The United States Forgot Its Strategy for Winning Cold Wars

The plan that worked to defeat the Soviet Union can work today against China—it’s just not what you think.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Bekhzod Tashkenbaev of Uzbekistan participates in the first World High Wire Championships, over the Han River in Seoul, on May 3, 2007.
Bekhzod Tashkenbaev of Uzbekistan participates in the first World High Wire Championships, over the Han River in Seoul, on May 3, 2007. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Did the United States consider and reject the strategy of offshore balancing during the early years of the Cold War? Writing last month in the National Interest, Franz-Stefan Gady suggests that Republican Sen. Robert Taft was proposing something akin to offshore balancing in the run-up to the 1952 U.S. presidential election, only to have it dismissed in favor of a bipartisan strategy of onshore containment. Indeed, he suggests that the possibility that Taft might win and implement his preferred approach helped convince Dwight D. Eisenhower to join the race and eventually to reach the White House.

Gady’s article is an interesting historical narrative, and it reminds us that U.S. strategy in the early Cold War was not preordained. But like other contemporary critics of offshore balancing, Gady does not fully grasp the underlying logic behind this strategy. As a result, he mistakenly believes that Cold War containment was at odds with offshore balancing. This is wrong: Containment during the Cold War was a clear application of offshore balancing’s central principles.

Gady’s account portrays offshore balancing as something of a halfway house between true isolationism—the position long identified with Taft that he had abandoned by the early 1950s—and the policy of containment that the United States pursued throughout the Cold War. This view is clearly reflected in his claim that “[a]t the core, an offshore balancing strategy for the United States means maintaining regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere while maintaining a balance of power in Asia and Europe, chiefly through allied nations buoyed by U.S. military aid, thus preventing any other great power from dominating these geo-strategically important regions” (my emphasis).

This description might sound correct at first glance, but Gady misses an essential feature of the strategy: Whether the United States can safely remain offshore depends on the configuration of power in the “geo-strategically important region” in question. Although the United States may be able to rely on “allied nations buoyed by U.S. military aid” in some circumstances, this policy is not possible if the states in the relevant region are too weak to balance a potential hegemon on their own. Under these conditions, an offshore balancer must commit its own power—including its own military forces—in that key region to ensure that no single power is able to dominate and control it. This principle explains why Britain—the original offshore balancer—sent its own troops onto the European continent against Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany and its allies, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The United States acted similarly in the two world wars and in the Cold War too.

This prescription follows directly from offshore balancing’s core logic. It is a realist strategy, which views a favorable distribution of hard power (economic capacity, scientific prowess, military strength, etc.) as the primary source of U.S. national security. Spreading democracy, building institutions, expanding trade, etc., may be worthy goals in their own right and can sometimes help at the margin, but at the end of the day U.S. security is determined largely by the balance of power in areas of critical strategic importance.

This belief was the basis for Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, policies that eventually established the United States as the only great power in the Western Hemisphere. By expanding across North America and driving the European powers out, the United States was able to keep dangerous adversaries at a distance, thereby maximizing its own security and freedom of action. Every other major power has either been invaded or suffered sustained attacks at home on one or more occasions during the past 200 years—but not the United States. Being the world’s only regional hegemon has not only made Americans safer. It eventually made it possible for them to intervene abroad without having to worry much about defending their own soil.

Since becoming a great power, the United States has also sought to prevent any other great power from singlehandedly dominating Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf. These regions are important because Europe and East Asia are the key centers of industrial power, while the Gulf is the source of much of the oil and gas that fuels the world economy. Were any single country able to dominate Europe or East Asia, it might eventually control greater economic resources than the United States and be able to outpace it in an arms race. That superpower might form alliances with other countries in the Western Hemisphere and bring its own power to bear close to the U.S. homeland. Similarly, a hostile hegemon in the Persian Gulf (or an outside great power that moved into and dominated that region) might be able to manipulate oil supplies in ways that could damage the U.S. economy.

Preventing a hegemon from emerging in these key regions provides an additional benefit: It ensures that the major powers in Eurasia will tend to worry more about each other than about the United States. As a result, some of these states are usually eager for U.S. support and thus more willing to do Washington’s bidding. For all of these reasons, it makes good sense for the United States to maintain a dominant position in the Western Hemisphere and help prevent another great power from establishing a similar position in its own neighborhood.

Several implications follow directly from this logic.

First, the proper role and size of the U.S. national security establishment depend on the distribution of power in the key regions. If there is no potential hegemon in sight, there is little reason to deploy U.S. ground or air forces in distant areas and less need for a military establishment that far outstrips those of the other great powers. The United States should still maintain a first-class military and keep a watchful eye on developments around the world, but it does not need to garrison much of the planet or use force to spread liberal principles far and wide.

If a potential hegemon does appear, the United States should rely on local forces in the threatened region as the first line of defense, calibrating its support for these local actors with the level of the challenge and their own capabilities. If these regional states cannot contain a potential hegemon on their own, then the United States must commit its own military power to the region to make sure the potential hegemon cannot overawe and dominate its neighbors while at the same time making sure that its local partners bear a fair share of the costs of containment.

During the Cold War, the essential features of containment followed this basic logic perfectly. U.S. leaders did not believe that the local powers in Europe or East Asia could stand up to the Soviet challenge on their own, which is why Washington deployed substantial U.S. forces to these critical regions in peacetime. Of course, it might have been preferable in the abstract for the United States to pass the buck to others, but the distribution of power in Europe and Asia at the time made buck-passing infeasible.

There was no potential hegemon in the Persian Gulf, however, and the Soviet Union did not seriously threaten to invade that region during the Cold War. Nevertheless, to maintain the local balance of power and limit Soviet influence, the United States relied on Britain (until the mid-1960s) and on local clients such as Iran. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 and Iran became an adversary, Washington created the Rapid Deployment Force. But it kept this force offshore and over the horizon and did not send significant forces into the region until Iraq seized Kuwait in 1990. This clear and obvious threat to the regional balance of power led the United States to organize a large coalition—in which its own forces played the predominant role—to expel Iraq from Kuwait. This operation was fully consistent with offshore balancing: The first Gulf War was an occasion when it made sense for the United States to go “onshore.”

Most importantly, whenever the United States has abandoned offshore balancing and pursued a different strategy, the results have invariably been disastrous. The Vietnam War was not consistent with offshore balancing, for example, because, as realist critics such as Walter Lippmann, Hans Morgenthau, and Kenneth Waltz emphasized, Indochina was not a vital strategic region and its fate could not alter the global balance of power in any meaningful way. The Clinton administration’s adoption of “dual containment” in the Gulf and the recent U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were also misguided departures from offshore balancing, as they had little to do with maintaining a favorable balance of power. Indeed, in the case of Iraq, it shattered the local balance in the Persian Gulf to the benefit of Iran.

What does offshore balancing prescribe today? As I and others have argued at length elsewhere, there is no potential hegemon in Europe, and we are not likely to see one emerge anytime soon. The United States should gradually disengage, therefore, and let the Europeans provide for their own security. As for the Persian Gulf, the region is as divided as it has ever been, and there is no potential hegemon on the horizon. Moreover, its strategic importance is likely to decline as the world gradually weans itself off fossil fuels. Thus, United States can return to the strategy it followed from 1945 to 1991: keeping its own forces out of the region and letting the competing Middle Eastern powers balance each other.

The situation in Asia is dramatically different. China is a potential hegemon in Asia, and it will remain one long after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. Although Asia contains a number of capable medium-sized powers, such as Japan, South Korea, and India, it will not be easy for them to form an effective balancing coalition. In this case, the United States needs to coordinate this effort and commit its own forces. Buck-passing will not work. Although U.S. military forces will have to be onshore in a number of places in Asia, this policy is still fully consistent with the grand strategy of offshore balancing.

To be sure, preventing China from establishing regional hegemony in Asia cannot stop Beijing from trying to build influence through its Belt and Road Initiative or stop it from engaging in other efforts to expand its diplomatic reach. But it would help limit Chinese influence by maintaining an active U.S. presence in Asia and forcing China to focus most of its attention closer to home. By reducing the U.S. commitment to Europe and ending its costly military involvements in the Middle East, offshore balancing would also free up resources that will be needed to meet a future Chinese challenge, a problem that may be increasingly acute in the post-coronavirus fiscal environment.

Why is it a problem when people misrepresent offshore balancing? Because we are finally having a serious and long overdue debate about the proper grand strategy for the United States. The stakes are high, as the many failures that flowed from liberal hegemony—the flawed grand strategy that U.S. leaders pursued during the unipolar moment—make clear. Protagonists often try to win policy debates by distorting their opponents’ views, by falsely associating their own recommendations with past successes, and by denying any responsibility for repeated failures. Deciding which strategic options should guide U.S. policy in the future depends first and foremost on a proper understanding of the different alternatives. An accurate understanding of offshore balancing will reveal that it provided the foundation most of America’s foreign-policy successes, while departures from that strategy lie at the root of some of the country’s biggest missteps.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.