Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The United States Forgot Its Strategy for Winning Cold Wars

| May 05, 2020

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

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....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The United States Forgot Its Strategy for Winning Cold Wars.” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt