Balance, But Not so Fast

(Note: if I find time, I will add more links to this. If you have any in mind that are relevant, tell me on twitter at @stevepampinella).

Mearsheimer and Walt have a piece in Foreign Affairs here arguing for a US strategy of offshore balancing. It’s nothing new if you are familiar with such arguments from Mearsheimer’s own work as well as Christopher Layne’s. I’m generally sympathetic to this view and think liberal hegemony creates more problems than it solves.

That being said, Mearsheimer and Walt oversell how easy such a strategy of retrenchment would be to enact. Their discussion on Europe glosses over some inconvenient facts which, if acknowledged, suggest the United States should renegotiate its relationship with NATO in a less drastic way.

The authors argue that the United States should end its military presence in Europe and simply let US allies take responsibility for their own defense. This is bad policy because it fails to recognize the degree of current Russian revisionism, the weakness of NATO and EU institutions, and the potential dominance of far-right parties in Europe which would be natural allies of a revisionist Russia.

It is not a delusion of American ideology to assume that Russia wants to pick apart Eastern European NATO and EU states. The Baltics and Poland are the most obvious target given their proximity to Russia and former subordinate status to Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Insecurity in the East has thus led the Alliance to deploy ground forces as a tripwire to deter Russian aggression and raise the costs of a potential military attack. NATO allies have almost fulfilled the necessary requests for troops, with only one battalion remaining unfulfilled (Canada should make the main commitment, according to Steve Saideman).

To assume that the Europeans could mobilize their own defense without an American commitment is not realistic. Without American participation in these deployments, the Kremlin would assume that they could launch a first strike and defeat any European response that did not include the military capabilities of the United States. It’s not a far-fetched assumption either given the low levels of military spending by European states.

Further, no NATO member would commit to the defense of the East without an American commitment. Yes, the United States does solve a collective action problem here because it can reduce the potential costs of collective defense for other NATO states by committing its own far larger military resources. Without the US, NATO would collapse and a revisionist Russia would become a regional hegemon, precisely the outcome that offshore balancers want to avoid.

Politically, a unilateral American withdrawal would exacerbate political tensions among and within European states. The EU is already teetering with an economic recession, misguided austerity policies, and anti-refugee xenophobia. The result is that leaving the EU is now on the agenda for some states. Today’s Brexit vote is a clear example of this.

While we shouldn’t hope for some misguided revitalization of liberalism across the Continent, the prospect of “Europeans defending themselves” in the realist manner suggested by Walt and Mearsheimer would be a gift to rising far-right parties. A state-centric strategic environment would require national defense strategies as opposed to collective defense. This would exacerbate extreme nationalism and reinforce the belief that only national strength and unimpeded sovereignty can protect each European state. Under these circumstances, Europe’s fragmentation and drift toward fascism would be complete.

I write all this not to completely discredit offshore balancing and the realist critique of liberal hegemony. Yes, the United States should not have ignored Russian interests in Eastern Europe by supporting NATO and EU expansion during the 1990s. Such policies triggered Russia’s historical fear of Western domination and reinforced the belief that only a strong Russia could protect Eurasia from the United States.

But the United States can’t undo history. Instead, it can seek a balance of power with Russia that acknowledges is role in the region while deterring it from aggression. It is not wrong for the United States to make tripwire deployments with NATO partners. But these should not be considered permanent and only as a response to Russia’s existing intentions. Nor should those deployments be strengthened to attempt an actual defense against a first-strike. Russia would perceive strong military capabilities on its border more offensively and less defensively, and would react accordingly.

In addition, the United States should clearly state that it does not support NATO and EU membership for Eastern European states that historically have been Russian clients, especially Ukraine and Georgia. While it should demand that Crimea be returned to Ukraine, the United States should acknowledge Russian naval interests in the Black Sea and at the port of Sevastopol. The point is to make clear that the United States recognizes Russia as a great power and an equal. Doing so would go a long way toward assuaging Russian security concerns.

We should also acknowledge that Russia’s current revisionism is not sustainable. The Russian economy has been hobbled by the collapse of the price of oil, forcing state expenditures to decline. The Russian military is involved in two conflicts currently, which are somewhat costly in terms of personnel and materiel. These are similar (though not identical) conditions to those that resulted in the Soviet collapse in the 1980s. While such a catastrophic outcome is unlikely, the strains on the Russian state will temper its ability to push others around and eventually limit its aggression.

When that moment comes, the United States should consider reducing military deployments in Europe. But to pull the plug now before the appropriate conditions exist (including an American commitment to halt Western expansion into the East) opens the door to more instability on the Continent.

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