The Magazine

How England Prevailed

Not with 'offshore balancing.'

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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In his September 1 Washington Post column, George Will offered a prescription for U.S. retreat from Afghanistan: "Do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters." This approach has a pedigree; students of international security will recognize it as "offshore balancing."

The basic idea of "offshore balancing" is that the United States should adopt a grand strategy of husbanding its strength, concentrating on dominating the "international commons"--this used to mean ruling the waves à la Britannia but now also includes the air (airpower being a particularly congenial form of military power for Americans), space, and even the realm of "cyberspace"--while limiting its involvement in "continental" struggles. The continent in question was once Europe, then East Asia, but now mostly refers to the greater Middle East (although it is also true that offshore balancers are among the most eager to accommodate increasing Chinese power).

The concept is a hardy perennial in the journals specializing in such matters, most notably MIT's International Security, which is, in this context, the paper of record. Those with a strong tolerance for political science lingo should try Christopher Layne's 1997 article "From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy." Layne argued that though bad things will happen if the United States adopts an isolationist approach, worse things will happen if we keep poking our nose in where it's not wanted.

But offshore balancing has also been a refuge for political opponents of Bush's wars: John Murtha, in his public renunciation of the Iraq war, proposed an "offshore" alternative that, depending upon who the congressman might be talking to, centered on Kuwait--not exactly "offshore"--or Diego Garcia, roughly 4,000 miles from Baghdad, offshore in spades. The Center for American Progress, John Podesta's vehicle for lefty Democrats, published a sort of what-the-congressman-meant-to-say "strategic redeployment" study, which made it clear that offshoring mostly meant coming home to the United States.

A further, cultural and aesthetic, reason for the durability of the idea of offshore balancing is that it has a distinct Anglo and maritime aroma. It's not just an idea, it's an idea that has the sound of a nifty, nautical tradition. While it's easy to see how this might appeal to some war opponents, a close look at offshoring shows that it not only results in bad strategy, but has its origins in bad history.

Let's begin with the allegedly Anglo origins in the mists of Tudor myth, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and faith in the Royal Navy's "wooden walls." On this telling, England was (and remains) an island apart from Europe, "a precious stone set in a silver sea," as Shakespeare had it. Britain became great by avoiding a "continental commitment," exploiting the maritime commons to build an empire linked by trade.

This interpretation of British strategy and imperial greatness always had strong appeal with the American cousins, but it remained for Alfred Thayer Mahan (and through him Theodore Roosevelt) to import the whole bolt of cloth to the United States. Mahan's Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) is still today an influential work of "security studies" (although he's probably more widely read in Beijing than Washington), combining familiar threads--navalism, exceptionalism, and imperialism--in a uniquely American weave.

Mahan was also a man with a narrower agenda: the "transformation" of the U.S. Navy from a coastal and commerce-raiding force into an ocean-going, blue-water, power-projection force of nature. The domestic success of the Big Navy Boys and, later, the Air Power Mafia helped to entrench further the offshore strategic rationale. Controlling-the-commons excuses us from becoming embroiled in land wars on any continent.

It's a very rousing and inspiring story. If only it were true.