Tom Friedman of the New Times recently noted that “America today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia (and the Middle East) than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it.” In my opinion this statement, which questions and engages the current application of American strategy in regions of national interest, holds a considerable amount of merit. Many tenets of current American strategy, including the stationing of troops overseas in regions of interest, are economically, politically, and diplomatically unsustainable. In my opinion, the United States should, as Friedman argued, better employ the competitions between regional powers for its own ends. The practice and employment of ‘offshore balancing’ would, in the long term, better serve the interests of the United States and preserve its position as a dominant hegemon in the international arena than the current strategies currently utilized.
The rise of the United States as a preeminent military and economic power in the 20th century came about for a number of reasons. Stephen Walt makes the point that the United States was “in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position.” There were no great powers in the Western Hemisphere other than the United States, and thus Americans needed not fear foreign invasion. The Soviet Union had a much smaller and less efficient economy, and its military might never quite approached the reach of American power-projection capabilities. America’s advantage came, as Walt notes, by the fact that “the other major power centers were all located on or near the Eurasian landmass—close to the Soviet Union and far from the United States—which made even former rivals like Germany and Japan eager for U.S. protection from the Russian bear. Thus, as the Cold War proceeded, the United States amassed a strong and loyal set of allies while the USSR led an alliance of comparatively weak and reluctant partners. In short, even before the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s overall position was about as favorable as any great power’s in modern history.” The bipolarity in the system created a system of ‘spheres of influence’, where less powerful nations would flock to either the United States or the Soviet Union in order to receive protection from either. While a number of nations remained detached or independent, much of the international system revolved around these two blocs. The transition into an unipolar system, thus, left the United States with a set of close allies, thereby further increasing its already dominant power. In summation, the United States emerged in the 1990s as the dominant hegemon in a unipolar system, capable of projecting power nearly unimpeded, due to its advantageous position in the second half of the 20th century and the condition of the international arena at the time.
From this hegemonic dominance came a central part of the current American foreign policy: deployment as power projection. As William Pfaff argues, “global deployment and its intellectual rationalization was a phenomenon of the military’s restored confidence. During the Clinton years, the United States avoided foreign military interventions until the war in the former Yugoslavia forced another short, successful U.S.-NATO operation. The Pentagon took advantage of the opportunity to expand its role and seize unoccupied bureaucratic territory–as well as a major new base in Kosovo.” He continues by arguing that “global base expansion came about largely without press or public attention. The consistently well-financed military was available to the president when the underfunded diplomatic agencies and the CIA offered unimaginative or unsuitable responses in moments of seeming international emergency. The proffered military solutions were positive, prompt, and unilateral, and the armed forces were ready to execute orders without arguing. In so doing, they conveyed to both domestic and international audiences an image of American power and world leadership.” Thus, the United States began to base its troops across the world to convey to foreign powers its strength, in hopes that doing so would influence the geopolitics of the regions troops were stationed in. By having troops stationed in areas where they could be rapidly deployed, the nations of those areas would have to think twice about taking actions belligerent to the United States, and, in turn, would need to more heavily take into consideration the United States stance towards certain issues. Pfaff argues that this system of basing, however, “facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Indeed, by having troops based in the Middle East, as well as having the precedent set for military intervention and engagement by the Yugoslavian conflicts of the middle 1990s, it can easily be reasoned that the Bush administration had little issue with invading Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the potential risks.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fault-lines in demonstrating that the application of the current American strategy would no longer be sustainable. Walt argues that “the twin debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan only served to accelerate the waning of American dominance and underscore the limits of U.S. power. The Iraq War alone will carry a price tag of more than $3 trillion once all the costs are counted, and the end result is likely to be an unstable quasi democracy that is openly hostile to Israel and at least partly aligned with Iran. Indeed, Tehran has been the main beneficiary of this ill-conceived adventure, which is surely not what the Bush administration had in mind when it dragged the country to war.” He continues by arguing that “the long Afghan campaign is even more likely to end badly… the long and costly attempt to eliminate the Taliban and build a Western-style state in Afghanistan has failed. Kabul’s fate will ultimately be determined by the Afghans once the United States and its dwindling set of allies leave. And if failure in Afghanistan weren’t enough, U.S. involvement in Central Asia has undermined relations with nuclear-armed Pakistan and reinforced virulent anti-Americanism in that troubled country.” Essentially, the military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, brought about by precedents set in American foreign policy and strategy and enabled by the conditions created by military basing and force-projection, have became demonstrations that this strategy was no longer applicable in the modern era. Instead of creating liberal democracies, the campaigns have, as Walt notes, been enormously costly endeavors and have produced weak states whose outlooks and policies will not match those of the United States. In fact, Walt goes farther in arguing that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were “eloquent demonstrations of the limits of military power. There was never much doubt that the United States could topple relatively weak and/or unpopular governments—as it has in Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya—but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that unmatched power-projection capabilities were of little use in constructing effective political orders once the offending leadership was removed. In places where local identities remain strong and foreign interference is not welcome for long, even a global superpower like the United States has trouble obtaining desirable political results.” In essence, the United States can no longer influence the politics and outcomes of nations in regions of strategic interest merely by engaging them militarily or through coercive methods such as stationing troops outside their borders. Although American military power is unmatched, the results of the application of that power are no longer promising.
Of course, the outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not new to the American experience, and the United States has ‘bounced’ back from defeat to return to a position of hegemonic dominance. Walt raises the point that “although the U.S. position was sometimes challenged—the loss in Vietnam being the most obvious example—America’s overall standing was never in danger. The U.S. alliance system in Asia held firm despite defeat in Indochina, and during the 1970s, Beijing formed a tacit partnership with Washington. Moreover, China eventually abandoned Marxism-Leninism as a governing ideology, forswore world revolution and voluntarily entered the structure of institutions that the United States had previously created. Similarly, Tehran became an adversary once the clerical regime took over, but America’s overall position in the Middle East was not shaken. Oil continued to flow out of the Persian Gulf, Israel became increasingly secure and prosperous, and key Soviet allies like Egypt eventually abandoned Moscow and sided with the United States. Despite occasional setbacks, the essential features of the American Era remained firmly in place.” Assuming that the international system remains the same, then (considering that it remained an essentially bipolar world of Soviet and American spheres during the time of these examples), the defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be such a catastrophic indicator that the time to change strategy is now, nor should they be indicative of a decline in American power. Assuming that the position of the United States remains unchallenged, such setbacks are only temporary ‘bumps in the road’ as opposed to actual fault-lines demonstrating the necessity for change.
In response to this, however, is the fact that the international system has been changing, and America can no longer reasonably expect to be in a position to bounce back to dominance. Stephen Walt noted that, “The past two decades have witnessed the emergence of new power centers in several key regions. The most obvious example is China, whose explosive economic growth is undoubtedly the most significant geopolitical development in decades. The United States has been the world’s largest economy since roughly 1900, but China is likely to overtake America in total economic output no later than 2025. Beijing’s military budget is rising by roughly 10 percent per year, and it is likely to convert even more of its wealth into military assets in the future.” The era of American dominance militarily and economically is, while not over, gradually drawing to a close. Indeed, as Walt continues, “the security arrangements that defined the American Era are also being undermined by the rise of several key regional powers, most notably India, Turkey and Brazil. Each of these states has achieved impressive economic growth over the past decade, and each has become more willing to chart its own course independent of Washington’s wishes.” As new regional powers come to the front, the position of unchallenged hegemony that the United States enjoyed for much of its ‘unipolar moment’ is beginning to collapse. In turn, it cannot reasonably be expected that these states would tolerate the continuation of the current American power-projection strategy. According to Realist theory, states attempt to balance their power against those they view as threats. The United States, by stationing troops in bases across the globe and in the regions home to many of these rising nations, presents itself as a direct threat to these rising nation’s security and power. Direct engagement in war to influence geopolitics, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves only to alienate these rising nations, and pave the way to a ‘security dilemma’ where they will attempt to counter American military strength with military strength of their own. Indeed, this can be seen in the rising China, which has, as Walt states, been raising its military expenditure by a large rate every year.
Therefore, Friedman’s assertion that the United States of today needs a more cost-effective and efficient strategy is correct. As it stands, the current American method of power-projection through basing and stationing of troops in regions of interest is very costly, and, as Pfaff argues, can incite the American leadership into high-cost and high-risk wars. The changing nature of the international arena, where new regional powers are rising and the unchallenged position of the United States as the dominant global hegemon is eroding, means that the American policy of direct engagement with military forces is losing power and legitimacy as a strategy. Thus, a new strategy must be devised and developed which can preserve America’s position as a global hegemon and enable it to influence international trends, while avoiding the costs and risks of direct military engagement. I believe that this can come from the policies of ‘off-shore balancing’, where indirect engagement of regional powers, the forming of alliances and balancing of powers, and the playing off of regional nations can further America’s interests in a manner comparable to the stationing of troops in those regions, if not better. Offshore balancing, as Walt puts it, “would both increase our freedom of action and dampen anti-Americanism in a number of key areas. It would acknowledge that Americans are not very good at running other countries — particularly when their histories and culture are vastly different from our own — and that trying to do so is neither necessary nor wise.” By engaging other countries diplomatically, and influencing the natural balances of power in regions, the United States could gain hegemonic leverage in those regions.
The United States, despite having suffered defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq and having a sluggish economy, is still in an enormously advantageous position. As Robert and Stephen Kaplan put it, “America’s macro-strategic environment is chockablock with assets unavailable to any other country. If nothing else, the United States has an often-overlooked and oft-neglected bulwark of allies: the Anglosphere… Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States remain extremely close in their military and intelligence relations and exchange vast volumes of sensitive information daily, as they have for decades. On terrorism, virtually anything and everything is shared. The National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters have been nearly inextricable since World War II. The same is largely true of the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The various English-speaking nations, in practical terms, even assign individual parts of the world to each other, and each worries about the others’ security equities.” These alliances and ties greatly help increase American soft-power and, through the ‘Anglosphere’s cooperation, helps reduce security costs. Intelligence and information can be relayed and shared, as can international and military burdens. Robert and Stephen Kaplan continue by saying that “with a combined population of 420 million, with strategic locations off the continent of Europe (Great Britain), near the intersection of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific sea-lanes (Australia), and in the Arctic and adjacent to Greenland’s oil and gas (Canada), the Anglosphere, if not abused or ignored, will be a substantial hard-power asset for the United States deep into the twenty-first century. China and Russia enjoy nothing comparable.” Such fortunate strategic positioning will enable the United States to gain leverage in the balancing of power, and the fact that China and Russia, two of America’s rising adversaries, possess nothing comparable is highly significant.
Thus, it can be concluded that America’s position itself is not in any challenge, and, in fact, is quite conducive to continued international hegemony. What, then, must the United States do in order to employ its practice of offshore balancing? First, the most important areas of interest to the United States need to be determined. The Western Hemisphere itself is secure from direct threats to the United States integrity, and Europe itself is comprised solidly of NATO allies. A direct challenge to America’s clout in Europe, however, is the Russian Federation. However, as the Kaplans argue, “Russia is demographically tied to the Continent but finds it hard to dominate it. Germany, as its economy and power amplify, may be forced to become a normal regional actor able to balance against Russia; in the process it might lose its quasi pacifism. Moreover, Moscow, as a fading European power, presents the United States with options because of Russia’s own manifold insecurities. Any new Russian empire will be a weak reincarnation of previous ones, limited not only by Chinese influence in the Russian Far East but by Chinese political and economic influence in Muslim Central Asia as well. Newly vibrant states like China, India, Turkey, Poland and Kazakhstan are already containing Russia after a fashion.” The United States should thus rely upon Germany, a close NATO ally and economic partner, to balance against Russian power in Europe. As it stands, Russia is already being pressured and constrained by states such as India, Turkey, Poland, and Kazakhstan. The United States should thus continue to engage these countries diplomatically and build up ties with them to ensure that they continue to balance Russia’s power. By building a series of ties with these nations (the United States already enjoys close relations with Poland and India, and strategic ties with Turkey), the United States can effectively contain Russian growth and limit their hegemony.
Next, the United States must look towards the Middle East, which currently stands as the focal point of American strategy. The United States is already in the process of leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, and the removal of occupying forces will greatly serve to further American interests in the region. After all, the Taliban is engaging the United States in order to remove the ‘foreign occupier’, and Al Qaeda’s principal political message was for the removal of American forces from the Middle East. The stationing of troops in the Middle East only serves to breed contempt amongst the people of the region, and has facilitated the rise of anti-American factions bent on ‘liberating’ their countries. Walt further argues that, “the United States kept thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia, sparking Osama bin Laden’s ire and helping fuel the rise of al-Qaeda. The Bush administration compounded this error after 9/11 by adopting the even more foolish strategy of “regional transformation”… these ill-conceived approaches deepened anti-Americanism in the Middle East and gave states like Iran more reason to consider acquiring a nuclear deterrent.” The potential hegemony ‘hit’ brought about by the removal of American forces in the Middle East can be countered by playing the states of the region off against each other. Iran is in the process of becoming a nuclear power, but in the longer term this should be something that will actually benefit America’s position. Iran and Saudi Arabia are fierce competitors, and Iran employs a number of cells within the Arab nations surrounding Israel. A nuclear armed Iran would shift the balance of power away from Israel and, in turn, cause the states surrounding Israel to reconsider who they perceive as a prime threat.