Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has not produced inspiring results: The United States has been at war roughly two of every three years. The military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been long and costly. Three major foreign-policy problems have persisted without signs of resolution: preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, getting Pyongyang to give them up, and settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The United States is in a world of trouble today . . . and this state of affairs is only likely to get worse,” laments University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, a noted “realist” thinker.
The mistake the United States made was not in the execution of its foreign policy but in the choice of its grand strategy. In the decades since the Cold War, the United States has pursued “global dominance,” working to maintain its primacy and spread democracy, trying to make the world over in its own image.
There are two main varieties of global dominance: neoconservative (embodied by the Bush administration after 9/11) and liberal imperialist (embodied by the Clinton administration and now seeing a revival under President Barack Obama). The neoconservatives have greater confidence in the ability of the U.S. military to transform the globe. The liberal imperialists put emphasis on alliances and international institutions. But both seek global dominance, which “is exactly the wrong formula,” Mearsheimer contends. It only stokes anti-American sentiment and gives rogue regimes greater incentives to build nuclear weapons (in the hope of deterring an American attack).
“The United States needs a new grand strategy,” Mearsheimer believes. There are several options, but the best is to return to what has been America’s approach for most of its existence: “offshore balancing.” Washington should seek to ensure that no power dominates any of the three strategically important regions (Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf) in the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere.
This strategy requires a strong military, but one that is stationed at home or on carriers offshore, ready to intervene but not stay. It also means staying out of the business of spreading democracy, and refraining from interference in the domestic affairs of other nations. Mearsheimer argues that this is “the best formula for dealing with the threats facing America—whether it be terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or a traditional great-power rival.” Most important of all, offshore balancing is well suited to dealing with a rising China—the number one strategic concern in the years to come.