Hoffman on the Flaws of Offshore Balancing

July 6, 2016
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The current issue of Foreign Affairs contains an article promoting a distinctive U.S. grand strategy, penned by two established scholars, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Steve Walt.  These academics combine their intellects and advocate a clear alternative to today’s strategy of deep engagement and the prevailing, but weakening, consensus on the role of the United States in the world. Their proposal has profound implications for U.S. diplomacy, global influence, and military spending.  This is a strategy that directly contradicts the policy inclinations of the presumptive Democratic nominee running in the upcoming U.S. Presidential campaign.  But it does reflect elements that have been heard from several other contenders including Mr. Trump.  

Their article reminds me of the quip about the Holy Roman Empire: the empire was not very holy and was certainly not Roman in character.  Likewise, Mearsheimer and Walt’s strategy of Offshore Balancing (OSB) really does not have anything to do with being “offshore” and it does not balance either.  A more accurate appellation would be “Retreat Ashore” or “Come Home and Hope.”

Read the rest at FPRI’s Geopoliticus.

Dr. F.G. Hoffman is a member of the FPRI Board of Advisors and a longstanding contributor to Orbis.  He currently works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington DC. This entry reflects Dr. Hoffman’s personal views and are not those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Jamar Perry

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3 thoughts on “Hoffman on the Flaws of Offshore Balancing

  1. The biggest problem with this argument is the reality of the two wars we are still fighting (campaigns for you GWOT unity diehards) on behalf of “partners” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first partner government is an Iranian backed proxy whose war aims in Iraq and Syria are counter to our “other” policy partners, the heirs of Al Qaeda who want to overthrow the brutal dictator Assad. None of these seem like good partners, but of course the main problem in is Baghdad.

    Two, from the audio airwaves of NPR no less, after 16 years our partner government in Kabul is still “fragile and weak.” Duh.
    Where is our Nicias to tell us our Syracuse (please see Thucydides) in Afghanistan may yet prove even more disastrous than it already is? And so the President is keeping 8400 troops in Afghanistan…to what purpose? For what interests? Terror sanctuaries now reside in the cyber domain, they do not need south or mid or central Asian geography to spawn murder and mayhem.

    So much for partnering as it looks on the ground. In theory it sounds good, and could be could with a more restrained approach…in reality it sucks.

    John T. Kuehn
    Platte City Missouri
    ps If you want to write in my name for President do not, instead write in Jonathan M. House.

    1. Haha, nice shot at us “GWOT diehards”. Unfortunately, we are fighting campaigns and not wars, no matter how noble our intentions or how vague our strategies and policies are. I will concede that the “Global War on Terror” was a rather abstract and poorly defined mission/strategy. However, at least it made some attempt to identify an enemy (terror-war on extreme fear?). I’d like to hear someone smarter than me (which shouldn’t be too hard) define what our mission/strategy should really be? If war is an extension of politics by violent means, then what is our political end-state? Until then, we really are not at war, we are just conducting kinetic military campaigns/operations around the globe and so far without much success. I’ll agree that the domain has become global and more cyber than any one piece of real estate is worth. Will this century become known as “War amongst the People”?

  2. I’m sure others have already seen the similarities, but it might benefit us to look to the past, and the debate between a ‘forward’ policy and a ‘rearward’ one.

    British policy makers during the 19th century faced a significant threat in Central Asia: a powerful land empire was on the rise, and quickly gobbling up the many smaller states and principalities in their way. As Russia engulfed more of the Central Asian step, the British Raj became increasingly worried about security in the subcontinent. The question was whether Russia would try and hold India hostage, and if so, when.

    Policy in India eventually became polarised into two principle camps, a forward school and a ‘masterful inactivity’ school. The first saw Afghanistan as the battleground, a likely infiltration point for Russian influence as they sought to destabilize the Raj, and perhaps even invade. Certainly the many assurances that Russia gave to stop their annexations sat upon the mind of British planners, as Tashkent fell in 1865, Samarkand and Kokand in 1868, and the remainder of Bukhara in 1873. Hoping that the Russians would not infiltrate Afghanistan, and then India, was not considered sufficient by the forward school.

    The rearward school, on the other hand, recognized that the Shahs of Afghanistan were wont to play both Britain and Russia off of the other, in the attempt to secure some small advantage in their local and dynastic quarrels. Becoming involved was considered dangerous, because inevitably local interests would attempt some dangerous manoeuvre that would suck in precious British power into a political sinkhole.

    In the end, both schools reigned at one point or another, but with three Anglo-Afghan wars, one disastrous, and two others of more qualified success. It was not until a dual track policy of border delineation with Russia, and a protectorship of Afghanistan, from the 1880s on were British interests secured. It was not until the collapse of the Russian Empire, a stretched post-war Britain and the Third Anglo-Afghan War that Britain’s interest waned.