95 Foreign Aff. 164 (2016)
Should America Retrench: The Battle over Offshore Balancing

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Should America

Retrench?

The Battle Over Offshore
Balancing



The Risks of Retreat
Hal Brands and Peter Feaver

  quarter century after the Cold

       War ended, critics have renewed
       their calls for the United States
to abandon its existing grand strategy,
which they contend has both cost too
much in blood and treasure and delivered
too little in terms of peace, prosperity,
and security. John Mearsheimer and
Stephen Walt make this case in their
article The Case for Offshore Balancing
July/August 2016), which charts an
alternative course. Under their preferred
strategy, the United States would signifi-
cantly roll back the system of alliances,
the forward deployments, and the onshore
presence that have characterized its
security posture for decades. Instead, it
would husband its strength by relying on
other countries to maintain the balance of
power in regions crucial to U.S. interests-
namely, Europe, Northeast Asia, and the
Persian Gulf-and step in militarily only
when absolutely necessary, to prevent the
emergence of a regional hegemon. It
would also forswear long-standing
endeavors such as democracy promotion
and nearly all military interventions
(except perhaps narrowly tailored


counterterrorist strikes) not aimed at
preserving key regional balances.
   The case for offshore balancing has
superficial appeal. Its advocates claim
that under the prevailing U.S. grand
strategy, Washington has intervened
too often in faraway conflicts of dubious
importance to U.S. interests, with adverse
consequences for U.S. security and
international stability. According to this
camp, most of what the United States
has accomplished in the post-Cold War
era-or, at least, most of what was worth
accomplishing-could have been achieved
at far lower cost, simply by letting other
states fend for themselves. Offshore
balancers thus promise a rare win-win:
better outcomes at lower cost.
   It sounds too good to be true, and
indeed, it is. Once the historically dubious
claims and flawed strategic assumptions
are corrected, the case for offshore balanc-
ing collapses. The concept may remain
popular in certain academic circles, but
it is no wonder senior policymakers have
consistently rejected it in practice.

REWRITING HISTORY
Offshore balancers argue that their
strategy represents the United States'
traditional approach to global affairs,
and one that has consistently proved
effective in advancing U.S. interests.
In reality, however, U.S. policymakers
have pursued offshore balancing only
when they have been overly focused on
avoiding short-term costs, such as those
associated with overseas military deploy-
ments, and have thus been willing to
accept a high level of strategic risk.
The results have been ambiguous at best
and disastrous at worst, which is why
the strategy has so often been discarded
in favor of a more engaged approach.


164 FOREIGN AFFAIRS

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