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Sharing Power? Prospects for a U.S. Concert-Balance Strategy

Sharing Power? Prospects for a U.S. Concert-Balance Strategy - Cover

Authored by Dr. Patrick Porter.

April 2013

96 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The subject of U.S. grand strategy has been getting increasing attention from the policy and academic communities. However, too often the debate suffers from being too reductionist, limiting America’s choices to worldwide hegemony or narrow isolation. There is a wide spectrum of choices before Washington that lie “somewhere in the middle.” Frequently, not enough thought is given to how such alternative strategies should be designed and implemented. The future cannot be known, and earlier predictions of American decline have proven to be premature. However, there is a shift in wealth and power to the extent that America may not be able to hold on to its position as an unrivalled unipolar superpower. Therefore, it is worth thinking about how the United States could shape and adjust to the changing landscape around it. What is more, there are a number of interlocking factors that mean such a shift would make sense: transnational problems needing collaborative efforts, the military advantages of defenders, the reluctance of states to engage in unbridled competition, and “hegemony fatigue” among the American people. Alternative strategies that are smaller than global hegemony, but bigger than narrow isolationism, would be defined by the logic of “concerts” and “balancing,” in other words, some mixture of collaboration and competition. Can the United States adjust to a Concert-Balance grand strategy that made space for other rising powers without sacrificing too much of its forward military presence, without unleashing too much regional instability, and without losing the domestic political will? It is not certain that a cumulative shift to a new grand strategy would necessarily succeed, since other powers might turn down the chance to cooperate. But with soaring budget deficits and national debt, increasing burdens on social security, and possible agonizing choices in the future between guns and butter, it is surely worth a try.


The Pax Americana and the grand strategy of hegemony (or “Primacy”) that underpins it may be becoming unsustainable. Particularly in the wake of exhausting wars, the Global Financial Crisis, and the shift of wealth from West to East, it may no longer be possible or prudent for the United States to act as the unipolar sheriff or guardian of a world order. But how viable are the alternatives, and what difficulties will these alternatives entail in their design and execution? This analysis offers a sympathetic but critical analysis of alternative U.S. National Security Strategies of “retrenchment” that critics of American diplomacy offer. In these strategies, the United States would anticipate the coming of a more multipolar world and organize its behavior around the dual principles of “concert” and “balance,” seeking a collaborative relationship with other great powers, while being prepared to counterbalance any hostile aggressor that threatens world order. The proponents of such strategies argue that by scaling back its global military presence and its commitments, the United States can trade prestige for security, shift burdens, and attain a more free hand. To support this theory, they often look to the 19th-century concert of Europe as a model of a successful security regime and to general theories about the natural balancing behavior of states. This monograph examines this precedent and measures its usefulness for contemporary statecraft to identify how great power concerts are sustained and how they break down. The project also applies competing theories to how states might behave if world politics are in transition: Will they balance, bandwagon, or hedge? This demonstrates the multiple possible futures that could shape and be shaped by a new strategy.

A new strategy based on an acceptance of multipolarity and the limits of power is prudent. There is scope for such a shift. The convergence of several trends—including transnational problems needing collaborative efforts, the military advantages of defenders, the reluctance of states to engage in unbridled competition, and hegemony fatigue among the American people—means that an opportunity exists internationally and at home for a shift to a new strategy. But a Concert-Balance strategy will still need to deal with several potential dilemmas. These include the difficulty of reconciling competitive balancing with cooperative concerts, the limits of balancing without a forward-reaching onshore military capability, possible unanticipated consequences such as a rise in regional power competition or the emergence of blocs (such as a Chinese East Asia or an Iranian Gulf), and the challenge of sustaining domestic political support for a strategy that voluntarily abdicates world leadership. These difficulties can be mitigated, but they must be met with pragmatic and gradual implementation as well as elegant theorizing and the need to avoid swapping one ironclad, doctrinaire grand strategy for another.

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