The use and abuse of terms such as “offshore balancing” in the ongoing conversation about the next American grand strategy is a frequent topic of discussion here. While this can easily become an exercise in military and diplomatic history pedantry, examining what exactly offshore balancing entails should be a necessary prerequisite of adopting such an approach to international politics.
One of the consistent errors of offshore balancing discussion has been the tendency to believe that it necessarily demands there be no military engagement with the world beyond dealing with great powers, and that this military engagement must necessarily not include the use of ground forces, especially outside the core areas of engagement. In the current American context, the combinations of military draw downs in Iraq and eventually Afghanistan, along with the lack of US occupation in the Horn of Africa and Libya, among other locales, and the rise of AirSea Battle as a new concept for future military efforts all give the impression of a US military that will rarely act onshore. At the same time, the so-called “pivot to Asia” and the increasing prominence of offshore balancing in grand strategic discussions all give the impression that the cumulative effect of these operational, strategic, and grand strategic changes will be a US force that rarely, if ever, gets involved in land warfare, and rarely, if ever, gets involved in warfare outside of Asia.
If American offshore balancing will be anything like British offshore balancing, though, we ought draw very different lessons for future US grand strategy and military operations. Particularly if we recognize Britain as a prime example of a great power using an offshore balancing strategy, we can recognize that offshore balancers frequently commit ground forces to wars, and very often outside of the context of great power politics. Britain’s offshore balancing strategy emerged earlier, but not not much earlier, than the unification of the Kingdom in 1707. At this point the period of land warfare on the isles had largely subsided, and the UK could consolidate itself into a more capable great power. Simultaneously, the efforts of centralizing monarchs in France, Prussia, and Russia and the end of the religious wars were inaugurating the period of relatively secular great power politics that many international relation theorists generally (and likely mistakenly, I think) mark as the beginning of the state system. A study of British history from that point on makes it obvious that Britain’s land army, though it was not the decisive factor in most of the contests between coalitions of smaller states against the potential continental hegemon, was frequently engaged in warfare in Europe. Britain contributed troops to the War of Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Secession, and naturally the wars against Revolutionary France and the French Empire.
Throughout the whole of the 18th and 19th century periods of balancing, Britain was engaged in frequent warfare in North America, Asia, and Africa, even though its primary great power threats were in Europe. While many often contrast offshore balancing with a strategy of empire, the historical record shows they are often coexistent and indeed, mutually reinforcing. Britain’s ability to force continental powers to divert their military efforts to land warfare and preparation for land warfare on the continent gave Britain the ability to exploit their comparative inability to devote resources to overseas conquest and empire building. In virtually every war between the European great powers which Britain became involved in, it sent troops to expel its European rivals from their colonies. Offshore balancing also allowed Britain to deny targets for imperial expansion potential European allies to balance against British encroachment, which allowed Britain to more easily conduct its campaign of territorial aggrandizement. Britain did not offshore balance so it could “nation-build at home,” it offshore balanced so it could empire-build abroad. By limiting its opponents options for overseas expansion, it forced them into ploys for seeking continental dominance that could only come at the expense of their relatively powerful neighbors, thus presenting Britain with a natural array of allies should any state attempt to usurp it. The residual effects of this strategy on geopolitical outlooks was obvious as late as 1941, when Hitler chose to invade the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa was justified not simply on the basis of Hitler’s racial theories, but on the argument that quickly defeating Moscow would force the surrender of the British Empire by denying it any potential allies, while allowing Germany to overcome its lack of a world-spanning naval empire through mass territorial expansion.
What does this mean for the United States today? Firstly, we need to recognize that a shift to an offshore balancing strategy in Asia does not mean that all US activities in other regions will necessarily resemble offshore balancing there. American grand strategy in areas outside the Eastern Eurasian geopolitical nexus of great powers must serve to build on the advantages delivered by offshore balancing there, rather than distract from the necessities of offshore balancing abroad. To be more clear, the US strategies of hegemonic stability only became anathema to the goals of offshore balancing when they weaken US abilities to the advantage of rival great powers. The diversion of massive amounts of blood and treasure to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the expense of the US economy and necessary efforts to prepare the US for the challenge of anti-access/area-denial threats were the problem, not that the US was involved in these regions to begin with. Additionally, US military interventions that antagonize its relationships with other powers, particularly those that could be potential partners in balancing against regional threats, can be problematic even without extended nation-building campaigns.
So what does offshore balancing in East Asia mean for the rest of the world? It will not mean the end of US military interventions in regions such as the Horn of Africa. Instead, US interventions should be calculated to serve specific US national interests and conducted in ways that do not come at the detriment of America’s ability to respond to great power threats. Rather than conducting nation-building and occupations, the United States will use a variety of proxies, local partners, contractors, and limited conventional military capabilities to advance its goals. However, it will frequently deploy ground forces, particularly covert forces, Special Forces, and Special Operations Forces on the ground.
It will also need to retain the ability to conduct land warfare operations across the spectrum of potential threats. Unfortunately Iraq and Afghanistan have led many to believe that the Pottery Barn rule applies to all US military operations. This is simply not a universal rule. In some cases, US national interests will dictate that the destruction of an enemy force is the primary goal, or that the destabilization of an area may advance US interests, because it forces a rival power to pick up the pieces. The Pottery Barn rule applied mainly because US planners belatedly realized that the exploitation of a shattered Iraq by Iran and Al Qaeda was a serious threat to US forces in the region and the broader regional order. The US desire to fix Iraq by instituting a pluralistic, relatively liberal democracy rather than some kind of new authoritarian regime further increased America’s wartime commitments.
As the US cuts costs and commitments, the ability to raise and sustain large land deployments for nation-building and occupation will become increasingly more difficult. Future US land warfare will likely involve launching military expeditions, often from the sea, to quickly destroy enemy threats and pave the way for proxies, partners, and other forces to assume responsibilities for post-conflict operations. It will also involve US covert and special operations forces taking a greater role in training and assisting the development of such proxy forces to advance US interests and assisting partner countries in fulfilling these goals.
Correctly implemented, an offshore balancing strategy should allow the US greater freedom of action outside of East Asia and greater ability to exploit, as the United Kingdom did, the ability of an offshore power to create constellations of military bases, partners, and economic areas of interest. It would do so by reducing the ability of great powers in eastern Eurasia to disrupt US lines of communication extra-regionally, as well as by devising new US military operational concepts and force postures to destroy local threats to those lines of communication and regional interests. To do so, however, we need to understand that a “pivot to Asia” must serve to enhance US ability to pursue its interests outside of Asia, and reject the false antithesis between offshore balancing and onshore warfare.