would be so weakened by then that it would be no match for a waiting British Army. It was thus more sensible to force an invader to overextend his lines of communication than for the British to stretch theirs. This policy — the “backward” or “masterly inactivity” school, as it was called — had the additional merit of being considerably cheaper than the rival forward school.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and an increasing number of U.S. thinkers and academics have argued in favor of a similar policy of masterly inactivity — alternatively labeled retrenchment, restraint, or offshore balancing. Drawing attention to the United States’ privileged geographical position and rapid move toward energy independence, they have, to some extent, re-appropriated a distinctly American notion of “free security” that goes back to the early days of the Republic and corresponds to what the late political scientist Stanley Hoffman once referred to as America’s “quietist” tradition. According to these thinkers, the United States should extricate itself from the suppurating wound that is the Middle East, revise or abrogate most of its alliance commitments, and adopt a less forward-leaning military posture.
There are many problems with this approach. They range from the historically flawed notion of “free security,” to the operational challenges associated with attempting to project military force into a geographically distant area without the logistical benefits of local basing structures. Perhaps one of the most structural limitations to offshore balancing, however, is contained in its very designation. Indeed, the very notion that American bureaucrats, from their windowless offices in Washington, could act as modern-day Richelieus or Castlereaghs, predicting and fine-tuning regional configurations of power, while engaging in deft over-the-horizon balancing acts, seems both anachronistic and unrealistic.
According to most offshore balancers, the United States’ principal concern should be to prevent the emergence of a major peer competitor in Eurasia which could one day challenge the United States in its own hemisphere. Two assumptions lie at the heart of offshore balancing. The first is that states naturally respond to a newly formed power vacuum by combining their efforts and collectively balancing against a potential hegemon. The second is that policymakers in Washington would have more than enough time to track and respond to the emergence of a Eurasian hegemon, even without the benefit of local alliances and forward presence. Both of these propositions appear dubious at best.
Regional power dynamics do not evolve within some self-contained and self-regulating universe, “created and kept in motion by the divine watchmaker.” Historically, balancing has often been tardy, ineffective, and bedeviled by what theorists refer to as collective action problems. Were the United States to retreat from its traditional posture of deep engagement, these collective action problems would grow exponentially — particularly in regions characterized by a wide variety of regime types and longstanding territorial disputes, such as Southeast Asia, or in parts of the world tainted by festering historical grievances, such as the Middle East and Northeast Asia.
The walls of Ancient Rome and Imperial China may seem alluring metaphors to those weary of U.S. involvement in a Middle East wracked with horrendous violence and sectarian conflict. These same thinkers may also find themselves nodding their heads in approval at the Raj-era articulation of masterly inactivity, wondering whether it might not be wiser for Washington to let China continue to alienate its Asian neighbors through its own obduracy without instructing U.S. forces to engage in risk-laden acts of forward presence, such as freedom of navigation patrols. However, the historical record shows that the reality of great power rule has always been more complex. The Roman frontier was never rigid and absolute. As classical historians have noted, Roman security was highly contingent on the shrewd management of tribal peoples well beyond regularly patrolled areas. The Teutoburg massacre was partially the result of a case of a “green on blue” incident with a local proxy ruler, Arminius, who decided to turn his weapons on his imperial patrons. In many other cases, however, deeply embedded Roman political agents proved remarkably adept at utilizing, or allying with, Gallic and Germanic tribes to further their own imperial ends and better shield territories under Roman rule. In Imperial China, dynasties proved most successful when they engaged with the peoples of the steppe, and used their vast walled structures as launching pads into Mongolia and Central Asia rather than as static fortifications.
As Paul Hirst notes in his book, Space and Power: Politics, War, and Architecture:
[T]he more the frontier turned into a defensive line and the more policy moved towards the exclusion of barbarians and limited contact with tribes beyond the line, the more fragile the frontier and the greater the threat of major incursions.
In short, great power security has never been coterminous with retrenchment, and the preservation of primacy is closely linked to deep engagement, rapidly deployable military presence, and a profound knowledge of local conditions. Even if the United States did decide to adopt a less forward-leaning posture, it appears poorly equipped to offshore balance, or successfully micro-manage regional actors from afar. As my colleague Tom Wright has observed, we now live in a post-imperial era. The United States leads an order in which it enjoys a “privileged position, but it does so only because the vast majority of states want it to be that way.” Unlike the Colonial Empires in the 19th century, the United States “cannot just sit down with its competitors and rewrite the futures of independent countries and their populations.” And even if it could, it is debatable whether a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments. The recent track record in this regard is pretty poor, whether it comes to failing to predict system-shattering events such as the Arab Spring, or misjudging the extent and pace of revisionist actors’ actions, whether in the South China Sea, Eastern Ukraine, or Syria. These prediction errors can be attributed to intelligence failures, but also point to a wider problem: the surprising inability of one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries to understand foreign motives and behavior.
It is perhaps inevitable that the cost of primacy is informational asymmetry. In other words, both your partners and adversaries will always know you a lot better than you know them. Nevertheless, the steady decline of regional expertise in the United States is alarming. It also presents a stark contrast with the Cold War, when area studies was rightly deemed essential to the nation’s overall security. Two decades of unipolarity can breed a certain amount of academic complacency, and there is a whiff of the absurd to the present situation, where political scientists find themselves increasingly compelled to examine complex global challenges through the lens of abstruse mathematical equations. Strangely reminiscent of the 19th-century school of positivism, this trend runs counter to the well-worn adage that not everything that counts can be counted and that not everything that can be counted counts. Thankfully, this is not yet a universal phenomenon, and there are some excellent U.S. scholars on the People’s Liberation Army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other competing militaries. The trend lines, however, are troubling. What is perhaps even more worrisome is the paucity of individuals working on analyzing the security policies of some of the most critical “swing states” or middle powers such as Brazil, Indonesia, or Vietnam, whether in the think tank world or in academia. From my personal experience, some of the most interesting insights on foreign militaries come not so much from interactions with people sitting in Washington, but from those with Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) deployed overseas or U.S. military personnel that have trained with allied and partner nations. Under a policy of global retrenchment, such programs would no doubt be severely reduced, or curtailed, leading to a further diminution of U.S. policymakers’ abilities to understand foreign military cultures.
During the Great Game, the British and Russian political officers sent into the badlands of Central Asia were brilliant, highly educated individuals. They mastered several foreign languages, and were often deeply familiar with local customs and religions. Nowadays, unfortunately, the contest rarely involves such figures, nor is it as equally matched. Experienced, multi-lingual Russian ambassadors frequently only have to contend with inexperienced political appointees as their U.S. counterparts in key countries, many of whom were anointed more for their fundraising abilities than for any deep geopolitical insight into their region. A regional competitor’s home court advantage does not only apply to the density of its localized military systems or to the advantages provided by its interior lines of communication. It also extends to less tangible aspects of great power competition such as knowledge of the socio-cultural terrain, networks of human contacts, and access to effective proxies that can advance the regional state’s interests. If the United States wishes to preserve its positional status as the world’s leading power, it needs to remain deeply engaged and invested in key regions such as Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, however tempting it may sometimes seem to do otherwise. As the former Secretary of State George Schultz has noted, diplomacy, like gardening, requires sustained, patient efforts, in order to bear fruit. One might also add that effective statecraft, like good wine, requires a knowledge of what the French call “terroir” — a deep grasp of the region’s climate, terrain, and local conditions. That’s not something you can do from an office thousands of miles away.
Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He holds a doctorate in political science, with distinction and a specialization in Asian Studies, and a master’s degree in political science, as well as a master’s degree in comparative politics, from Sciences Po. He can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.
Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Gutierrez, U.S. Navy