The U.S Offshore Balancing in the Contemporary International System – part two

Seconda parte dell’analisi iniziata in questo articolo.

The U.S Offshore Balancing in the Contemporary International System – part two - GEOPOLITICA.info

The U.S National Security Strategy after 9/11: from George W. Bush to Donald Trump.

The U.S desire of exercise its dominant power over the system was signaled by the post 9/11, an event which make the international system in a second transformation. The expression “war on terrorism” coined by the Bush foreign policy was to search and destroy the jihadist movement of Al-Qaeda and its evil masterminds, among them Osama Bin Laden. In fact, the National Security Strategy of the 2002 poses a new engagement for the U.S on the international sphere. The strategy emphasizes prevention, preemption, defense and consequence management. Due to the regionalization of the world political system, and the rise of non-state actors as jihadism hosted by rogue states which provide them funding and weapons to pursue their aims. The rise of WMD proliferation was another aspect to consider in the new U.S policy, which allows to overcome the dictates of international law and institutions justifying a preemptive military action when there is reason to believe that a danger of attack is going to occur. In this sense, the U.S must have the rights to anticipatory acts to defend itself and its allies.  The “axis of evil” clearly exposed North Korea, Iran and Iraq to be eradicated due to their hostile nature, the ownership of nuclear weapons and to the Middle East countries for their support to jihadism. The threats posed by nuclear weapons was addressed by enhancing defenses (missile defense) other counter-proliferation measures, and effective consequence management to mitigate the effects of a chemical, biological or radiological weapons attack.

The war against terrorism was supported by Russia which was no longer considered as a strategic adversary, as well as by China, described on its side to be a strategic competitor. Another change from the past, it is the less thrust in the role of international institutions as UN and NATO. This principle was based on the interest in implementing coalitions seen as the most viable solution for states to promote a balance of power that favors freedom. In this stance, the U.S openly declared that, notwithstanding of the commitment in lasting institutions, respecting their values, judgement and interests, the U.S will be prepared to act apart when its interest and unique responsibilities require. Finally, this new asset conceived the new opportunities given by the eradication of jihadism in Middle East and the overthrow of authoritarian regimes, it would have opened the way to export democracy in the region, as the solution to take the instability out and to open a new phase of peace and there. This project reflects the adoption of a particular kind of vision of the world, heavily centered on primacy. This is a power-centric grand strategy to be applied in a unipolar world order where the hegemon, representing by definition, the most powerful nation. Following this vision, the global player must be capable of dominating the entire international systems, ensuring peace and stability. This strategy prevents the establishment of a multipolar order and so that, the emergence of a global competitor. Its proponents perceive that a hegemon should aspire at maximizing its control globally and that the stability is achieved when imposes its order. Primacy, briefly speaking, seeks to create a unipolar world order where the hegemon maintain its relative economic and military power supremacy.

This approach was radically changed by the Obama administration and its foreign policy: the withdrawal of the military troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is a clear sign of the changed international system, and the unfeasibility for the U.S to support a long war in the Middle East. This is because the rising of other great powers as Russia, and especially China. In its doctrine, we assist at the composition of an international order with rising poles and competitors to the U.S influence. For this reason, Obama recognized the budget constraints of exercising the U.S power worldwide, and the necessity to be more cautious in economic and financial terms. Strategically, the U.S would have continued the war against terrorism no longer with “boots on the ground”, but by using targeted killings conducted by drones (UAV). On the global asset, instead, the attention was on the rise of Chinese power, concept enshrined in the Obama doctrine called “pivot to Asia”. At the same time, these new U.S posture opened the way to a new series of threats, as direct effect of troops withdrawal the rise of Daesh as well as the posture of regime change in the Arab world during the uprising of 2011. Further positive steps were being reached with the WMD, with the Iran nuclear deal jointly signed with the European Union. On a global set, moreover, it must be underlined the rising aggressiveness of Russia through the annexation of Crimea peninsula and the confrontation with NATO, not only on the Eastern European flank, but also in the hybrid and cyber fields.

The recognition of the new limits to exercise the U.S power globally, steered the Obama administration to adopt a new grand strategy, in sharp contrast with his predecessor, namely the offshore balancing. This concept derives from the offensive realism thinkers, and most notably from John Mearsheimer. It is presented as an alternative strategic approach for the U.S foreign policy  necessary for preserving its regional influence without undermining its superiority in the international system in the long run. Offshore balancing recognizes that the U.S should not wage war to settle down crisis in every regional complex, but it has to prioritize its forces “over the horizon” for the defense of three key regions: East Asia, Eurasia and Middle East. These are considered to be the most important for the U.S to maintain its footprint on the world of politics. The Middle East, especially, reflects the downfalls of the U.S foreign policies of the last decades, where several strategic approaches resulted in disastrous ends. Due to its domestic and constantly unstable dynamics, the region represents the U.S strategic dilemmas to deal with asymmetric warfare against terrorism and the regional competition for hegemony filled with a marked ethnic, sectarian and ideological division. The U.S legitimacy in the region suffered from a deep erosion due to the partly accomplished objectives both in Afghanistan and Iraq wars, whose massive military campaigns were not supported by effective and prolonged commitment in peace-keeping and nation-building operations.

Offshore balancing strategy is built upon three core principles: the maintenance of the balance of power by heavily relying on regional allies which have more responsibilities to preserve their security and U.S interests. Consequently, the U.S would definitively reject the use of military force to reshape the politics of the region. This imply the U.S retrenchment of its forward presence which should reduce the risk of terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the U.S needs to leave the NATO’s military command which would free a more financial resources for its domestic politics by adopting a lighter footprint internationally. The U.S forces, however, would not lose their presence over the region, but they will station offshore ready to intervene to prevent the rise of potential enemy hegemon.

Offshore balancing theory seems to be a highly appealing approach both within the international relations literature and for the U.S hegemony, keeping its interests and influence over a region without being deeply involved both politically and militarily on its grounds. However, these benefits are often contradicted by the potential and practical risks deriving from its adoption, which can cause the U.S to erode its power grip over the world. Offshore balancing could be identified within the paradoxes of isolationism and overstretching, retrenchment and regional transformation. It is often associated to a weak strategic posture linked to a declining superpower which needs to preserve its economy and legitimacy over the international system, fearing the rise of new threats and great powers challengers. This strategy has some shortcomings, exposing the U.S to territorial and influence loss and at the same time to the incapability to regain access in the regional politics.

Due to the rise multipolarity, great powers as China and Russia pose a serious threat to the U.S hegemony in the long run. However, as the Syrian civil war shows us, the United States are seeking for support as a security provider in the Middle East, without having any needs to deploy its military power on the ground. Syria ongoing instability represents a key example of the new approach into the reality. The management of the crisis caused Russia’s involvement, which in some way poses two consequences to the U.S, one advantage and one disadvantage. The former is given by the division of costs deriving from hegemony, as well as an increased interest from regional countries to seek protection if they feel to be threatened. The latter represents, instead, a major Russia role in the region, through the axes from Teheran to Beirut, in what can exacerbate the security competition between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The competitiveness of the contemporary multipolar system is clearly stated in the Trump National Security Strategy, describing the world in Hobbesian terms, where sovereign states compete for advantages. The document states that competition with Russia and China, and challenges from North Korea, Iran, and jihadis require to revise the U.S posture. More generally, it is stated that the U.S has the right to pursue its own interest in the world politics. To do so, it is crucial to start a restoration of economic and financial domains as the basis for America power. This has entailed new protectionism fares against both European Union partners and Russia (over Crimea and recent nuclear attacks on the British soil) as well as the commercial war against China. This approach tries to rebalance, with their allies, a more effective burden sharing and investments. NATO defense spending requests is a clear example of the new Trump policy toward the EU, which has a GDP similar to the United States, so in this way the President is trying to create a stronger forward military presence and to involve more the European states in defense field. This posture is perfectly sound with the offshore balancing strategy. Other pillar points of the current Trump foreign policy are devoted to America energy dominance, combating rogue states and competitors, to forge a new military buildup capable of preserving its superiority on every sphere of confrontation with other rivals, and at the end, to continue the struggle to combat against jihadism. Trump diplomacy made by threat of economic sanctions and his open challenge attitude is having reasonable success as regard to North Korea ties on the dismantling of nuclear weapons, even if much remains to be done. On the other side, Trump decided to make the contrary with Iran in a region where the logic of “Middle East Cold War” is still alive, clearly aligning in support of Israel and Saudi Arabia protection.

Altogether, we can observe how the U.S strategic posture radically changed from the Bush administration to the Obama one, shifting from primacy to offshore balancing due to the international system changes. This need was given by the erosion of U.S unipolarity in the current multipolar world, requiring a new approach, namely the offshore balancing to control regional complexes in order to prevent the rise of hostile hegemons, to recalibrate its financial resources and forward military commitments, to support allies and leave them to think about their security, to fight against terrorism with no more “boots on the grounds” with the aim to extent as long as possible the U.S power supremacy in military, economics, political and legitimacy terms over the world politics.

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