By Aaron Richards
America’s Grand Strategy
Whether you are an academic, a member of the Armed Forces, or an America citizen whose main news outlet is Fox News or CNN, a common term heard in American politics is strategy. In a security environment where challenges grow by the day, we hear our leaders in government outline our national security strategy, military strategy, economic strategy, and other approaches to securing America’s interests. However, a concept that may be unfamiliar to the average American is grand strategy.
The various definitions for grand strategy center on a common theme. For the purpose of this article, grand strategy can be defined as the use of power by leaders through diplomatic, economic, military, and political means to defend their respective nation-states and interests. The United States’ grand strategy has been evolving since the 19th century. President James Monroe articulated his policy in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, which is arguably America’s first grand strategy, “The American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” President Monroe’s call for developing a new order in the Americas paved the way for the U.S. to expand its economic and military power throughout the Western Hemisphere.
During World War II, U.S. grand strategy under President Franklin Roosevelt focused on multilateralism with the ends being the “reestablishment of a stable international order, a prosperous global economic system, and a U.S. population free from military threat at home and abroad.” America’s superiority enabled it to succeed in its objectives in both the European and Asian theaters, leaving the U.S. as the world’s superpower following the war.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, America’s view on the world changed drastically, given that 19 hijackers successfully executed the greatest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. As a result, President George W. Bush iterated to the world his grand strategy for the United States, which can be summarized as a strategy of preemption:
“The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. [The] United States will, if necessary, act preemptively…in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies.”
Just as with the previous two U.S. presidents, Presidents Bush and Obama, President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office as a wartime president. Each U.S. President in the 21st century has had to justify the need for American troops in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. President Obama’s foreign policy legacy will likely be remembered with triumphs, such as the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death and brokering a nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 [The United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5); China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany]. And failures; including his reluctance to act in Syria after publicly stating President Bashar al-Assad must go and Obama’s drone policy which which has encouraged the proliferation of armed drones and the associated legal ambiguities involving their use. Given the complex geopolitical world we live in today, it may be appropriate to adopt a new approach to address today’s challenges in securing American interests. One such approach is offshore balancing.
What is Offshore Balancing?
Offshore balancing is a strategy that can allow the United States to preserve its interests at home and abroad, without weakening its relationships with allies. Offshore balancing in today’s international systems, as defined by Jon Mearsheimer (R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government), advocates “preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf” and encouraging “other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, [the U.S.] intervening itself only when necessary.” Based on this definition, the United States is capable of protecting its position as the world’s sole superpower for the future while ensuring security at home.
It is evident that the U.S. will remain a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, as no state currently poses a threat. However, the same cannot be said for the U.S. in other regions of the globe. Potential hegemons that offshore balancing would be aimed at addressing include China, Russia, and Iran. In each of the three regions mentioned above, offshore balancing requires a “balancer” to maintain America’s interests abroad ranging from securing trade routes to preserving the national security of allies.
Offshore Balancing in Action: Asia
In Asia, the United States should leverage its strategic alliances with its partners in the Asia-Pacific to balance against the rise of China. The U.S. should combine the use of soft and hard balancing strategies with its Asia-Pacific allies to demonstrate that China’s aggressive behaviors in the region will not be tolerated. The key partner the U.S will need to rely upon in balancing against China’s rise is Japan.
Japan remains wary of China’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific, especially regarding territorial disputes. In February, three Chinese Coast Guard ships entered waters near a chain of islands claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea. Japan controls the chain and calls them the Senkaku Islands, while China calls refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands. Washington has taken a strong approach in reassuring its commitment to Japan’s territorial claims, for instance, coordinating with Tokyo to revise their Mutual Defense Guidelines (MDG) in April 2015. Given China’s growing strategic threat in the region, the updated MDG focuses on developments in military technology, improvements in interoperability of the U.S. and Japanese militaries, bilateral cooperation on cybersecurity, the use of space for defense purposes, ballistic missile defense, and cooperation in defending Japan’s outlying islands and of sea lanes relied upon by many Asia-Pacific states.
Additionally, the U.S. will need to rely on other local powers to contain China (e.g., South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines), as a stronger Japan is unlikely to counterbalance China’s rise alone. The U.S., with the agreement and cooperation of its regional partners, could develop Anti-Access and Aerial Denial (A2/AD) zones in the region to demonstrate collective strength against China’s unwillingness to abide by international law. Such a U.S.-led effort would include multilateral cooperation to build “a greater reliance in the region on short-range, tactical airpower as well as quieter, faster attack submarines and small, fast frigate-sized warships with robust anti-ship cruise missile capabilities; an expanded inventory of long-range anti-ship missiles” deployed on ships and aircraft at sea.
Conducting such a transition will require improvements in training with allies, information-sharing, embedded military advisers, and prepositioned supplies to build a competitive advantage against China of strategic capabilities in the region that are to be used for defensive purpose only. China seems to have no issue with continuing its aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific, thus the United States should be proactive in incorporating offshore balancing measures to secure the interests of America and its allies.
Offshore Balancing in Action: Europe
With the case of Europe, the United States and its European allies have stated their concerns over Russia’s action in the past few years and what may potentially be on the horizon for Moscow. Arguably the strongest multilateral security organization in the world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a collection of 28 states promoting democratic values and encouraging cooperation on defense and security issues to build trust and prevent conflict between allies. As part of the NATO members’ commitment to collective security, each member is expected to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) toward defense spending. Currently, only five nations meet that commitment, with the United States spending over $660 billion in 2016. While America’s support is needed to deter Russian aggression in Europe, there are approaches in which the U.S. can lessen its financial burden on providing NATO security but maintain the trust and security of its European allies.
For instance, increasing the U.S. military footprint in Europe may not be as effective in countering Russia’s growing role in Europe. Recent strategic documents coming from the Kremlin state Russia’s goals in the region include maintaining a military advantage over NATO (which Russia sees as a threat to its security) and politically controlling neighboring spaces and countries to create buffer zones as protection from invasions and external instabilities. Thus, the U.S. should allow its European allies to bolster its own security forces and posture while Washington leverages its soft power to develop a selective engagement approach to strengthen European partnerships and counter Russian influence. The U.S. can serve as an offshore balancer to Russia in Europe by providing security assistance to NATO allies to “increase pre-positioning, develop stronger deterrence measures for the Black Sea…and exploit technologies including longer-range aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealthy platforms to address Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.”
If a scenario were to occur whereby Russia antagonizes European allies, the U.S. can deploy necessary troops or capabilities to deter further Russian aggression. In the long-term, allowing European allies to lead in their collective security allows the U.S. to support when required and demonstrate to Russia that Europe is capable of countering Russian bellicosity.
Offshore Balancing in Action: Middle East
With the Middle East, the United States has, and will continue to have, strategic interests in the region; including the promotion of a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation to counter state and non-state actors posing a threat to the U.S. and its allies. However, there needs to be a balance between America’s direct role in shaping the region and the need for a proactive, lead role from its Middle East partners who are more directly affected by the security environment of the region.
In the Middle East, an offshore balancing approach should not be viewed as abandoning our allies, but requiring regional powers to “bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, [America’s] military strategy is [to be] oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.” The implementation of offshore balancing can be directed toward countering Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Gulf region.
While the United States was able to broker a nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, Washington remains concerned about Tehran’s malign activities in the Gulf. As Central Command’s (CENTCOM) commander General Joseph Votel stated at a recent Congressional hearing, “Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world” due to Iran’s “malign influence across Iraq and Syria,” and efforts to prop up the Syrian regime and exploit Shia population centers. To counter Iran in the region to prevent the Islamic Republic from attaining regional dominance, the U.S. does not need to engage in extensive intervention, rather, it will need to rely on its strategic partners in the region.
The United States should focus on bolstering its support for those Middle East states in which Iran has been proactive in building its influence; specifically Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In Syria, Iran continues to bolster the Assad regime, contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. A more assertive, military-centric approach to finding a solution in Syria is unlikely to prevail, but rather elongate the dire situation in which millions of Syrian civilians are fleeing or being killed. To move toward a negotiated transition will require “a willingness to apply American resources more forcefully toward a diplomatic outcome that meets the minimum requirements of all relevant actors—including security for all civilians regardless of sect.” Washington should focus on resolving the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as it is unknown if and when a political solution will be achieved. Focusing on counterterrorism activities such as airstrikes aligns with U.S. security interests, but continuing to stock pro-Western militias (if they are discernable versus those backing Syria and Iran) may lead to long-term fighting as even those against the Assad regime have their own oppositions amongst one another. A political solution is needed in any case in Syria, a failed state for the foreseeable future, even if it requires Iran and/or Russia as the leading adjudicator.
As for Lebanon, it seems that Beirut has faded as an area of strategic value for the U.S. in recent years. Iran’s influence includes military, political, cultural, financial, and religious programs “aimed at enhancing the image and strength of Hezbollah, justifying Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon as well as its ties with Hezbollah, and turning public opinion in Lebanon against the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab countries.” Iran’s influence in Beirut continues to grow, especially since Lebanon gained a new president and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first top diplomat to meet with him. With the new U.S. administration, President Trump will need to engage with Lebanon more actively and increase U.S. financial and military commitments to the country.
Washington must make it clear to the Lebanese government that it opposes all forms of Iranian military aid to the Lebanese army. Instead, the U.S. government should work with its regional allies to develop a strategy to strengthen Lebanon’s state institutions to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon; whether by improving training and military-to-military cooperation to build sustainable security forces that are more competent than Hezbollah or increasing support for programs, such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, to enhance America’s image in Lebanon’s Shiite community. If President Trump and his administration want to sustain their strategic interests in the Gulf region, our leaders will need to re-evaluate their comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of the Middle East.
The examples of offshore balancing approaches provided above may or may not be applicable to today’s security environment in the next week, month, or year. The world we live in today continues to evolve and the future is uncertain to an extent. Thus, the United States can gradually shift toward acting as an offshore balancer in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf until the international setting changes requiring Washington to react more aggressively.
The United States is not always in the position to lead from the front to solve international crises, however, its involvement is probably needed given its influence across the globe. A majority of Americans prefer the U.S. to focus on domestic issues, however, implementing a reactive posture in dealing with challenges in each strategic region of the globe will result in long-term setbacks in achieving U.S. security interests abroad. Offshore balancing in practice should be not perceived as isolationism, either by Americans or our international partners. Washington must collaborate with its allies to prevent emergence of revisionist hegemons to ensure U.S. security at home and around the world.
It is difficult to deny that we live in a multipolar world with a vast array of security challenges. As an offshore balancer, the U.S. can rely upon nuclear deterrence, air power, and naval power to ensure its interests and the security of its allies. Concrete vital interests should determine America’s commitments abroad, rather than credibility determining commitments and thus commitments determining interests. With a cohesive strategy and commitment from leadership, the United States can be a successful offshore balancer —maintaining U.S. security interests without weakening its relationship with its allies who should now act in a greater role in preserving security in the world’s more strategically important regions.
Aaron Richards currently works as a Senior Analyst within the Defense & National Security Sector of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He holds a Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs from Hofstra University. Aaron was recently nominated to the George C. Marshall Fellowship Class of 2017 sponsored by The Heritage Foundation. Aaron has also written on other national security issues for the Ecologic Institute’s Arctic Summer College and Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) conference series.
Featured Image: Map of WWI by G.F. Morell. (Advocate’s Library Edinburgh)