Meet the “Off-Shore Balancers”

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The single hardest thing to understand about Donald Trump is that his dominating foreign policy concerns are probably shared by a substantial majority of Americans, though not in any detail. Two of these matters are trade and immigration policies, but more fundamental than either is America’s overall posture vis-a-vis China and Russia – its “grand strategy.” The quintessential Manhattan real estate dodger turned television personality turns out to have a pretty good feel for American politics.

Two new books that seek to make sense of Trump’s victory have appeared recently:  The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale, 2018), by John Mearsheimer; and The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Stephen Walt.  So far, they have been thoroughly ignored. A third book, similarly oriented, by Andrew Bacevich, No Solid Ground: America after the Cold War (Metropolitan) will appear next year.

There is not a great deal of difference between Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s basic views of American foreign policy.  This is unsurprising, since the two collaborated on The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, a book published in 2007 after several years of controversy in the making. Then their target was what they considered the disproportionate influence on American foreign policy of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which had been a forceful enthusiast of the war in Iraq. This time their target is the foreign policy community in general.

But instead of trying to make sense of the views of the current occupant of the White House – Walt writes, “[Trump] lacked the acumen, discipline and political support to pull off a judicious revision of US foreign policy, and his inept handling of these issues has undermined US influence without diminishing America’s burdens” – they zero in from different angles on the period between 1993 and 2017, when the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, each in control of foreign policy for eight years, pursued a policy that the authors call “liberal hegemony.”

These were the years of “the end of history” and “the unipolar moment,” when, boasting of having won the Cold War, the US sought to spread its own values around the world. Balance-of-power considerations that had animated US foreign policy for the previous fifty years were put aside. Invasions, humanitarian interventions, and regime change became new instruments of policy.   The result, the authors argue, were seven wars, a depleted treasury, a run-down military, and, most of all, diminished US influence around the world.

Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, is a political theorist, and his book is more thorough and austere, with a good deal of attention paid to philosophical matters and the history and logic of nation-states. He makes a closely-reasoned case for the virtues of restrainr.

Walt, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is a scrapper.  The Hell of Good Intentions is a manifesto for what he calls “off-shore balancing.”  Give up on trying to remake the world in America’s image, he advocates; concentrate instead on maintaining a balance of power in three key regions in the Northern hemisphere: Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf.

Two outsiders have tried and failed to reorient foreign policy along these lines, Walt says – first Obama, now Trump. Why has it been so difficult to change course?  Political leadership has something to do with it:  Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Looking beyond political parties, Walt says, is an amorphous foreign policy establishment consisting of Foreign Service professionals, multinational corporations, foundations, associations of various sorts, think tanks, and journalists specializing in foreign affairs.  Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, called it “the Blob.”  In Because They Could I called it “the Generation of ’91.”

Walt writes: “The foreign policy establishment will not embrace a strategy that would diminish its own power, status, and sense of self-worth.” And indeed, after twenty-five years, the hegemony of the liberal hegemonists is pretty complete. As Walt points out, as of 2017, the only editorial columnists at major US newspapers who espouse non-interventionist views of US foreign policy were  Steve Chapman, of the Chicago Tribune, and Stephen Kinzer, of The Boston Globe.

[I]nstead of being a disciplined body of professionals constrained by a well-informed public  and  forced by necessity to set priorities and hold themselves accountable, today’s foreign policy elite is a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders who are frequently disdainful of alternative perspectives and insulated both professionally and personally from the consequences of the policies they promote.

How to change the current mindset?  Walt says the only way to broaden public debate is to “create a countervailing set of organizations and institutions that can do battle in the marketplace of ideas…. Needless to say,” he continues, “this effort will require significant financial resources drawn from Americans who worry that continuing to pursue liberal hegemony will do serious long-term damage to the United States.”  So it’s not without interest that both Mearsheimer and Walt have been supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, that arch-bugaboo of the liberal establishment.  But no one who has read Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (2009), by David Engerman, will doubt that America’s foreign policy establishment needs rebuilding from the ground up.  In this respect, strength to at least one arm of the Koch brothers’ political activities, the Charles Koch Institute.

My hunch is that a Post-Trump Generation will take over sometime in the next six years, and gradually remake US politics.  The foreign policy establishment will follow. “Off-shore balancing,” after all, is just a new name for an old doctrine — what, in an earlier age, was known as foreign policy realism.  Devised through trial and error by Democrat Harry Truman in the early years of the Cold War, it became the animating principle of Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower and  Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Could a return to realism come from the Republican Party?  Perhaps, though current GOP leadership seems to have been pretty thoroughly hollowed out by its obsequiousness Trump.  A young Democratic Party candidate could campaign successfully on a program of off-shore-balancing – but grooming such a candidate takes time. Those interested in defeating Donald Trump in 2020 should consider compromising on Joe Biden, especially if he pledges to serve a single term.

Only a candidate who understood himself to be more a stop-gap than a standard-bearer would make such a pledge, forfeiting an enormous amount of leverage.  But Biden is old and wise enough to remember the immense service President Gerald Ford performed in similarly tumultuous circumstances nearly fifty years ago.