Challenging the Status Quo: An Alternative Approach to U.S. Foreign Policy

In his lunch keynote speech, Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, outlined a strategy of “offshore balancing,” which he believes is superior to the current strategy of liberal hegemony.

Under a grand strategy of offshore balancing, the United States would focus on maintaining its dominance in the Western Hemisphere. It would also maintain sufficient military power to challenge potential rising hegemons in Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf, since a major power taking over significant parts of Europe or Asia could accumulate sufficient resources to directly threaten the United States. Similarly, a regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf could threaten the global supply of oil.

Walt notes that this strategy encourages other states to defend themselves rather than anticipating U.S. intervention. If deemed necessary, the United States could intervene in wars, either at the beginning or the middle (as it did in the two world wars), and emerge in a dominant position afterwards. Intervening selectively in these instances would also minimize domestic opposition in the countries we are trying to assist, ensuring that American forces are viewed as allies (e.g., in Kuwait, after U.S. forces drove out Saddam Hussein) rather than as occupiers (e.g., in Iraq after the 2003 invasion).

Offshore balancing can be safely implemented, Walt argues, because of the relative safety of the United States. He notes that America is the luckiest great power in history, since it is in the enviable position of having two large oceans protecting it from the rest of the world and has no great powers close by. The United States also has a large population, an advanced economy, and nuclear weapons, which all make it very difficult for other countries to directly threaten our homeland.

By contrast, the strategy of liberal hegemony views the United States as the indispensable nation that must use its power to promote free markets and democratic governments abroad. Walt argues that this strategy is ultimately revisionist, deviating from the primary goal of having nations able to guarantee their own security. It increases the number of places we are committed to defend without increasing the resources available for the task. Other states choose to take a “free ride” on American protection rather than provide for their own defense.

Another downside of liberal hegemony is that it is threatening to other states, leading them to work to undermine U.S. efforts or even pursue weapons of mass destruction in an effort to guarantee their security. Furthermore, occupying foreign countries involves dismantling local institutions, which triggers nationalist resistance and “forc[es] us to nation-build in places we don’t understand.” Ultimately, when this strategy fails, it creates ungoverned spaces and diminishes our security.

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