Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne call for a (mostly) sensible U.S. strategy of geopolitical balancing ("A New Grand Strategy," January Atlantic). But the specific policy steps they call for are ill advised and based on profound misinterpretations of current military and economic events.
They mischaracterize U.S. policy to date as a deliberate attempt to establish a repressive hegemonic domination over the country's allies. It is true that the United States occasionally uses big-stick diplomacy to thwart threats to its interests, as it should, and this sometimes undercuts our allies' independent military initiatives. The Suez crisis was a prime example. But in the main, U.S. policies have permitted allies, especially Europe and Japan, to develop remarkable economic might and political room to maneuver since World War II.
Europe has indeed failed to translate its political aspirations, competitive defense industries, and nuclear deterrent forces into a credible "counterweight" to American power. But this has less to do with Machiavellian tricks by Washington than with Europe's inability to get its house in order. Washington can hardly be blamed for all the conflicting national interests and chaotic institutional arrangements that cripple the EU's embryonic foreign and defense policies.
Far from seeking to "squelch" allies' efforts to acquire the ability to defend their interests in global affairs, a main thrust of U.S. policy has been to call for greater military "burden sharing." Whatever skepticism about Europe's security aspirations was expressed in the 1992 Pentagon draft policy statement the authors cite, it represents at best a single strand of thought within the foreign-policy establishment. Washington's attitude toward the European Security and Defense Policy may be ambivalent, but it is neither openly nor implicitly hostile.
The authors are correct when they say that the United States should seek a global system in which there is a dynamic balance among the great powers. They are wrong, however, that Washington should give (presumably enlightened, benevolent) regional powers a free hand in their own "legitimate spheres of influence," wherever those might be. The potential gendarmes Schwarz and Layne identify include China and Russia, countries with long histories of stomp-on-your-neighbor nationalism. The disastrous economic, ecological, and political legacies of Moscow's free hand in Eastern Europe show that this scheme is a recipe for bullying, instability, and conflict. Withdrawing from our mutual- security treaty with Japan, or throwing Taiwan to the wolves, as the authors recommend, would be equally counterproductive. How would feeding regional fears of a resurgent, loose-cannon Japanese military keep Asia stable?
If the United States is to play the role of balancer, as the authors recommend, it must remain engaged in cooperative relationships with other great powers. Washington should avoid arrogant rhetoric about being the "indispensable nation" and do its best to assume a constructive role in bodies like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. But this role cannot come at the expense of the active security engagement that has, after all, helped to keep the peace between Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Japan and China, for more than fifty years. Even in the Muslim world the need for U.S. engagement is widely recognized. Consider how many Afghans blame their country's current plight on American "abandonment" after the Soviet retreat.
Mark W. Libby
The proposal by Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne is a welcome attempt to readdress some of the long-standing assumptions of American foreign policy. In the wake of the September 11 attacks it is clear that we must take a step back and see what mistakes we have made. But the authors are wrong to see recent events as wholly undermining the arguments in favor of maintaining current U.S. international dominance.
As a model for their approach they cite Great Britain from 1700 to 1914 and the United States before 1945 as nations that "successfully devolved onto others the responsibility for maintaining regional stability." Their definition of the word "successfully" bears some questioning, however, because although Great Britain and the United States flourished in the financial sense, their attempts at balancing regional powers ended disastrously. It is not coincidence that the periods cited ended abruptly with two of the bloodiest wars ever fought. When precisely balanced political situations collapsed, two equally balanced foes left tens of millions lying dead.
It is precisely because of its overwhelming power and its global reach that the United States was able to launch a campaign against al Qaeda without killing huge numbers of civilians. The United States is in a unique historical situation; we have the ability to stop conflicts worldwide through economic and military leverage. Although the costs of being in this position have recently become clear, the costs of abandoning it are far greater. Do the authors think that the balance-of-power approach that failed so spectacularly in Europe at the beginning of the past century is going to be more successful between, for instance, India and Pakistan? Should we be gambling with millions of lives?
Benjamin E. Lauderdale
Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne attempt to set the groundwork for a multipolar international order. However, they present a strategy that would more likely lead to renewed isolationism on the part of the United States. Increased international cooperation would undoubtedly help to ensure a more stable world. Yet the method of "offshore balancing" proposed by Schwarz and Layne represents a dangerous retreat from security problems, rather than a more balanced approach to international security in the post-Cold War world.
Suggesting that regional powers be allowed to provide for security is akin to allowing the school bully to keep order on the playground. The largest power in a region is not necessarily the most suitable guarantor of peace and security, and simply asserting that nations will police a region because "it would naturally be in their interests to do so" in no way guarantees that these states will use responsible (or even humane) methods. In the cases where stable, dependable partners do exist, such as the European Union and Japan, the political will and/or wherewithal to provide regional security is lacking; witness the heated debate in Germany over sending troops to Afghanistan. In more-troubled areas, such as Central Asia and the Middle East, ongoing conflict or persistent tensions (between India and Pakistan, for example) demonstrate that no state is in a position to assume the role of a regional stabilizing force. Hence the necessity for U.S. involvement to begin with.
Aaron P. Boesenecker
Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne reply:
Mark Libby is wrong. From the beginning of the Cold War, Washington consistently sought to ensure that neither a powerful Germany nor a united Europe be permitted to emerge as an independent force. America's apprehensions about its allies' acquiring the capacity for independent strategic action are illustrated by Washington's response to the European Union's military and foreign-policy initiative, known as the European Security and Defense Policy, and to the EU's December 2000 decision to put teeth into the ESDP by creating a rapid-reaction force. U.S. reaction to the RRF was swift and hostile. To stop the ESDP from undercutting NATO, Washington promulgated the so-called "three Ds": the policy initiative must not diminish NATO's role, must not duplicate NATO's capabilities, and must not discriminate against NATO members that do not belong to the EU. Of course, because the United States has a virtual monopoly on NATO's high-end military capabilities (intelligence, advanced surveillance and reconnaissance systems, power projection, and precision-guided munitions), if the "three Ds"—especially the first two—were observed, Europe would be prevented from ever achieving strategic autonomy, and would remain dependent on the United States for its security. In short, America's position regarding "burden sharing" has amounted to the proposition that Washington try to stick its "partners" with more expenses while granting them no greater authority or independence. America's partners have never cottoned to this formula, and have consistently and reasonably held that if the United States is going to lead, it's going to have to pay the costs and incur the risks that accompany leadership.