University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer has published a new essay in the National Interest on U.S. international strategy in the post-Cold War era. After reviewing the main failures of both Bush-era neoconservatism and Clinton/Obama-era liberal imperialism, Mearsheimer lays out the basis for a return to a strategy he calls “offshore balancing.” This involves the U.S. only focusing its international eye on three regions – Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia – and relying on other local powers to counterbalance aspiring local hegemons like France, Germany, China, and Iran. As he writes,
In general terms, the United States should concentrate on making sure that no state dominates Northeast Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf, and that it remains the world’s only regional hegemon. This is the best way to ensure American primacy. We should build a robust military to intervene in those areas, but it should be stationed offshore or back in the United States. In the event a potential hegemon comes on the scene in one of those regions, Washington should rely on local forces to counter it and only come onshore to join the fight when it appears that they cannot do the job themselves. Once the potential hegemon is checked, American troops should go back over the horizon.
No one would mistake Mearsheimer for a radical critic of American neo-imperialism. Neither does he argue from an ‘isolationist’ perspective that some paleoconservatives and libertarians have been using, proposing America’s return to a nation that refrains from engaging in any kind of conflict outside its own hemisphere. Mearsheimer’s research comes from a ‘realist’ position on international relations, which to put it very crudely, assumes national interest almost always trumps ideals and high-flowing rhetoric. One could say a realist assumes that international relations consist of Machiavellian politicians acting in a Hobbesian state of nature. Therefore, Mearsheimer’s criticism of both neoconservatism and liberal imperialism is not leveled so much at the fact that these ways of disguising American international hegemony have been disruptive to the international order and bear heavy costs (although he does mention the loss of Afghan and Iraqi lives as one of the effects.) Instead, their fault is that they are too high-minded and idealistic – too captured by a single vision of a unilateral American hegemony – to recognize the realities on the ground.
As one can see by his suggestion, Mearsheimer believes the U.S. should continue to play an active and interventionist role in global politics, but just pick its goals and targets better. In other words, it is an argument for taking a more sobering and measured look at America’s place in the world. While Mearsheimer is convincing on why a more activist America can have detrimental effects on its national security (including actually spurring nuclear proliferation among ‘rogue states’ and further alienating the Muslim populations of the Middle East), there is little in the essay that makes one think his suggestion of ‘offshore balancing’ is qualitatively different from the neoconservative and liberal imperialist approaches. For example, Mearsheimer argues that the U.S. should give up the idea of nation building and instead focus on using “diplomacy and economic statecraft” for getting what it wants. This may be fine in an abstract sense; certainly, they are more preferable than aggressive war. But then consider the perverted forms that these concepts took in the hands of American policymakers in recent decades. Diplomacy may still become an empty formalism in the halls of international institutions – a speed bump on the path to nation building, as in the case of the Iraq invasion. Even more troublesome, ‘economic statecraft’ is likely to simply amount to the U.S. continuing to push destructive neoliberal economic doctrines such as NAFTA and the Washington Consensus onto developing nations.
If this is the case, then Mearsheimer’s explanation may be a more appealing option simply because it is more pragmatic. But is this enough to truly separate it from the other ways of justifying how the U.S. strives to maintain a hegemonic place in the international order? It seems that here there is little in the way of normative critique; there is only the assumption of power politics and, proceeding from there, an articulate program for things continuing in much the same way.