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The Washington Quarterly 25.2 (2002) 233-248

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Offshore Balancing Revisited

Christopher Layne

In the wake of September 11, saying that everything has changed has become fashionable. Yet, although much indeed has changed, some important things have not. Before September 11, U.S. hegemony (or primacy, as some call it) defined the geopolitical agenda. It still does. Indeed, the attack on the United States and the subsequent war on terrorism waged by the United States underscore the myriad ways in which U.S. hegemony casts its shadow over international politics. The fundamental grand strategic issues that confronted the United States before September 11 are in abeyance temporarily, but the expansion of NATO, the rise of China, and ballistic missile defense have not disappeared. In fact, the events of September 11 have rendered the deeper question these issues pose--whether the United States can, or should, stick to its current strategy of maintaining its post-Cold War hegemony in international politics--even more salient.

Hegemony is the term political scientists use to denote the overwhelming military, economic, and diplomatic preponderance of a single great power in international politics. To illustrate the way in which U.S. hegemony is the bridge connecting the pre-September 11 world to the post-September 11 world, one need only return to the "Through the Looking Glass" collection of articles in the summer 2001 issue of The Washington Quarterly. A unifying theme runs through those articles: the authors' acknowledgment of U.S. primacy and their ambivalent responses about it.

Collectively, the "Through the Looking Glass" contributors make an important point about U.S. power that policymakers in Washington do not always take to heart: U.S. hegemony is a double-edged sword. In other words, U.S. power is a paradox. On one hand, U.S. primacy is acknowledged as the [End Page 233] most important factor in maintaining global and regional stability. "[I]f not for the existing security framework provided by bilateral and multilateral alliance commitments borne by the United States, the world could, or perhaps would, be a more perilous place." 1 On the flip side of the coin, many--indeed most--of the contributors evince resentment at the magnitude of U.S. power and fear about how Washington exercises that power.

China, specifically, wants the United States to accommodate its rise to great-power status and stop interfering in the Taiwan issue. The political elite in Moscow wants Washington to treat Russia like a great power equal to the United States and stop meddling in Russia's domestic affairs. 2 Warnings are issued that for its own good--and the world's--the United States must change its ways and transform itself into a benign, or "enlightened," superpower. As the contributions to "Through the Looking Glass" demonstrate, the paradox of U.S. power evokes paradoxical reactions to it. U.S. primacy is "bad" when exercised unilaterally or to justify "isolationist" policies, but U.S. hegemony is "good" when exercised multilaterally to advance common interests rather than narrow U.S. ones. 3

U.S. Power:
The Effects of September 11

The paradox of U.S. power has been very much on display since September 11. U.S. primacy in the war on terrorism has its benefits. First, unrivaled U.S. military power is obviously a plus. In terms of military capabilities, the United States indeed enjoys what the Pentagon calls "full spectrum dominance." Today, the United States can war against virtually any foe, whether big powers, rogue states, or terrorist groups, and prevail on the battlefield at little or no cost. Second, because of its preponderant military and economic power, the United States has been able to organize an international coalition against terrorism. Only an enormously powerful state--a true hegemon--could make stick its admonition to the rest of the world that you are either with us or with the terrorists.

No doubt, President George W. Bush's "us or them" declaration carried an implicit element of threat. Certainly, the United States has many sticks to wield. Being a hegemon, however, also means that the United States has...


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