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Offshore Balancing – the Neorealist moment?

January 21, 2011

On the 20th anniversary of the first Gulf War, I came across this piece by Christopher Layne, criticizing the Gulf War and offering up the offshore balancing prescriptions that have resurfaced in foreign policy discourse in recent years. What struck me about Layne’s piece is how much less politically tolerable his approach appears in light of the first Persian Gulf War than it does to the second. Today Layne and offshore balancers like him enjoy significantly more popularity than they did (readers, correct me if I am mistaken) in the early 1990s. But how much of this opposition owes itself to genuine embrace of offshore balancing, or even academic realist principles more broadly?

While Mearsheimer may get cover pieces for The National Interest and offshore balancing realists may be enjoying a post-Bush resurgence, have the public or policymakers seriously internalized any of this strategy’s principles? It seems to me that offshore balancing is well and good with Americans so long as it is carefully framed in the broad strokes of avoiding unnecessary wars, nation-building, and overstretch, and directed, in particular, with a critical eye towards US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But where would all this praise for restraint be if a conventional war, a la 1990-91, were to occur?

If Iran were to get in a war with a minor Gulf state, my guess is that offshore balancers such as Layne would encourage the US to stay out for as long as possible. The same goes for a Korean war – my guess is Layne thinks we ought to let the ROK start dealing with its own security. However, it is difficult to imagine policymakers holding such a line, or the US public not punishing them if policymakers opted not to intervene.

Academic realists, or at least those of the Mearsheimer-Layne-Pape school, have yet to find politicians who comprehensively embrace their grand strategic outlooks. At best, they provide learned critiques of specific policies that certain brands of hegemonists can criticize other hegemonists with. The realists who have achieved the most influence in US policy have not been offshore balancers, or even really anti-hegemonic in their assumptions.

George Kennan and other Cold War realists’ containment policies certainly ended up going beyond what offshore balancers would have recommended. Henry Kissinger was certainly no offshore balancer either. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who would channel the conservative realism of Metternich could ever really embrace an offshore balancing strategy. Ultimately, this is the sort of realism more likely to prevail (if realism prevails at all) in US grand strategic debate. The US is simply not going to dismantle its empire and go home. Most policymakers are quite proud of what the US has been able to create: a highly integrated free world market, the highest levels of democratic self-government in human history and perhaps unprecedented levels of peace. Yes, this costs a lot, but it is not immediately clear to most people that defense is a prime contributor to US economic woes.

Now, while offshore balancing realists might argue that the economic, political, and strategic advantages of US world order are either ephemeral or unrelated to America’s grand strategic posture, I think it’s reasonable to say the preponderance of US power and its extra-regional hegemonic stabilizing do enable these conditions to some extent. Whatever realism emerges in US grand strategic culture, it will probably look more like Kissinger’s “restorationist” realism than that of Mearsheimer or Layne. However fallacious the logic may seem, that the US has built something many Americans wish they could preserve means tomorrow’s realism, at least within policymaking circles, will embrace the sense of historical tragedy rather than the imperatives of realpolitik survival. Sadly for offshore balancers, their views will likely continue to serve as foils rather than models.

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