John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt make a powerful case for offshore balancing as a grand strategy for the United States, but, when it comes to Russia and Europe, they refuse to draw the logical consequences of their own framework. As a result, their analysis implodes.
Here’s how Mearsheimer and Walt define offshore balancing:
Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary.
“How would it work?” they ask. Here’s the answer:
the United States should turn to regional forces as the first line of defense, letting them uphold the balance of power in their own neighborhood… If those powers cannot contain a potential hegemon on their own, however, the United States must help get the job done, deploying enough firepower to the region to shift the balance in its favor.
Just what is a “potential hegemon”?
Such a state would have abundant economic clout, the ability to develop sophisticated weaponry, the potential to project power around the globe, and perhaps even the wherewithal to outspend the United States in an arms race. Such a state might even ally with countries in the Western Hemisphere and interfere close to U.S. soil.
And who might these potential hegemons be?
Thus, the United States’ principal aim in Europe and Northeast Asia should be to maintain the regional balance of power so that the most powerful state in each region — for now, Russia and China, respectively — remains too worried about its neighbors to roam into the Western Hemisphere.
It would appear to follow from Mearsheimer and Walt’s own analysis that Russia is a potential hegemon. If so, it would also appear to follow that the United States should turn to the Europeans as the “first line of defense,” while being ready to “help get the job done,” if they fail to “contain” Russia “on their own.”
In sum, Russia either already requires or may soon require offshore balancing. Bizarrely, however, when Mearsheimer and Walt then focus on Europe and Russia, they fail to draw the logical consequences of their own analysis.
First, they say, consistent with their argument, that “In Europe, the United States should end its military presence and turn NATO over to the Europeans.” Then they continue with a non sequitur: “There is no good reason to keep U.S. forces in Europe, as no country there has the capability to dominate that region. The top contenders, Germany and Russia, will both lose relative power as their populations shrink in size, and no other potential hegemon is in sight.” But wait: didn’t Mearsheimer and Walt define Russia and China as potential hegemons? Why, then, do they engage in an about-face and conclude that Russia does not have the capacity to dominate the region? No less puzzling is their assertion that Germany is a “top” contender. The one thing that unites all German elites and publics is the guilt-ridden desire never to be a top contender. In contrast, the one thing that unites all Russian elites and publics is the desire to make Russia great again, not just in its “near abroad,” but in Europe and, as Russia’s recent engagement in Syria demonstrates, in the world.
Especially fatuous is Mearsheimer and Walt’s claim that Germany and Russia “will both lose relative power as their populations shrink in size.” While this claim is no doubt true — and could be made with equally breathtaking glibness about the United States and China — it fails to confront the fact that population decline is a long-term process. Russia may lose its relative power to the point of insignificance fifty years from now, but it would still have forty-nine to wreak mayhem throughout the world.
Mearsheimer and Walt must suspect that their argument is weak, as they continue with the following sentences: “Admittedly, leaving European security to the Europeans could increase the potential for trouble there. If a conflict did arise, however, it would not threaten vital U.S. interests. Thus, there is no reason for the United States to spend billions of dollars each year (and pledge its own citizens’ lives) to prevent one.”
Trouble indeed! Putin Russia has launched two wars already — in Georgia and Ukraine, is threatening to seize Belarus, is rattling sabers and violating the borders of the Baltic states, is arming Kaliningrad and Crimea with medium- and long-range missiles, has officially stated that it would use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional threat, and is actively supporting anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-European parties in Europe and the “Western Hemisphere”. If Putin launches a massive invasion of Ukraine, Belarus, or the Baltic states — eventualities that some of his minions have openly aired — the consequences would be deeply destabilizing for Europe and the United States. Forget the crushing of democracy or the possibility of genocide — eventualities that might little disturb hard-nosed realists like Mearsheimer and Walt — and consider only the steams of refugees, the spill-over into Poland, Finland, Hungary, and other states, and the likelihood of Russia’s imperial overreach and possible subsequent collapse.
Would vital U.S. interests be threatened if Putin went on the warpath in Europe? Of course. Should the United States be concerned and attempt to prevent such an outcome? Obviously. And Mearsheimer and Walt, at least for most of their argument, would agree.
How could they have missed something so obvious, and so obviously consist with their own argument? One suspects that their hard-nosed realist willingness to explain Putin Russia’s recent aggressions in terms of American policy and NATO enlargement holds the key. Since, in their version of reality, Putin invaded Ukraine because of some ephemeral possibility of Ukraine’s joining NATO — a possibility that no one, in Ukraine’s policy circles or in NATO’s, would consider serious — then it would follow that, by defanging the United States and NATO, Putin will turn pacific and abjure expansion.
If, alternatively, one takes Putin and his minions at their own word, then one has to realize that Russian aggression is to a large degree motivated by an imperial ideology that serves Putin’s power and has deep roots in Russian political culture. And if, alternatively, one dispassionately examines the military capacities of NATO states and sees that they pose no conceivable threat to Russia, then one may also have to realize that Putin’s invocation of the NATO threat is either a cynical ploy or the symptom of a paranoid megalomania.
Scholars rarely admit they were wrong, and Mearsheimer and Walt are no exception to this rule. Fortunately, they have now formulated a powerful argument for containing Russia— even if they refuse to accept their own logic.
Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark