Offshore balancing: An idea whose time has come

You know that an idea is catching on when Tom Friedman gets behind it. He's been a reliable weathervane for some time (a cheerleader for U.S.-led globalization in the 1990s, backing the Iraq War in 2002 and then reversing course when it went south, supporting escalation in Afghanistan with his fingers firmly crossed, and lecturing Americans on their recent failings once that became fashionable, too). But in this case I'm not complaining, because some of his recent writings suggest that he's coming around to the idea of offshore balancing.

Consider his column in today's Times. He makes two basic points: 1) the strategic stakes in Central Asia aren't worth the costs, and 2) withdrawal from Iraq will exacerbate Iranian-Iraqi relations and improve our strategic position. Gee, where did I hear those ideas before? And then he goes further, pointing out that getting out of our current "land wars in Asia" will restore our freedom of maneuver and give us more strategic options. Here's the money quotation from Friedman, based on testimony from a prominent Indian scholar:

'If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,' argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. ‘You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.' He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. ‘At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone's hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes - rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.'

The United States today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia 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."

One might add that playing "hard to get" a bit would also make other countries do more to retain U.S. backing, and that would be good for us too.

Although Friedman doesn't use the term in his column, the logic he's outlining here is pure offshore balancing. That strategy -- which would eschew nation-building and large onshore ground and air deployments -- 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. Offshore balancing would take advantage of America's favorable geopolitical position, most notably its distance from most of the world's trouble spots and centers of power. (Why should a country that has no great power rivals near its own borders be so eager to send its military forces deep into the Asian landmass, in search of monsters to destroy, especially when there are no threats to the overall balance of power in these areas? Better to follow Muhammed Ali's famous advice and "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.)

Offshore balancing is not isolationism, however, because the United States would still be diplomatically engaged in many places and committed to intervening in key areas if and when the balance of power broke down. By eschewing costly onshore commitments and fruitless exercises in "regional transformation" and nation-building, however, it would husband the resources on which America's long-term prosperity depends and help us rebuild a society that used to be inspire others and increasingly disappoints.

Nor is offshore balancing a magic bullet or a panacea. To make it work, you need to know a lot about the diplomatic and security constellations in key areas; you need expert diplomats who know how to play hardball in subtle ways; and you need a foreign policy establishment that pursues U.S. interests ruthlessly and doesn't get sidetracked by ideological crusades or the pleadings of special interests. And in case you hadn't noticed, those features are in short supply these days.

So we have a ways to go before offshore balancing becomes a reality. But with the Times' cheerleader-in-chief on board, maybe we'll get there a bit sooner.

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Stephen M. Walt

Romney flunks foreign policy ... again

In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):

The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.

This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:

God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.

Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.

As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.

Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.

One can grasp the logic here by substituting the name of any other U.S. ally in Romney's statement, even close allies like Great Britain or Japan or Germany. Would any presidential candidate tell a reporter "The actions I will take [in Asia] will be ones recommended and supported by Japanese [or Australian or South Korean] leaders"? Would any president declare that his policies toward Europe should be determined by Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, or (god forbid) Berlusconi? While it is obvious that U.S. leaders should always consult with allies and listen to what they think -- in part because sometimes they may see things more clearly than we do -- it would be folly to simply check our own judgment at the door and do whatever they wanted.

So either Romney genuinely believes that Israel's leaders always know what is best for their country and best for the United States (despite all the evidence to the contrary), or he simply doesn't understand how international politics works. Either possibility is, to put it mildly, worrisome.

Of course, Romney is running for president and that inevitably means pandering to all sorts of special interest groups. It is therefore possible that he doesn't really mean what he said, which would not be a bold departure for him. It's also the sort of statement you'd expect from someone whose advisors include a raft of prominent neoconservatives. But the saddest part is that he's not unique: one can find similar statements by other candidates and by President Obama too. Which suggest that U.S. Middle East policy isn't likely to improve much, no matter who wins in 2012.

Postscript: Of course, the big story this week is the U.N. General Assembly vote to give the Palestinians full membership in UNESCO. The final vote was 107 in favor, 14 against, with 52 abstentions and 14 absent. Because an absurd U.S. law (passed, of course, by our supine Congress) forbids the United States from supporting any U.N. entity that recognizes Palestine (horrors!), we are now obliged to cut off the $80 million that we provide UNESCO (roughly 20 percent of its budget). Even if you are one of those people who think this step is entirely appropriate, you should at least admit that it will make the United States like petulant and spiteful in the eyes of many people around the world.

Of course, the vote itself is a largely symbolic action -- it doesn't end the occupation or halt settlement expansion, doesn't produce a more competent or unified Palestinian leadership, and doesn't remove the threat of further violence. But it is another indication of how far out of step with world opinion U.S. policy is, how our influence in the region is eroding, and how the price we pay for our failed Middle East policy is increasing. For thoughtful commentaries, see Bernard Avishai, Daniel Levy, M.J. Rosenberg, and former undersecretary of state Timothy Wirth.

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