A Critical Review of Walt and Mearsheimer’s “Superior US Grand Strategy”

Clare McCullough

In “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior US Grand Strategy” by John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Their main focus of the article is to convince their audience that Offshore balancing would be more effective than liberal hegemony to achieve the long-term goals of the United States. The Status Quo as it exists, is a liberal hegemony in which the United States deals with domestic problems and leads the world in trade, humanitarian rights, and is the major player in international institutions all the while promoting and sometimes enforcing democratic ideals with military force (71)

In the international political world, the number one power at the moment is indisputably the United States, but with the changing economy, there has been growth in formerly poor countries throwing off the political balance. However, maintaining our current liberal hegemony strategy, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, might not be the most sustainable course of action if the United States wants to keep its dominance. Instead, offshore balancing is preferred to preserve US dominance; our current policy of liberally using interventionist military policies should be abandoned. The United States should aid local governments and encourage self-governance in all different regions, intervening only when absolutely necessary for US security and prosperity(71)

China is an example of exceptional growth of a formerly underdeveloped country beginning to rise after the modern economic reforms to the Maoist totalitarian government. The liberalized economy has utilized the large Chinese population and has turned the country into a contender for the seat of the “Grand Hegemon”. Russia is also a major player in the region. Having strong players in close geopolitical proximity should make it easy to attain what should be the primary goal of the United States. The United States’ goal in the East should be to set the power players against each other, Moscow will check Beijing and thus the US maintains dominance. The larger countries in the middle east, such as Iran, are in position to play a part in the changing political landscape since China will most likely want a foothold in the Middle East, disturbing US oil security.

Walt and Mearshimer both maintain that international institutions don’t play a large role, both in the world of the liberal hegemony and a US dominated Offshore balancing strategy. If they do at all, the international institutions reflect only the interests of the most powerful player, ie the US. Institutions such as NATO also play a large role in stability in the region. Alliances are better for everyone and interactions that are facilitated through Institutions. Institutions are effective because they lend a hand to facilitate Iteration, which is a repeated interaction with the same partner usually leading to more peaceful interactions. By setting up a linkage throughout the talks we can ensure that people won’t try to cheat through collective bargaining problems. Collective bargaining problems are obstacles to cooperation that happen when actors have incentives to collaborate, but each acts like everyone will bear the burden equally.

The theoretical perspectives that both Walt and Mearsheimer embrace is realism. Offshore balancing, at its core, is Realist. It advocates intervention only when the US knows it can win and only when it benefits the United States in a significant way. “The Case for Offshore Balancing” proposes that the United States’ “principal aim should be to maintain the regional balance so that the power players of the East, Russia and China, do not extend their reach into the western hemisphere” (73) Maintaining power in these regions is very important, although as a realist strategy, the aim isn’t to produce peace, it’s to fight wars that we know without a doubt we can win and profit from. Realism maintains that states seek security and power above all else. Bargaining is the primary interactions since States usually don’t have shared interests, but coercion is always a possibility.

Offshore balancing would require the United States to stay out of other countries for as long as possible. The United States could respond accordingly to rising hegemon and possibly not have to intervene at all since the regional countries nearby would be able to check the rising power in a more sustainable and effective way than the United States would ever be able to achieve. It would reduce the risk of terrorism since intervention is inherently disruptive of the region in question, resulting in nationalistic resentment of the peoples living there and weakening the local governments since their sovereignty is being undermined.(75) Staying out of other countries and utilizing offshore balancing would enable the United States to increase the resources it could use for domestic needs.

The arguments against offshore balancing are many and varied. The first of which is that only strong US leadership would be able to keep order around the globe, however the article points out that this only benefits the United States and that the local government should be able to deal with these issues without US intervention (77). The second argument is that US leadership is necessary in order to overcome the collective-action problem of local actors failing to balance a rising hegemon. However, the article points out that offshoring solves this problem because it permits interference. Another argument to reject offshore balancing is because it is the US’s moral and strategic imperative to promote freedom and human rights whenever it can, however spreading democratic ideals “by the point of a gun” isn’t a sustainable way to ensure that that democracy is lasting, by an outsider changing the regimes of a country there will be powerful oppositions toward the intervening military.

The arguments for offshore balancing are many according to Mearsheimer and Walt. Intervention is not as cheap as advocates say and the United States can ensure the longevity of our international dominance by refocusing our interests on domestic issues such as infrastructure, education, and research and development (78) Promoters of liberal hegemony of the United States believe that the US military must garrison to keep the peace and ensure an open economy but they fail to realize that regional conflicts are going to happen even if the US is involved (78) Unfortunately, no strategy is going to be successful in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but military intervention would only delay the inevitable. The United States’ constant presence abroad might also embolden our allies to seek conflict more, readily knowing that they had the US-backing them in their backyard.(80)

There are many strengths to viewing International Politics in a Classical realist perspective. Offshore balancing and liberal hegemony both embrace many of the assumptions that the realists assert. “Might makes Right” or at least “Might creates Legitimacy” seems to be a common Hobbesian assumption that Realists maintain, and to a certain extent, they would be right. In order to positively ensure survival you must be the most powerful child in the sandbox, but, they seem to look over the fact that there is more than just the sandbox and the other players, since there will always be other institutions and actors looking to exert their power. Viewing the world through an anarchical lens will take you far enough to survive and expand from the state of nature.

However, the different interactions that are available don’t have to be constrained to a “Self-help” conduit. Realism is often a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are many opportunities for cooperation in order to attain one’s interest in an easier way. We can achieve power through wealth and thus ensure our security. Approaching offshore balancing through a liberal lens would ensure that no single interest dominates. If the long-term goal is prosperity and stability for the United States, we must operate not on our conflicting interests but on our shared interests.

Embracing International Institutions and pursuing what Kant calls a “Perpetual Peace” should be the United State’s goal so we can reap the benefits of our current “agenda setting power” and use the benefits of our liberal hegemony in a way that the Offshore balancing strategy is not mutually exclusive. All in all, besides certain weaknesses that realist philosophies often fall prey to; offshore balancing strategies seem to have the potential to be more sustainable in regards to maintaining the United State’s dominance than our current Status Quo.

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