An Insular Life: Offshore Policy & Posture
There are two interesting pieces worth reading on offshore balancing that have come out recently, both of which deserve a read. First, there is Christopher Layne, a stalwart defender of the policy, writing in The National Interest. He offers one of the more cogent explications of the policy available, though I disagree with him on certain aspects of his explanation, or preferred implementation. Then, read this piece by Bernard Finel, whose criticism reflects an understanding of offshore balancing that is often lost even among proponents of the concept.
Layne’s description of the archetypal offshore balancer, the island empire of Great Britain, is worth noting:
Imperially overstretched and confronting a deteriorating strategic environment, London was forced to adjust its grand strategy and jettison its nineteenth-century policy of “splendid isolation” from entanglements with other countries. Another consideration was the rising threat of Germany, growing in economic dynamism, military might and population. By 1900, Germany had passed Britain in economic power and was beginning to threaten London’s naval supremacy in its home waters by building a large, modern and powerful battle fleet. To concentrate its forces against the German danger, Britain allied with Japan and employed Tokyo to contain German and Russian expansionism in East Asia. It also removed America as a potential rival by ceding to Washington supremacy over the Americas and the Caribbean. Finally, it settled its differences with France and Russia, then formed fateful de facto alliances with each against Germany.
World War I marked the end of Pax Britannica—and the beginning of the end of Europe’s geopolitical dominance.
It is notable here that Britain’s decline was marked not by a transition from empire to offshore balancing, but by an attempt to replace its offshore balancing approach to great power disputes in Europe with domestic renewal at home and the promotion of burden-sharing as a mechanism for dealing with rising powers. Somewhat paradoxically, it was an attempt to reconstruct and consolidate the status quo in the global order which aggravated British decline and contributed to plunging the world into instability.
Offshore balancing is generally one policy choice among many in a great power’s repertoire, which is implemented alongside other, seemingly contradictory policies. Britain’s balancing strategy was directed primarily at areas of great power competition, mainly Europe and the Near East, but later East Asia as great power competition intruded there. Offshore balancing in these areas, and colonial and naval hegemony outside of them, were complementary, not contradictory policies. Firstly, allowing great powers to check one another in Eurasia allowed Britain to reduce the need to enter into continental military commitments or divert resources into strengthening its ground forces. Secondly, it kept rival great powers militaries aimed at each other, and delayed their ability to effectively compete with Britain for colonies and overseas power. The cumulative effect of these policies was that Britain could invest in naval and colonial control, which reinforced British economic supremacy, without seriously needing to fear invasion or even a credible land threat to its colonial holdings, although this threat did drag Britain into a major land conflict during the Crimean War.
In this sense, Finel is correct that offshore balancing required Britain to foster security competition among the great powers – offshore balancing cannot function any other ways. But this was not incompatible with Britain wielding a great deal of influence in fostering and participating in a variety of forms of global order. The European concert system was certainly a significant kind of global order, and British global supremacy outside of zones of great power competition allowed for the promotion of international trade and a variety of shared norms, including the rise of international humanitarian law among other concepts. The issue, of course, is that when coupled with offshore balancing, a concert system requires accepting a degree of disorder and great power disagreement in order to maintain the dialogue necessary to manage it. This is a lesson that Dan Nexon has pointed out may still be relevant for great powers today.
Britain and the End of the Insular Life
Arguably, it was Great Britain’s attempts to consolidate a more firm basis for global order as a method of enabling retrenchment that put it in a more precarious, and much more continent-focused military posture. Britain’s departure from its “Splendid Isolation” was the beginning of a departure from offshore balancing, with its malleable and mutable diplomatic and military partnerships, into a deliberate strategy of restraint that nevertheless begat more permanent and firm diplomatic and military commitments.
While Britain’s partnership with Japan was certainly an attempt at countering Russian influence, its later approaches towards France, Russia, and the United States were essentially acts of appeasement, not balancing. France, Russia, and the U.S. were the greatest threats to Britain’s overseas empire, and maintaining and further integrating that empire were really the only options for maintaining Britain’s global supremacy. Britain essentially chose to throw its lot in with the two largest threats to its global position, France and Russia, and to accommodate itself with the United States. Rather than balancing against the strongest or most threatening powers, Britain ultimately ended up overbalancing the global system against Germany and its Triple Alliance, because, as anti-German policymakers such as Grey presumed, any outreach or accommodation with Germany would threaten the critical understanding Britain held with France and Russia (and indeed fears of aggravating tension with the U.S. also played a role in discouraging warm relations between Berlin and Washington). For the sake of preserving the nascent order Britain was solidifying, Germany was simply an easier threat to manage.
After the bloody and expensive imbroglio Britain suffered in the Boer Wars, it is understandable why Britain wanted to avoid a drawn out conflict in the colonies. The British fears of a Russian assault on India, supposedly made real by Russian gains in Central Asia and railroad expansion, were less credible, but made accommodation with Russia all the more attractive. But it became apparent early on that the price of Franco-Russian accommodation might be a European continental commitment. Consequently plans for an expeditionary force to Europe, while initially extremely unofficial and publicly downplayed, became increasingly frequent.
In essence, Britain’s desires to reduce security competition globally, avoid costly colonial land wars, and create a global order that could help Britain share the burdens of international stabilization ended up having paradoxical effects. It led to German fears of encirclement that increased, not decreased, the likelihood of war in Europe, and made British involvement in that war more likely and more extensive than it might otherwise have been. It increased British commitments in some regions even as it appeared to reduce them in others. While this is a digression, it also never produced the internal reorganization of the British Empire that many of its policymakers and geopolitical thinkers desired, as elite dissension and “King Demos” were not so permissive for grand schemes of reform.
A relative degree of European international order survived the 1848 uprisings, Crimean War, and Franco-Prussian War. It was only when the relative power balance began to turn against Britain that the country began questioning the international free trade regime. Indeed, as in the case of China and many other rising powers today, there are certainly states which would be glad to continue to reap its benefits. The benefit of offshore balancing is that international cooperation, trade, and forms of global order can coexist with a degree of conflict.
A strategy of restraint must be carefully calibrated. Creating or relying on fixed alliance blocs to ensure security is a particularly risky move, as it will end up isolating revisionist or recalcitrant powers. Formal alliances create new diplomatic and military commitments, and ultimately it will be difficult for other states to share America’s burden without creating arms races and security competition in such a context. In other words, rising powers may not see the expansion of military power, the carving out of spheres of interest or influence, or their participation in power projection or punitive raiding as detrimental to the preservation of a liberal, international order. American local partners may also not see the encouragement of U.S. intervention, military buildups, or other potentially provocative behavior as not just benign but essential to upholding the international order. All great powers may share a certain baseline of interest in the international order, but in reality most countries only accept piecemeal aspects of it, and there is always disagreement about what core features of the international order really are. India may agree with liberal trade, but not liberal conceptions of intervention. China may agree with defending the maritime trading system against pirates, but have serious differences about the role its neighbors should play in patrolling and securing the global commons. Russia may support the United Nations, but primarily as a forum to prevent U.S. consolidation of certain aspects of global governance. The U.S., for its part, rejects the ICC and is unwilling to recognize serious international constraints on its ability to use force in perceived self-defense.
For these reasons, a non-hegemonic system is likely to see more security competition than in the past. Alliance systems can check some forms of it, but they cannot eliminate it. In some cases they will gravely exacerbate it, as those formed by the Triple Entente did. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that many of these states will be capable of taking on America’s security burdens without a significant increase in their armaments. This flaw is partially America’s fault. Deliberate discouragement of European security activity outside the U.S.-dominated venue of NATO and the even stricter limitations on Japanese rearmament, combined with U.S. extra-regional hegemony in Western Europe and East Asia, has helped leave them relatively weak in their ability to take up U.S. security burdens today. Europe, for its part, is unlikely to be of significant aid in defending U.S. interests in the Gulf, South or East Asia, considering how much U.S. assistance was necessary just to project power south of the Mediterranean against a militarily stunted regime in Tripoli.
Offshore Balancing and In-Theater Capability
This is ultimately a flaw in the conception of “offshoring” security in the parlance of both advocates and skeptics of offshore balancing. Geography and logistics count for very much, and with a lower onshore – that is, in-theater – presence, U.S. options are severely constrained. Ultimately, what is important about offshore balancing is that the balancing power is offshore. British power was mostly offshore in Europe but this was only possible because Britain itself was close enough to the continent to maintain naval dominance without significant onshore possessions. Even so, as close as the Mediterranean Britain still needed to maintain bases in Gibraltar, Malta, and had its possessions in Egypt to boot. Colonies, or at least friendly ports, were necessary for a fleet and commerce to become useful sea power. For the past few decades, the U.S. has enjoyed, in practice, if not always in theory, unparalleled ease of access in its power projection missions. This is unlikely to persist, as developing capabilities to impede hostile power projection is part of even a defensive buildup against a modern peer competitor.
Offshore air and sea power are not immune to this problem. Somewhere, the U.S. will need to maintain major ports and bases capable of handling America’s massive and sophisticated weapons systems and their crews. Somewhere, the U.S. will need to keep the materiel for its massive logistical tail. Withdrawing these assets over the horizon incurs significant risks, and introduces some perverse incentives. On the one hand, an ally might decide to acquiesce more to a rival power’s security interests. On the other hand, it might choose to rearm regardless of U.S. reassurances. Even worse, it might deliberately provoke tensions to ensure a continued American commitment. These are risks of both offshore balancing and generalized policies of restraint. Even in a strategy of restraint, rearmament would need to be accepted for local capabilities to pick up U.S. slack – or else the U.S. would simply face a more perilous situation where local commitments would require a dwindling amount of U.S. capability in-theater to maintain.
Offshore balancers and other advocates of restraint both often call for withdrawal of U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, while insisting that the U.S. over-the-horizon capability is sufficient to ensure secure sea lines of communication. But Britain in fact held onto its relatively hegemonic position in the Gulf for decades after its empire was in decline, and British naval supremacy anywhere more than often meant a significant onshore presence. Growing Iranian capabilities should not be overstated, but the supremacy of the Fifth Fleet and U.S. assets in the region is predicated on basing and logistical preparedness within the Gulf itself. A forced entry from Diego Garcia would not be pretty, and likely fly in the face of the relatively bloodless naval and aerial campaign record the U.S. has enjoyed for the past few decades. Perhaps that is an acceptable cost, but offshore balancers and others rarely dwell on that possibility. In any case, it should be obvious from the case of Bahrain that naval basing isn’t without its troubles. Insofar as offshore balancing demands avoiding wars like Afghanistan and Iraq, it might reduce the hostility the U.S. faces in the region. But it was the limited, on-base presence of U.S. troops in the region during the 1990s that, in the offshore balancing theory of terrorism, exacerbated terrorist hostility to the U.S. Reducing U.S. presence below that level requires accepting the risk that the next time the U.S. wants to protect its interests in the Gulf, it might have to fight its way in (and the same arguably goes for East Asia, though few worry about blowback from U.S. forces stationed there). Preparing for these eventualities requires accepting a large degree of arms buildups by potential U.S. partners or encouraging states to balance against local threats, or else being able to write off U.S. interests in the area.
Consider further the case of East Asia. As T.X. Hammes has noted in his recent piece, the geographic and logistical difficulties inherent with waging a war against China close to its own access denial capabilities would be dangerous and likely escalatory, as it would require strikes on the Chinese mainland to uncertain effect. Consequently, Hammes devised a strategy of waging essentially a guerre de course against China. One of the problems he sought to overcome in his piece, that of AirSea Battle’s questionable dependence on U.S. allies in the region, is instructive. AirSea Battle cannot be waged without massive amounts of firepower being directed from very close to China. Allied states will be discouraged from aiding the U.S. in a war against China because they will be potentially on the receiving end of Chinese missile and naval power. Overcoming that issue without abandoning any sense of restraint in U.S. deployments in East Asia is impossible, and there is not likely any reasonable amount of cooperation or promises the U.S. can offer East Asian states to reasonably guarantee adequate protection from China during a wartime scenario. Ultimately, the arms buildup dynamics many fear would be preferable to the destabilizing and enervating effect of U.S. attempts to keep up with China in its home waters, and they would allow the U.S. to build the much more credible deterrent that Hammes outlines.
The Optimistic Case for Security Competition
Ultimately, security competition is going to exist – whether or not it takes an extreme form is another question entirely. The kind of security competition necessary to buttress an East Asian alliance system built on the premise that the U.S. and its allies are going to maintain hegemony in East Asia is absolutely dangerous and fantastical. No sustainable level of U.S. military investment will secure Asia enough to prevent significant Chinese security competition with its neighbors, however. So it will be for the U.S. in many regions of the world. But global order is not an alternative to security competition, it is simply shifting the burden of security competition from individual nations in the region to global partnerships. It is not international trade that prevents security competition, as East Asia makes clear. Nor is it any U.S. upheld international organization. Hegemony prevents local security competition, or rather, it shifts the burden of security competition against perterbateurs onto the U.S. Absent hegemony, the fact of U.S. cost constraints will shift the burden of security competition back onto local states. The U.S. cannot simultaneously restrain itself and restrain its allies from rearming themselves.
However, this isn’t all that gloomy of a scenario. Global governance can continue to exist, so long as it can be recast in a form that recognizes, as it has in previous centuries, that major powers will have potentially violent conflicting interests, and adapts accordingly. Southeast Asia, despite being at the nexus of security competition between India, China, and the U.S., and the recipient of relatively few foreign security guarantees, is economically integrating and developing structures for regional governance. Security competition will not automatically obviate the powers’ interests in trading with one another.
Offshore balancing, of course, will generally only accurately describe relationships with great powers in contested areas of the globe. In many areas, lack of U.S. security presence, hegemony, or a dyadic competition of some kind are likely to remain, depending on the number and kind of rivals present – such was the case for the British Empire, certainly. While unnecessary land invasions and nation-building for its own sake are likely to be discouraged, in some regions land expeditions, covert wars, and other onshore activity will be sensible and even necessary. Security competition in some regions will actually provide a hedge against it in others by preventing the emergence or hostile use of rival power projection capabilities, and reduce the freedom of actions of rival powers from interfering with the U.S. out of their own regional areas.
Balancing and order were not alternatives for Britain during the height of its power. It was when Britain became increasingly preoccupied with codifying an international order that prevented revisionist threats to the Empire that the international balancing system began to unravel, and British attempts to restrain its commitments resulted instead in the proliferation of more dangerous ones. It was not security competition that undid the international order running up to World War I, but the translation of security competition into a rigid alliance system that codified the status quo and had little flexibility for the concerns of a revisionist power. The world today, with its great powers far more geographically dispersed than their European antecedents, is in an even better position to bear security competition. The hegemony which held it at bay, though, is gone. An order without hegemony should not assume it can hold back power political rivalries, but it also should not recognize those rivalries as its own death. The attempt to codify the status quo in alliance systems and partnerships not only risks provoking fears of containment and encouraging counterbalancing by rival states, but would also likely increase U.S. commitments in an attempt to satiate its allies in this undertaking.
Flexibility, in the absence of hegemony, is well suited to dealing with a multipolar environment. Attempting to reconcile a multipolar system with order-preserving alliances can intensify security competition in more dangerous ways, as well as undermine the restraint or offshore distance the U.S. hopes to acquire. The diplomatic complications and logistical difficulties of offshoring U.S. presence while sharing burdens with partners and allies might ultimately be a less effective way of mitigating security competition than simply accepting it and adapting our conceptions of order and security accordingly. Yet any kind of strategy seeking solace in the idea of the offshore balancing must recognize, as Finel points out, that security competition and foreign rearmament is a necessity, not an option. So too, however, should policymakers be cognizant that a genuinely offshore and over-the-horizon force posture cannot come without radical reductions in U.S. commitments – and of how much onshore presence really is required for theoretically “offshore” capabilities such as U.S. aerial and naval supremacy. Ultimately, though, because offshore balancing, whether as practiced by the UK, or even by the 1930s United States, is really just one policy operating alongside many, it is unlikely either to be, as feared, an invitation to global chaos, or, as hoped, a straightforward and simple path to foreign policy restraint.