Offshore balancing

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Offshore balancing is a strategic concept used in realist analysis in international relations. It describes a strategy in which a great power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potentially-hostile powers. This strategy stands in contrast to the dominant grand strategy in the United States, liberal hegemony. Offshore balancing calls for a great power to withdraw from onshore positions and focus its offshore capabilities on the three key geopolitical regions of the world: Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia.


Christopher Layne[1] attributes the introduction of the term "offshore balancing" to himself in his 1997 article.[2] Several experts on strategy, such as John Mearsheimer[3], Stephen Walt[4], Robert Pape[5], Patrick Porter[6] and Andrew Bacevich, have embraced the approach. They argue that offshore balancing has its historical roots in British grand strategy regarding Europe, which was eventually adopted and pursued by the United States and Japan at various points in their history. [7] According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, in his University of Chicago "American Grand Strategy" class, offshore balancing was the strategy used by the United States in the 1930s and also in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War. Mearsheimer argues that when the United States gave Lend-Lease aid to Britain in the 1940s, the United States engaged in offshore balancing by being the arsenal of democracy, not the fighter for it.

That is consistent with offshore balancing because the US initially did not want to commit American lives to the European conflict. The United States supported the losing side (Iraq) in the Iran–Iraq War to prevent the development of a regional hegemon, which could ultimately threaten US influence. Furthermore, offshore balancing can seem like isolationism when a rough balance of power in international relations exists, which was the case in the 1930s. It was also the strategy used during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.


The grand strategy of "offshore balancing" arguably permits a great power to maintain its power without the costs of large military deployments around the world. It can be seen as the informal-empire analogue to federalism in formal ones (for instance the proposal for the Imperial Federation in the late British Empire). Offshore balancing, as its name implies, is a grand strategy that can only be pursued by island states on the edges of Eurasia and by isolated great powers, such as the United States. The strategy calls for these aforementioned states to maintain a rough balance of power in the three key geopolitical regions of the world: Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia. These three regions are the focus, since Europe and Northeast Asia are the major industrial centers of the world, which contain all of the other great powers and the Persian Gulf for its importance to the global oil market. Outside of these regions, an offshore balancer should not worry about developments. Further, a state pursuing offshore balancing should first seek to pass the buck to local powers and only intervene if the threat is too great for the other powers in the region to handle.[8]

Notable thinkers associated with offshore balancing[edit]


  1. ^ “The End of Pax Americana: How Western Decline Became Inevitable,” Atlantic Monthly, April 26, (2012),
  2. ^ Christopher Layne (1997). "From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy". International Security.
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  7. ^ Kennan, George (2012). American Diplomacy Sixtieth-Anniversary Expanded Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. pp. xi–xvi.
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Further reading[edit]


  • Walt, Stephen (2018). The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy ISBN 978-0374280031
  • Walt, Stephen (2005). Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy ISBN 978-0393052039
  • Mearsheimer, John (2014). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Chapter 6, The Offshore Balancers ISBN 978-0-393-34927-6
  • Layne, Christopher (2007). The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present ISBN 978-0-393-34927-6