Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing

The debate over naval policy planning and strategies for managing the commons continues into yet more rounds, with excellent entries from Jon Rue at Gunpowder and Lead and Raymond Pritchett at Information Dissemination. This is not a full response to either post, but does touch on one of those IR history topics I think is worth exploring: the dreaded label of isolationism. Some controversy erupted over Bryan McGrath describing the “Security of the Commons” approach as an isolationist one, to which Jon Rue retorted that offshore balancing was a realist strategy, not a neo-isolationist one. Pritchett, in turn, countered that the dichotomy between realism and neo-isolationism was a false choice.

This is one of those cases where I think everybody is getting something right. For example, Pritchett is absolutely correct that there is indeed a false dichotomy between isolationism and realism. While realism is certainly a policy planning perspective and a method of arriving at foreign policy decisions, isolationism is more a policy outcome, like hegemony, that can be arrived at through a variety of different theoretical and policy-making traditions. Consider that among the isolationists, there was in fact a wide variety of perspectives at play, and not just across domestic political divisions but across foreign policy orientations.

Isolationism, in the sense of abstaining from “foreign” (and it really does matter what we define here as foreign, but more on that later) military commitments except in self-defense, is an international posture, a set of policy outcomes, arrived at through the policy planning perspective at hand. First, to dispel the notion that isolationism is inherently realist, we should look at the wide diversity of political thinkers who embraced isolationism in the United States alone. It’s taken as a given that the United States was pursuing an isolationist policy during the 1920s and 1930s, but this posture was hardly the product of cutthroat realism. Consider also the Nye Committee, which concluded that American entry into World War I had been driven by desires to profit off of war and to ensure that Britain could make good on the billions in loans it received from the United States. Liberal and idealist revulsion at war and the notion of gaining from it, rather than purely rational policy decision-making, were important components of isolationism. A moral component also pervades isolationism. In some interpretations, American exceptionalism meant the cultivation of virtuous society in the United States relied on avoiding the pathologies of war and realpolitik in the Old World. They feared the consequences of war for American democracy, and were willing to put democratic principles above power political interests (though supposed realists, many isolationists spoke of power politics with the kind of scorn more common to liberal internationalists and neoconservative critics of realism today).

We can similarly see that realism, liberalism, and other foreign policy inclinations can converge on another broad set of policy outcomes, as was the case during the end of World War II. There were both power-political and ethical considerations driving the American decision to occupy the Axis powers, rebuild US-friendly countries in Europe and East Asia, and begin establishing collective security agreements. The United States achieved hegemony over the Western world and Japan for both realist and liberal reasons, many of which were mutually reinforcing.

Yet how non-interventionist and anti-militarist was American isolationism? There is the standard critique of anti-isolationist thought that avoiding foreign wars allows the United States to trade more freely and engage with everyone in the world, as opposed to closing off certain countries because of security concerns, but since I am simply using isolationism to describe abstention from foreign military commitments, that critique is not very relevant here. More interesting is that many so-called isolationists were talking about hemispheric defense, not a simple retreat to American soil or substantial disarmament. Many also rejected the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which smacked too much of collective security agreements they had rejected at the Versailles negotiations. Some labeled isolationists were in fact imperialists, such as Henry Cabot Lodge. They loathed the notion of rushing into European because they distracted America from the maintenance of its own empire in the Pacific and Latin America. Both isolationists and internationalists opposed the Washington Naval Treaty, and members of both camps supported it. Yet the America First Committee and like-minded isolationists in fact supported rearmament with the capability to defend the Western Hemisphere. This position of “hemispheric defense” was the one Nicholas Spykman critiqued in his America’s Strategy in World Politics.

If we recognize isolationism as including the concept of hemispheric defense, we can denote this form of isolationism as the outcome arrived at by seeking regional hegemony (though, as I have explained, this is not the only way an isolationist policy can arrive). However, here I must agree with Jonathan Rue. Such an approach of pulling back US military presence “over the horizon” into the areas that were once part of the American empire in the late 19th and early 20th century is not, in and of itself, offshore balancing. There is an important difference between offshore balancing and neutrality, which is a keystone of isolationism. Offshore balancing directly violates neutrality, because in the isolationist theory of US foreign policy, there is no need to stray from neutrality so long as the US can defend the hemisphere from Eurasian encroachment. Offshore balancing may allow for periods of neutrality, when powers are relatively balanced and not behaving aggressively. When power becomes unbalanced, however, offshore balancing requires the United States actually balance, which involves varying degrees of support to the side least likely to achieve a preponderance of power that can threaten US interests. Thus, most actual isolationists, including the “Fortress America” pro-rearmament types, strongly opposed sanctions on Japan and Lend-Lease. The former they saw as a useless provocation whose moral gesture would hasten, not prevent, war with the United States (and in this assessment the isolationists deserve credit – they were essentially correct). The latter, along with any indirect military and economic support for the Allied powers, seemed to them a waste of US resources and a potential commitment that could unnecessarily pull the United States into war. In attacking Lend-Lease and other aid to the Allies, isolationists reject the actual balancing part of offshore balancing, which I would say means they reject the concept generally. After all, there are many offshore strategies – hemispheric isolationism and maritime imperialism among them. But because much of the modern debate about offshore balancing is so wrapped up in the world of defense spending decisions, and removed from the larger policy planning context, supposed advocates and critics both of offshore balancing have muddied the conceptual waters because defense spending has far more to do with whether or not US power is “offshore,” while actual balancing is a diplomatic affair.

The entire point of offshore balancing is to avoid direct intervention by supporting enemies of potential threats as long as necessary – perhaps even switching sides as one grows too powerful – and only if one country is able to achieve a preponderance of power and overcome its neighbors does the United States intervene in a direct war. Unfortunately too much of the discussion of offshore balancing is muddled by utterly wrong uses of the term. Robert Pape is a prime academic offender in the abuse of offshore balancing, specifically through implying it is the use of air and naval assets rather than direct occupation. Even more absurdly, Pape applies “offshore balancing” to terrorists. We should be clear – if you are “balancing” terrorists, you are getting other groups to fight them, and bringing in further groups (perhaps even the original terrorists) to oppose those former partners if they become too powerful. In counter-terrorism, this does not often make a lot of sense, since we generally try to establish preponderances of power to totally defeat terrorists – more colloquially referred to as “functioning states.” The Anbar Awakening is an example of balancing behavior in counter-terrorism, one might suppose, though it is not offshore. Bombing terrorists with drones, TLAMs and Harvest Hawk may be offshore, but it is certainly a form of direct intervention, not balancing behavior. Lest someone object that Somalia is a case where we use clients to fight terrorism – that might be true, except that recruiting clients can go beyond balancing – rather than preventing preponderances of power, the US may seek clients in order to establish one, because that makes managing liberal and realist hegemonic objectives more palatable. Unfortunately, even academics cannot always tell the difference between Diet Empire, in which we do not actually balance but simply pursue hegemonic prerogatives without a direct ground presence, and actual offshore balancing.

Essentially, we have a modern US foreign policy conversation where offshore balancing is an isolationist strategy, despite the historical fact that isolationists vehemently rejected offshore balancing in lieu of pure hemispheric defense, and isolationism is often described as a quasi-realist policy platform, even though isolationists included many pacifists and idealist foes of power politics, and offshore balancing is confused for any grand strategy that does not involve large numbers of US ground troops or bases, even if it involves compelling states to bandwagon with the hegemon rather than, well, balancing.

A final side note: Rue notes that offshore balancing arguably failed in the lead up to World War II and the Persian Gulf War. I am not so sure – after all the goal is not to prevent war. It is to take advantage of wars so that they serve US interests to the greatest extent possible. Arguably, the US policy of offshore balancing in Europe succeeded because it kept Britain in the war, and simultaneously wore down the two continental giants of Germany and the Soviet Union as long as feasibly possible. By staving off US entry into the war as long as possible, the US bore the minimum number of costs while Berlin and Moscow expended enormous amounts of blood and treasure. Could the United States have prevented World War II? I very much doubt it, since American hegemony in Europe to accomplish that prevention of war after WWII required nuclear deterrence, the mobilization of not just British and French but also German industrial might and first-class land armies. Even if, by some crazy happenstance, the United States did place a large number of troops in Europe, the likely result would have probably been the preservation of the Russo-German condominium over Eastern Europe, and a similar Japanese-Soviet understanding in the Pacific – the kind of hegemonic coalition Haushofer, Spengler, and other Axis theorists so dearly wanted to confront the maritime Western empires. In any case, delaying entry into the war, especially after Operation Barbarossa, allowed the US to simultaneously let other countries do the dirty business of wearing down the Wehrmacht, weaken the Soviet Union and undercut, at least slightly, its designs in Central Europe and beyond through prolonging its war with Germany, and force Britain and France into a state of security dependency on the US – this last part allowing America to both prevent the emergence of a Western European rival and for the US to expand its influence in the former European colonial domains. If we acknowledge the possibility of preventing a general European war of some sort in the 1920s and 1930s was not a realistic policy option for the US, the best outcome as offshore balancing saw it would be to make the war benefit American relative power as much as possible – and that it did.

The Persian Gulf is a more convincing example of offshore balancing breaking down, but even then it still accomplished the US intention of backing Iraq – preventing a revolutionary Iranian power from achieving hegemony over the Gulf. That Saddam overstepped his bounds afterwards was not a desired outcome, naturally, but offshore balancing always includes the option to intervene with land forces if necessary (contra Pape). The mistake after the Persian Gulf War, from the offshore balancing perspective, was that the US failed to win a decisive enough victory that it could walk away from Iraq. Instead, it became entangled in a more than a decade of containment which increased the risk of future war, and in such a way that the Second Gulf War actually violated offshore balancing by empowering the region’s most likely potential regional hegemon, Iran.

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2 thoughts on “Unpacking isolationism and offshore balancing

  1. Pingback: The Libertarian: The President's Jobs Plan tanks in the Senate

  2. This was really quite good – very astute.

    I essentially ‘found’ this article because, well, I sought a remedy for the confusion induced by the mainstream discourse on ‘offshore balancing’ and U.S ‘Grand Strategy’ in general. I’m equally confused that academics frequently use ‘concepts’ without any real analytic clarity as to what they denote, or prescribe.

    Confusion is also pervasive in regards to the Obama administrations current ‘grand strategy’.

    Is it more of the same, or incrementally shifting towards an ‘offshore balancing’ strategy?

    Too much of the discourse presumes that a declining emphasis on ‘nation-building’ and interventionism – in highlighting a vague acceptance of the limitations of military power – makes ‘offshore balancing’ the default strategy (because the U.S clearly isn’t pursuing ‘Isolationism’, and continues to spend heavily on defense).

    This seems to be misguided because, as I think this article points out, what it means to be the world’s superpower takes on a distinctive form under the strategy of ‘offshore balancing’, properly understood.

    Whilst it assumes that homeland security, an acceptable regional sphere of interest, and free access to the global commons (etc.) are the ‘ends’ of military strategy, the ‘means’ (or perhaps ‘ways’) involve deterring the rise of a regional hegimon in other parts of the world.

    So, whilst the Obama administration may indeed be shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region, and pursuing a more flexible and responsive military strategy, there are still question-marks over the extent to which it appears willing to exercise the level of restraint required by an ‘offshore balancing’ strategy, in the face of future contingencies.

    Food for thought: How does the U.S relationship with Japan measure up to the ideas hitherto expressed?

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