There was an outburst of “grand theorizing” last week between the big heads in IR theory (under sub-heading “Grand Strategy”), and I was ecstatic. Well, intellectually intrigued. Should I stay or should I go? And, as Mick Jones (or, PSY) claimed about the meaning behind those immortal lyrics, the debate between “deep engagement” vs. “offshoring” (there’s a problem here with nomenclature, especially when Stephen M. Walt allows the “deep engagement” side its euphemism and justifiably objects to the “isolationism” tag, but then doesn’t offer a more media-friendly tag of his own, other than the clunky, “offshore balancing”.), let’s not let the niggling questions interfere with the rock. It was a classic debate.
Erik Voeten does have a point.
Neither of these are polar positions. Posen is no isolationist who wants to withdraw from every commitment. Brooks et al are not raving interventionists. This makes this to some degree about what the optimal level of engagement is rather than a debate about binaries. The merits of the specific policy proposals are thus very important.
Of course, I mean China – and South Korea’s role on that issue – when I read “specific policy proposals”. But, I also don’t recall a discussion about the intersection of path dependence within the American military establishment, or the role of multinational corporations, and grand strategy. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to Barry Posen’s argument, because his article is stuck behind a pay wall. So, Stephen M. Walt’s Foreign Policy contribution has to do the heavy lifting for the “Should I go?” side.
To repeat: most of the strategists who reject “deep engagement/liberal hegemony” do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.
On the “Should I stay? side, there’s Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth (and, if you didn’t know it, all these guys represent some the biggest names in Academic IR).
Should America come home? A prominent and ever growing group of international relations scholars emphatically argue the answer is yes. Yet a sustained evaluation of their case finds the balance of what scholars know about international politics leaning against the retrenchment argument. Advocates of a clean break with the United States’ sixty-year tradition of deep engagement overstate its costs, underestimate its narrow security benefits, and generally ignore its crucial wider security and nonsecurity benefits. Many, moreover, conflate the core grand strategy of deep engagement with issues such as forceful democracy promotion and armed humanitarian intervention—important matters, but optional choices rather than defining features of the grand strategy.
Although we have stressed the continued validity of long-standing precepts of U.S. grand strategy, our analysis does not support resistance to all foreign policy change. Nothing in our argument suggests that every commitment must be retained at all costs. Nor does our study impugn rebalancing the strategy to adapt to new constraints and challenges—as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did after Vietnam and President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to be doing after Iraq. On the contrary, these rebalancing episodes belie the argument that the United States cannot adapt to a changing world. Our analysis has significant implications not just for policy, but also for international relations theory. With few exceptions, analysts advocating retrenchment are either self-proclaimed realists or explicitly ground their strategic assessment in signature works of realist scholarship. This generates the
impression that realism yields an unambiguous verdict in favor of retrenchment for a state in the United States’ strategic setting; that other international relations theories either yield similar implications or are irrelevant or wrong; and that U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War’s end stands as a massive anomaly for realism. Indeed, to many realist scholars the current grand strategy is so patently suboptimal that its persistence after the Soviet Union’s demise can be explained only by domestic political pathologies or the pernicious influence of America’s liberal ideology. Our analysis reverses all of these implications.
We showed that realism does not yield an unambiguous verdict in favor of retrenchment; that other theoretical traditions do help to explain U.S. grand strategy; that America’s post–Cold War strategic behavior is not a self-evident anomaly for international relations theory in general or realism in particular; and that explaining this behavior does not necessarily demand delving deep into the peculiarities of American domestic politics or ideology. In the end, the fundamental choice to retain a grand strategy of deep engagement after the Cold War is just what the preponderance of international relations scholarship would expect a rational, self-interested, leading power in the
United States’ position to do.
As a tie-breaker, or wild card, there’s T.X. Hammes’ “offshore control”.
Looming budget cuts require the United States to consider a military strategy for the Asia-Pacific that could significantly reduce the cost of maintaining U.S. influence and presence in the region. Currently, the United States is executing a strategic rebalancing to Asia without a corresponding military strategy to guide imminent military procurement and force-structure decisions. The challenge is to achieve peacetime savings while leaving the United States well postured to influence the region in peacetime and defend its interests in war.
A proposed alternative strategy is offshore control, or OC for the purposes of this article. Unlike the British concept of offshore balancing, the OC strategy does not assume we could maintain an ally on the mainland that could challenge China’s ground power. Rather, it partners with Asia-Pacific nations to ensure the U.S. ability to interdict China’s energy and raw-material imports and industrial exports while protecting those nations.
Offshore control would deny China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, at the same time defend those islands, and dominate the air and sea outside that theater. It envisions a stand-off military campaign focusing on a war of economic strangulation rather than on penetrating Chinese airspace to physically destroy its infrastructure. It seeks to force China to fight in ways that maximize U.S. strengths while minimizing China’s. In essence, OC provides a strategic context for an operational approach that goes beyond Air-Sea Battle to use the U.S. geographical advantage to maximize the effectiveness of a campaign using our air, sea, and land assets.
This approach seeks to match required capabilities to reduced U.S. defense resources while simultaneously neutralizing much of China’s investment in anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD), forcing it to spend significantly more to defeat offshore control.
It should be noted, that Hammes addresses the nuclear issue Walt criticizes Brooks et al. from all but avoiding.
The concept of offshore control, in summary, is predicated on the idea that the presence of nuclear weapons makes any strategy aimed at the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party (or its surrender) too dangerous to contemplate. It offers, however, a practical and politically more palatable alternative should we ever be faced with such a conflict: Waging a war of economic attrition that concludes with minimal casualties on all sides and with limited damage to mainland China’s infrastructure.
On the question of whether Republican foreign policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are anomalous or intrinsic to grand strategy assumptions, I’m going with Daniel Drezner.
So how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing — the “global war on terror” — and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party’s foreign policy.
Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups. And if they don’t act quickly, they might cede this ground to the Democrats for the next generation.
My takeaway from this debate is, that regional issues matter more than grand theorizing, because advocates are just as likely to build coalitions across issue areas, or oppose each other on the same paradigmatic grounds. Building consensus by rigorous itemization of the costs and benefits, whether in strategic or budgetary terms, is also politically expedient. No one will sell a policy to the Senate with a catchword, like “realism”. I’m skeptical, too, that even during the Cold War, that regional issues were totally submerged in the global framework. I tend to see grand theorizing of this sort as a lazy excuse not to examine specific situations thoroughly.
But, it’s a damn good song. If nothing else, this debate alerts me to the need for me to re-read my theory, and delve deeper into the voluminous pile of other biggies.