Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Peace of Illusions

The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present
by Christopher LayneLayne - Peace of illusions

The most significant academic debate over US strategy in Asia at the moment is between the schools of ‘Deep Engagement’ who support the Obama/Clinton Pivot, and the ‘Offshore Balancers’ who don’t. That’s a simplification of course, but it gets to the nub of thinking about how the US should approach Asia.

The Peace of Illusions is a foundational text for the offshore balancing crowd. Written from a largely realist position, Layne offers a strong critique of the contradictory and hegemonic impulses of the United States towards Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He details how America has consistently sought to shape the rest of the world to be strong enough to stand apart from the Soviets and trade with America, but so weak it can’t meaningfully resist US authority.

This strategy has worked, Layne concedes. The US is the dominant power in most of the world, and in turn the American homeland is safe. Layne’s ‘extratregional hegemony’ theory explains some questions realists otherwise struggle with. Such as why there is such a continuity of US approach to Europe before WW2, during the War, during the Cold War and after the Cold War. And in turn why institutions like NATO have continued apace, as have the 750 plus US bases overseas continued (located in 38 countries).

Most thought these should have disappeared when the Soviet threat vanished, but Layne argues that this threat never was the real reason for their existence. Instead long standing liberal assumptions about the need for open markets overseas and fears that foreign hegemon’s could destroy American liberty at home are the true origins of US grand strategy.

While the strategy has been successful, there have also been many costs. The US spends staggering sums of money on its military, finds itself committing significant troops and time to largely irrelevant conflicts worldwide, has perverted some of its sacred domestic institutions and it is increasingly the target of enmity and hatred by hundreds of millions worldwide. The question then is whether the US —can’t? /should? /must? — continue this successful but costly strategy in an Asia which is rapidly changing.

Advocates of the pivot say that to change would be to undo all the peace and stability of the past half-century. It would embolden potential adversaries like Russia or China while setting off the alarm bells of nationalism and arms racing amongst Japan, South Korea and everyone else. There’s certainly a compelling logic here. The only problem is that the changes they fear are already occurring. The pivot has neither deterred foes like China nor restrained friends like Japan. And instead of keeping the peace, the US risks being stuck in the middle and seen as increasingly weak and irrelevant.

While I increasingly find myself in the offshore balancing camp these days, this was not the classic text I was hoping for as an academic contribution. First, while he proclaims extraregional hegemony theory (and indeed the wider book) as a neo-classical realist contribution, I struggle to see how it fits such prescriptions.

Other than a preference for moderation and critique of liberalism he incorporates a wide variety of domestic, economic and ideational factors which have tended to be downplayed by realists. And it is only by ignoring realist ideas about hegemony that he can carve out the benevolent hegemon space that describes the US approach to Western Europe and Asia. That is, letting countries develop freely, while preventing any rising too high or too divergently.

At the same time, Layne’s desire for it to be a realist text forces him to defend realist touchstones such as balance of power, using dubiously broad interpretations in order to keep the faith (see p.145 on ‘soft’ and ‘opaque’ balancing for example).

I also struggled to get a clear sense of what a US pursuing offshore balancing might look like. Of course books such as these spend 20% on theory, 60% on historical case study and have about 10-20% left for discussing solutions. But still, there seemed little more than a general ‘be close but not too close’ guiding logic.

Thankfully on page 187 we get some clear suggestions such as leaving NATO, abandoning Taiwain, ending security agreements with South Korea and Japan — and one presumes Australia, though we fail to rate a mention— and doing so over a period of many years to help ensure the ‘proper’ form of inter-regional balancing emerges. Still, what the US would actually do, and what circumstances would compel its involvement are not covered in sufficient detail.In recent years other authors have since stepped in. Barry Posen’s ‘Restraint’ is a recent (2014) and significant addition to the offshore balancing literature and fills in some of the sketchlines provided by Layne.

This is an academic text, but for those interested in a serious critique of US policy towards Europe and the many contradictions within it, a policy which is now being pivoted into Asia, this is an important read. It is quite possible that in 2016 the US Presidential election will become a debate between advocates of deep engagement (led by Hillary Clinton) and those in support of offshore balancing (led by Rand Paul). Each side has genuine and substantive fears that the policy prescriptions of their opponents will lead to great power war in Asia. Which makes it hardly an academic issue wouldn’t you say?