Home / Articles / Retrenchment Chic: The Dangers of Offshore Balancing
Retrenchment is all the rage in the academic strategic studies community. In recent years, a growing number of scholars—including prominent international-relations “realists” like Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Christopher Layne—have argued that Washington should retreat from the ambitious strategy it has followed since World War II, and that it should embrace a far more austere approach to world affairs. In particular, they have contended that America should pursue a minimalist approach known as “offshore balancing.” In brief, offshore balancing envisions rolling back U.S. force posture and alliance commitments abroad, and significantly reducing the overall assertiveness of U.S. policy. Offshore balancing “is an idea whose time has come,” writes Walt; in the post-Iraq War and post-financial crisis context, dramatic retrenchment has become both desirable and imperative.
Arguments for offshore balancing are premised on a less-is-more logic: that reducing U.S. commitments and activism can actually lead to greater security and influence at a far lower financial price. After more than a decade of expensive and inconclusive wars, such logic can seem quite appealing. Yet upon closer inspection, offshore balancing loses its luster. The financial and geopolitical benefits of that strategy are significantly overstated, while the probable dangers and costs are often obscured. Offshore balancing effectively promises the best of all worlds, but if implemented it would likely endanger the international influence and stability that the United States has long enjoyed, and render the country vulnerable to higher longer-term risks and costs. Retrenchment chic must therefore be carefully scrutinized: as America considers its grand strategic course in coming years, it should steer clear of offshore balancing.
Why Try Offshore Balancing?
Since World War II, the United States has pursued an ambitious and engaged strategy in global affairs. It has sought to foster an international environment conducive to the spread of free markets and democracy, and to uphold a favorable global balance of power in which no hostile power can dominate one of the three regions—Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf—of critical economic or strategic importance to the United States. To attain these goals, in turn, America has made numerous overseas security commitments, and substantiated those commitments through the forward deployment of military forces. The precise timing and nature of these commitments has varied by region, of course, but the basic logic has always been the same. U.S. commitments have functioned to prevent any rival from exerting control over a vital area, and to mute destabilizing regional security competitions. They have promoted the climate of reassurance in which democracy and market economies could thrive, and restrained nuclear proliferation by reducing the insecurity of key U.S. allies. Beyond all this, U.S. commitments have pushed American power and influence deep into critical regions. In numerous ways, security guarantees and forward deployments have been the backbone of postwar U.S. strategy.
For many decades, this strategy has served America well. Yet since the end of the Cold War, and particularly in the last decade, many academic analysts have claimed that the strategy has outlived its usefulness. They argue that there is no longer the same danger of a hostile power like the Soviet Union overrunning a vital region, and that Washington—amid post-financial crisis austerity—can no longer afford such extensive commitments. They also argue that a strategy designed during the Cold War has caused myriad geopolitical problems in the post-Cold War world. It has enabled endemic free-riding by U.S. allies, while antagonizing key regional powers—like Russia and China—who view American presence as a threat to their own security. Likewise, offshore balancers contend that the strategy actually encourages jihadist terrorism by placing American troops on Muslim holy ground, and that U.S. assertiveness fuels—rather than restrains—nuclear proliferation by menacing the very survival of countries like Iran and North Korea. From this perspective, it is American strength, and not American weakness, that incites so many of the security challenges the country currently confronts.
These critiques have informed the widespread academic appeal of offshore balancing. Like most mainstream observers, offshore balancers agree that U.S. policy must prevent any unfriendly power from dominating Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf. Yet they believe that permanent U.S. force deployments and security guarantees are not needed to achieve this goal. Rather, offshore balancers think that Washington can rely on local actors to contain most threats in these regions, supporting them with economic, diplomatic, or indirect military aid (like arms sales) as necessary. Only when a crucial regional balance threatens to collapse altogether—only when a hostile actor threatens to overrun or otherwise control that area—should Washington intervene by going onshore with its own military forces. Once the aggressor is defeated and the balance restored, U.S. forces should return offshore again.
In practical terms, offshore balancing therefore entails a marked retrenchment of U.S. presence overseas. Offshore balancers have argued that America should withdraw from NATO’s military command, for instance, or at least withdraw all permanently stationed U.S. troops from Europe. They have urged forswearing onshore peacetime deployments in the Gulf, and relying on “over-the-horizon” capabilities should trouble erupt. In East Asia, most offshore balancers favor preserving strong naval/air forces to deter a rising China. Yet they have also advocated, variously, withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea, ending the ambiguous security commitment to Taiwan, modifying or terminating the alliance with Japan, or removing U.S. forces from that country.
All of this retrenchment would be accompanied by significant cuts in force structure, and by a far more modest approach to foreign policy writ large. Democracy-promotion and other “ideological” objectives would be sharply downgraded; the use of force for anything other than preservation of a critical regional balance would be strictly avoided. In essence, offshore balancing calls for a rupture with the postwar pattern of American strategy, and a reversion to an earlier type of approach. Prior to 1945, the United States generally eschewed peacetime commitments in Europe or in East Asia, intervening only to prevent or reverse the conquest of those regions during the world wars. That strategy worked well then, offshore balancers argue, and it would work equally well today.
In fact, offshore balancers contend that their strategy would produce a host of financial and geopolitical benefits. It would slash U.S. defense costs, and compel key regional players—Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany—to shoulder greater responsibility for preserving international order. It would give Washington greater flexibility and influence in global affairs, by freeing it from needless commitments and allowing it to focus on core balance-of-power issues. Finally, offshore balancing would reduce key threats to American interests, by easing the blowback that U.S. policies have created. Retracting the U.S. security footprint in Europe and East Asia would reduce tensions with Russia and China, for example, while retrenchment would also address the root causes of nuclear proliferation by easing the insecurity of states like Iran and North Korea. The same goes for terrorism: scholars like Robert Pape contend that an end to U.S. troop deployments in the greater Middle East would assuage Muslim anger and largely defuse the jihadist threat. Across an entire range of key issues, then, retrenchment could markedly improve U.S. fortunes. Indeed, if taken at face value, offshore balancing seems to be a nearly ideal grand strategy for America.
Not Such a Bargain…
The allure of offshore balancing is largely illusory, however, and the issue of financial cost starts to demonstrate why. One purported advantage of offshore balancing is that it will help liberate the country from unbearable financial strains. Offshore balancers argue that there will be significant economies achieved by avoiding “wars of choice,” and that offshore balancing will permit dramatic cuts in overseas basing and force structure. (One scholar predicts, for instance, that offshore balancing would permit 50 percent cuts in ground forces, and 25-33 percent cuts in air and naval forces.) Yet in reality, those savings would likely be far less than advertised.
For one thing, the existing U.S. strategy is not actually that expensive by historical standards. Total defense spending (including money for overseas wars) has averaged between 3 and 4 percent of GDP since the mid-1990s, rising to 4.7 percent in 2010 but falling to roughly 3.5 percent in 2014. When we compare this spending to Cold War-era budgets that sometimes reached over 10 percent of GDP, it quickly becomes apparent that the current strategy is not nearly so economically backbreaking as sometimes portrayed.
Nor would offshore balancing be so cheap. An offshore-balancing type military must still be capable of intervening decisively in regional conflicts, and forcing its way back onshore if the balance breaks. It also must have the air and naval power needed to dominate the global commons and push into contested areas in time of crisis. An offshore-balancing military would therefore still need to be capable of rapid, decisive global power-projection, with all the massive costs that endeavor entails. Even closing overseas bases and stationing U.S. forces closer to home would not greatly mitigate such costs: one RAND Corporation study points out that relocating two squadrons of F-16s from Italy to the United States would reduce operational costs by just 6 percent annually.
When these issues are considered, offshore balancing no longer seems such a bargain. And one must also weigh the possibility that modest savings now might lead to higher costs later. After all, when the United States practiced a version of offshore balancing toward Europe and East Asia during the first half of the 20th century, it ended up having to fight major wars to restore regional balances that had either collapsed or were in severe peril of doing so. Staying offshore might save money in the short-term, but the more economical long-term strategy is to make those onshore commitments that can fortify the regional balance and keep the peace.
Exaggerated Security Benefits: Terrorism and Proliferation
What about the purported security benefits of offshore balancing? Here too, those benefits are exaggerated and the costs understated. When it comes to terrorism, for instance, offshore balancers are actually right that the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia after 1990 was a principal cause of al-Qaeda’s attacks against American targets, and that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq also acted as a magnet for terrorist attacks. In this sense, there is something to the claim that onshore presence in the Persian Gulf has sometimes attracted extremist violence. Yet the corollary—that offshore balancing would largely solve the problem—remains dubious, for two reasons.
First, the stationing of U.S. troops in Muslim countries is only one of many causes of anti-American terrorism. Others include anger at U.S. support for authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, Washington’s relationship with Israel, and Western “cultural imperialism” in the Middle East. U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East would not ameliorate these other grievances, and it might actually inflame them further. For if the United States embraced offshore balancing, it would presumably become more reliant on friendly Arab dictators—as well as Israel—as bulwarks of stability in a volatile region.
Second, offshore might undercut counter-terrorism in other ways, as well. Forsaking U.S. forward presence would deprive the country of the overseas bases and contingents that American forces have repeatedly used in counter-terrorism operations over the past 30 years. It would also deprive the country of crucial diplomatic and intelligence leverage. U.S. forward deployments and commitments have long provided influence that Washington has used to evoke greater cooperation on what Robert Art calls the “quieter phase of fighting terrorism”—intelligence-sharing, diplomatic partnerships, and other behind-the-scenes measures that are crucial to fighting terrorist groups. Were America to slash its security posture, this influence would presumably shrink, as well. Offshore balancing, then, is no panacea when it comes to counter-terrorism. It holds some advantages, but significant dangers lurk just below the surface.
The same is true of proliferation. Offshore balancers are right that U.S. policy can appear threatening to its adversaries, and that some countries—China during the Cold War, Iran and North Korea since the 1990s—have sought to develop nuclear weapons in part as a way of countering American pressure and coercion. The trouble, however, is that shifting to offshore balancing would hardly rectify the situation. After all, academic research indicates that there are numerous reasons why “rogue states” seek nuclear weapons, from desires for international or domestic prestige to desires to wield the bomb as a tool of offensive or coercive leverage. The causes of proliferation, like the causes of terrorism, are quite complex, and so altering U.S. policy would touch only one piece of the problem.
In fact, it would probably make that problem far worse. What offshore balancers frequently forget is that, far from being an overall stimulant to proliferation, U.S. force presence and security commitments have, on aggregate, massively impeded that phenomenon. U.S. security guarantees have reduced the perceived need for America’s allies to seek nuclear weapons, while giving Washington powerful influence that it can use to dissuade prospective proliferators. In numerous cases since the 1950s—from Germany and Italy, to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—these aspects of U.S. policy have proven central to limiting the spread of nuclear arms. Were the United States now to terminate or dramatically reduce its overseas commitments, it stands to reason that it would also lose this non-proliferation leverage. Offshore balancing would therefore likely result in a more proliferated, and more dangerous, world.
Less Influence, More Instability
These issues touch on a broader problem of offshore balancing—that contrary to what its proponents claim, it is likely to cause greater international instability and reduced U.S. global influence. The reason for this is quite simply that both international stability and U.S. influence have long been thoroughly interlinked with America’s forward presence. Regarding influence, the protection that Washington has afforded its allies has also given the United States great sway over those allies’ policies, just as American-led alliances have served as vehicles for shaping political, security, and economic agendas across key regions and relationships. Regarding stability, the “American pacifier” has suppressed precisely the competitive geopolitical dynamics that can so easily foster conflict and violence. U.S. presence has limited arms races and counter-productive competitions by providing security in regions like Europe and East Asia; it has also soothed historical rivalries and provided a climate of reassurance more conductive to multilateral cooperation in these areas. Overall, American presence has induced caution in the behavior of allies and adversaries alike, deterring aggression and checking other types of destabilizing behavior. As even John Mearsheimer has acknowledged, Washington “acts as a night watchman,” giving order to an otherwise anarchical environment.
If Washington abandoned this role, the most likely byproduct is that U.S. influence and global stability alike would suffer. The United States would effectively be surrendering its most powerful source of leverage vis-à-vis friends and allies, and jeopardizing its position of leadership in key regions. It would also be courting pronounced turmoil in those areas. Long-dormant security competitions might revive as countries felt forced to arm themselves more vigorously; historical rivalries between old enemies might resurge absent U.S. protection and the reassurance it offers. Even more dangerously, countries that aim to challenge existing regional orders—think Russia in Europe, or Iran in the Middle East—might feel more empowered to assert their interests. If the United States has been a kind of Leviathan in key regions, one scholar notes, then “take away that Leviathan and there is likely to be big trouble.”
Looking at the global horizon today, one can readily discern where such trouble might occur. In Europe, Putin’s Russia is already destabilizing and threatening its neighbors, and challenging the post-Cold War settlement in the region. In the Gulf and broader Middle East, fears of Iranian ascendancy have stoked region-wide tensions and rivalry, even as U.S. partners also face a profound threat to regional stability in the form of the Islamic State. In East Asia, an increasingly powerful China is rubbing up against the regional status quo, raising concerns among its neighbors—many of whom also have historical grievances against one another. In these conditions, removing the American pacifier would not produce low-cost stability, but rather increased turmoil and upheaval.
Over time, such turmoil and upheaval could conceivably lead to a scenario in which a hostile power threatened to gain primacy in a key geopolitical region. Yet even if this nightmare scenario did not come to pass, increased geopolitical instability could be quite damaging to U.S. interests. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, how increased conflict might undermine the multilateral cooperation that is required to address transnational threats from piracy to pandemics. Nor is it hard to imagine how a complex and interdependent global economy might be disrupted by escalating geopolitical competition in regions of great commercial and financial importance. Nor, for that matter, is it hard to imagine how increased global tumult might prejudice prospects for the continued international spread—or consolidation—of democracy. Were a turn to offshore balancing to produce a less stable global environment, a whole range of essential American goals and objectives could easily be jeopardized.
Offshore balancing is an alluring idea because it promises that less can be more—that the United States can actually improve its security and international position by slashing its overseas commitments. Things that seem too good to be true usually are, however, and upon closer scrutiny offshore balancing no longer appears so appealing. The benefits of that strategy are not as great as often advertised; the risks and dangers, by contrast, are quite significant. Offshore balancers may claim that their strategy offers a path to cut-rate security and stability for the United States, yet the more likely consequences would be to jeopardize the stability, security, and influence that U.S. policy has long afforded, and to trade moderate short-term savings for higher long-term dangers and costs.
To be clear, this is not to argue against any sort of flexibility or adaptation in U.S. strategy, or to argue against the idea of strategic recalibration (such as the Obama administration has pursued) within the broader framework of continued, energetic global engagement. Such adaptation and recalibration has long been a feature of postwar U.S. strategy, and it will continue to be essential in the years ahead. What will be equally important, however, is to avoid the extreme of dramatic retrenchment—and to reject the false allure of offshore balancing.
 This essay is adapted from Hal Brands, “Fools Rush Out? The Flawed Logic of Offshore Balancing,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2015; and Hal Brands, The Limits of Offshore Balancing (Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, forthcoming). These longer studies are more extensively sourced than the present essay; readers interested in the underlying source material are advised to consult those longer studies.
 Stephen Walt, “Offshore Balancing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” Foreign Policy, November 2, 2011.
 Major texts on offshore balancing include Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: U.S. Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 159-192; Christopher Layne, “Offshore Balancing Revisited, Washington Quarterly 25, no. 2 (Spring 2002), 233-248; John Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design,” National Interest (January/February 2011), 16-34; Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press, “Footprints in the Sand,” AmericanInterest (March/April 2010), 59-67, Barry Posen, “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 1 (January/February 2013), 116-129; Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Stephen Walt, “The End of the U.S. Era,” National Interest (November/December 2011), 6-16. My description of offshore balancing draws on these and other sources.
 Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005), esp. 237-250.
 For post-Cold War figures, see “Military Expenditure (% of GDP),” World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS?page=3
 Patrick Mills et al., “The Costs of Commitment: Cost Analysis of Overseas Air Force Basing,” RAND Corporation Working Paper, April 2012, esp. 13, 21-22.
 Robert Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 201-202.
 See Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996/97, 54-86; Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified?” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1, Summer 2011, pp. 133-166.
 Mearsheimer, “Why is Europe Peaceful Today?” European Political Science, Vol. 9, No. 2, September 2010, esp. 388.
 Mearsheimer, “Why is Europe Peaceful Today?” 389.