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In The Unquiet Frontier, Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell paint a dire picture of global security: Chinese, Russian, and Iranian troops nipping at the heels of a retreating American-established global order. Though distinctly pessimistic, Grygiel and Mitchell clearly explain “probing,” subversive actions by revisionist powers which feel they would be advantaged by a revised global order (read: Russia, China, and Iran), and then make cogent arguments for how to deter such aggression. Crucially, they identify probing as an attempt to determine American commitment to its allies (Ibid., 54). In response, they argue that America should strengthen its alliances with frontline states—the Baltics in Europe, Gulf States in the Middle East, and Japan, South Korea, and Philippines in Asia—to deter future probing and ensure that these regions do not devolve into full-scale war.
According to Grygiel and Mitchell, “the probing power is not interested in ‘making war’ with the rival, and therefore a probe is not a full-out attack on a rival’s ally or supported state” (Ibid., 55). As a result, they argue it is cheaper for America to maintain alliances and deter aggressors rather than withdraw from its global commitments and risk war with a strengthened enemy which can no longer be ignored. NATO’s recent decision to stage forward battalions in the Baltic States and Poland affirms Western commitment to the edges of NATO, in line with Grygiel and Mitchell’s advice. Following Grygiel and Mitchell’s reasoning, it also convinces Russia that because NATO will protect the rule of international law, a policy of continued expansion is not worth a potentially disastrous war.
Grygiel and Mitchell suggest that in the modern age, “oceans are not uncrossable, and technological developments, such as airpower and intercontinental ballistic missiles, combined with growing ease and frequency of mobility of goods and people, make hemispheric security a dangerous illusion. To indulge in the temptation of geopolitical insularity is to court disaster” (Grygiel and Mitchell, 20). To apply Grygiel and Mitchell’s logic, it is far less dangerous for America to handle comparatively small problems, like Russian paramilitaries in Ukraine, than to fight a potential global war if Russia expanded its sphere undeterred.
Mitchell and Grygiel describe offshore balancing, the alternative to their proposed strategy, as a withdrawal of American troops and support from all but the closest American allies. To replace American alliances, offshore balancers suggest that the U.S. make quick, powerful strikes when absolutely necessary to protect the balance of power. “The result is a preference for some variant of isolationism, usually advocating no long-term military presence abroad combined with sporadic, limited, and quick interventions to restore an equilibrium of power in Eurasia” (Ibid., 18). Unfortunately for offshore balancers, history has shown that these interventions are rarely limited or quick.
America surrendered the ability to deter conflict or halt the rise of regional hegemons after withdrawing from Europe in the aftermath of World War I. Nazis initially rose to power on the back of popular German feeling that they were cheated by the existing global power structure. In an effort to overthrow this structure, revisionist Nazi Germany expanded its territory and power until met with a determined resistance. Unfortunately, this resistance didn’t materialize until Germany was powerful enough to sustain a global total war, hardly the ‘quick intervention to restore the Eurasian equilibrium’ promised by proponents of offshore balancing. While a powerful force at home may serve as a theoretical deterrent, in practice a revisionist gradually expands control of the surrounding region until it amasses the power to strike out more broadly. If the Western powers stopped revisionist Nazi Germany when Hitler militarized the Rhineland, annexed Austria, or even occupied the Sudetenland, they may have averted the catastrophic war and atrocities that followed.
As Grygiel and Mitchell write, “continental-sized powers are nearly impossible to defeat, especially when they are an ocean away from their would-be conquerors” (Ibid., 18). Applying Grygiel and Mitchell, America cannot again repeat the failures that led to global war. By basing troops from Korea and the Philippines in the Pacific to Estonia and Poland on the Baltic, America affirms its commitment to these frontline allies, stopping naked aggression before it begins. However, if America is willing to tactfully confront global probing in international gray areas, it may also be able to preserve relative global stability. In Ukraine, America can support and advise the Ukrainian military, work with the government to build stronger civic institutions and reduce corruption, and encourage private foreign investment to jump-start the economy. Such tactics would strengthen a potential buffer to revisionist Russian aggression, increasing the costs of further probing and deterring increased expansion toward the borders of NATO.