The Bush administration's recently enunciated National Security Strategy revolves around maintaining or augmenting America's overwhelming military, economic and political preponderance. But the United States needs to come to grips with an ironic possibility: The very preponderance of power may now make us not more secure but less so, and a diminished global presence might actually achieve more of our ultimate foreign policy goals.
Hegemony is a seductive goal. In the abstract, it makes sense that the U.S. should seek to amass as much power as possible to enjoy something close to absolute security. But as history shows, hegemonic empires almost automatically elicit universal resistance, which is why all such aspirants have eventually exhausted themselves.
So instead of the Bush doctrine -- which is a prescription for hegemony -- how about an alternative: offshore balancing? Whereas the Bush doctrine opposes the rise of new power centers in international politics, an offshore balancing strategy is predicated on the inevitability of their emergence and turns this to U.S. advantage.
Offshore balancing would rely on a balance among many states to maintain U.S. security. All the potential great powers -- Germany or the European Union, China, Russia, India, Japan -- are in neighborhoods populated by other would-be powers or dangerous regional foes. In contrast to a world dominated by the United States, in which the U.S. is a magnet for others' resentments, a multipolar world would deflect others' attention toward threats nearer to home. Self-imposed U.S. restraint would further negate others' incentives to balance against American power.
Offshore balancing is based on burden shifting, not burden sharing. It would transform the U.S. from a regional stabilizer into a balancer of last resort by passing to others the primary responsibility for maintaining regional power balances and stabilizing Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.
An offshore balancer can afford to be a bystander in the opening stages of conflicts. Because others' security is more immediately at risk, it makes more sense to let them take the first crack at dealing with trouble-making states. Usually they will do so promptly and successfully. If they do not, an offshore balancer can always step in to defeat an aggressor.
Recognizing the legitimacy of other great powers' spheres of influence offers potential strategic advantages to the U.S. For example, the difficulties that Washington has encountered in trying to stabilize Afghanistan are just a foretaste of what the U.S. will face if it has to occupy a defeated Iraq. Yet all the potential great powers have their own strategic concerns with oil and Islam in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
If the U.S. passed the buck, these powers would have no choice but to take on the burdens of pacifying those regions because their security and economic interests were greater. And better them than us.
By abandoning the Bush doctrine's extravagant geopolitical objectives, the U.S. can minimize the risk of open confrontation with the new great powers. And only by forsaking hegemony's temptations can the U.S. hope to enjoy respectful and cooperative relations with them.