|“Hadrian’s wall at Greenhead Lough” by Velella,
Image Source: Wikimedia
An increasing number of U.S. thinkers and academics have argued in favor of a similar policy of masterly inactivity — alternatively labeled retrenchment, restraint, or offshore balancing. Drawing attention to the United States’ privileged geographical position and rapid move toward energy independence, they have, to some extent, re-appropriated a distinctly American notion of “free security” that goes back to the early days of the Republic and corresponds to what the late political scientist Stanley Hoffman once referred to as America’s“quietist” tradition. According to these thinkers, the United States should extricate itself from the suppurating wound that is the Middle East, revise or abrogate most of its alliance commitments, and adopt a less forward-leaning military posture.
There are many problems with this approach. They range from the historically flawed notion of “free security,” to the operational challenges associated with attempting to project military force into a geographically distant area without the logistical benefits of local basing structures. Perhaps one of the most structural limitations to offshore balancing, however, is contained in its very designation. Indeed, the very notion that American bureaucrats, from their windowless offices in Washington, could act as modern-day Richelieus or Castlereaghs, predicting and fine-tuning regional configurations of power, while engaging in deft over-the-horizon balancing acts, seems both anachronistic and unrealistic. 
Rehman has outlined one of the central problems of policy punditry in 21st century America. It doesn’t pass the StupidProof (TM) test.
Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.
To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.
We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system. No foreign policy too nuanced to be shouted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail or too complex to survive intact as it is passed from one layer of bureaucracy to another can succeed here. Any strategy dependent upon wise and measured leadership at the top or a committee of genius forecasters and planners directing policy from the middle will fail. In short, American policy must be StupidProof. If it cannot be implemented by the inept and uninformed, then it will not be implemented at all.
However, after stating the problem so wonderfully Rehman suggests a curious solution. He argues that because we Americans are too isolated, uneducated, and myopic to successfully retrench, America must be “deeply engaged and invested in key regions” across the globe. He explains things this way:
The walls of Ancient Rome and Imperial China may seem alluring metaphors to those weary of U.S. involvement in a Middle East wracked with horrendous violence and sectarian conflict. These same thinkers may also find themselves nodding their heads in approval at the Raj-era articulation of masterly inactivity, wondering whether it might not be wiser for Washington to let China continue to alienate its Asian neighbors through its own obduracy without instructing U.S. forces to engage in risk-laden acts of forward presence, such as freedom of navigation patrols. However, the historical record shows that the reality of great power rule has always been more complex. The Roman frontier was never rigid and absolute. As classical historians have noted, Roman security was highly contingent on the shrewd management of tribal peoples well beyond regularly patrolled areas. The Teutoburg massacre was partially the result of a case of a “green on blue” incident with a local proxy ruler, Arminius, who decided to turn his weapons on his imperial patrons. In many other cases, however, deeply embedded Roman political agents proved remarkably adept at utilizing, or allying with, Gallic and Germanic tribes to further their own imperial ends and better shield territories under Roman rule. In Imperial China, dynasties proved most successful when they engaged with the peoples of the steppe, and used their vast walled structures as launching pads into Mongolia and Central Asia rather than as static fortifications….
In short, great power security has never been coterminous with retrenchment, and the preservation of primacy is closely linked to deep engagement, rapidly deployable military presence, and a profound knowledge of local conditions. Even if the United States did decide to adopt a less forward-leaning posture, it appears poorly equipped to offshore balance, or successfully micro-manage regional actors from afar. As my colleague Tom Wright has observed, we now live in a post-imperial era. The United States leads an order in which it enjoys a “privileged position, but it does so only because the vast majority of states want it to be that way.” Unlike the Colonial Empires in the 19th century, the United States “cannot just sit down with its competitors and rewrite the futures of independent countries and their populations.” And even if it could, it is debatable whether a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments. The recent track record in this regard is pretty poor, whether it comes to failing to predict system-shattering events such as the Arab Spring or misjudgingthe extent and pace of revisionist actors’ actions, whether in the South China Sea, Eastern Ukraine, or Syria. These prediction errors can be attributed to intelligence failures, but also point to a wider problem: the surprising inability of one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries to understand foreign motives and behavior. 
This misreads both the history of imperial Rome and that of imperial China.
The Romans had nothing close to the “area experts” of today. Indeed, they had precious few experts at all. During the Principate the empire’s primary decision makers were the emperor and his personal entourage (the amici principis or “friends of the princeps”), the governors and their personal staff, and the commanders of legionary forces. Most often these commanders would be the governors themselves, though sometimes they would be men specially appointed for particular campaigns, like Germanicus and Corbulo, and in rare crises the commanders of individual legions (legati legioninis) would be forced to make important decisions of state. None of these men received any special training in foreign languages, cultures, diplomacy, or statecraft before attaining high rank. Men were more likely to be chosen for their social status than proven experience or familiarity with the region they were assigned to govern. The education of these officials was in literature, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, and their ability to govern was often judged on their literary merits. The historian Susan Mattern discusses one example of this in her masterful study of Roman strategy, Rome and the Enemy. The key passage comes from Tacitus, who reports that the Emperor Nero was better placed to deal with Parthian shenanigans in Armenia than Cladius, for he was advised by Burrus and Seneca, “men known for their expertise in such matters” (Annals 13.6). Mattern writes:
The historian assumes that the decision about Armenia will be made personally by the emperor in close consultation with his advisers. The character and social position of these advisers is important to him: Claudius is reviled for consulting freedmen, and the idea that a woman, Nero’s mother, might have some influence here is repellant. It is especially interesting to note that Seneca took part in this and presumably other important foreign affairs decisions, because a large body of his work survives and can be examined. It is also interesting that Tacitus describe Seneca and Burris as exceptionally qualified to advise me road in this case, though it is probable that neither have substantial military experience or specialized knowledge about Armenia or Parthia. 
Sextus Afrianus Burrus’ military experience before his elevation to Praetorian Prefect was limited to one term as military tribune. He was born in the heartland of the empire, and there is little evidence to suggest he spent substantial time outside of it. Lucius Anneas Seneca was Nero’s childhood tutor before he was his adviser. Then, as now, his reputation chiefly lay on the strength of his work as a dramatist and moral philosopher. These were entirely typical backgrounds for powerful Roman officials. As Mattern demonstrates with dozens of other examples, this was true both for those who governed from Rome and for those sent out to the provinces. In her words, “Social rank, literary accomplishment, and loyalty emerged as three critical factors in a choice of Rome’s most powerful officials.”  Regional expertise and strategic acumen were not part of the job description.
We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to find that the Romans had a terrible understanding of the geography, culture, and political structures of the foreign lands on their borders. Roman armies rarely knew anything about the geography they campaigned in until their soldiers tramped across it. Even border areas under the empire’s control for centuries were described in grossly inaccurate terms by Roman geographers, and these gaps in knowledge occasionally had dire strategic consequences for Roman campaign forces.  Romans had trouble distinguishing cultural and linguistic groups from political units, and struggled to understand the cultural traditions of ethnic groups, like the Jews, who had long been a part of the empire. What Romans understood about the people on their frontiers had much more to do with rhetorical conventions and artistic stereotypes handed down to them from the classical literary tradition than from actual observation of barbarian ways. 
This had significant strategic implications. Between the conquest of Dalmatia in the early days of the Principate and the arrival of the Huns in the days of Late Antiquity, it is difficult to find an enemy on Rome’s northern borders that was not created by Rome itself. Rehman has already noted that the greatest defeat of the Principate, that of Teutoburg Forest, was the work of man in Rome’s employ. Teutoburg is but one point in a pattern that repeated for centuries. Most Germanic barbarian groups did not live in oppida, as the Celts did, and had little political hierarchy to speak of. When Romans selected local leaders to negotiate with, favor with trade or other boons, and use as auxiliary allies in war they were transforming petty chiefs into kings. Roman diplomatic norms, combined with unrelenting Roman military pressure, created the very military threats they were hoping to forestall. 
A very similar story can be told about Imperial China’s forays onto the steppe. One of the frustrating things about the English-language historiography on Sino-steppe relations are the many attempts to pigeon hole Chinese strategy into narrow binaries: trade vs. war, engagement vs. retrenchment, and so forth.  A close examination of the individual conflicts between Chinese dynasties and nomadic empires expose these descriptions as too narrow. Any given dynasty had half a dozen different responses to the nomadic threat it faced, and each statesmen added a unique flair to his own solution. Some dynasties opted for wars of extermination, others for strong defensive perimeters and buffer polities that allowed little contact between the world of steppe and sown, some tried to co-opt tribal leadership through subsidies and marriage alliance, while yet others tried to pacify the nomads by building strong networks of trade and tribute. One common response was to “use barbarians to fight barbarians” (yi yi zhi yi 以夷治夷) — in essence, to subsidize and favor one group of nomads over other, stronger groups who posed a more direct threat to Chinese interests. Absent outright conquest, this was as “engaged” as the Chinese could get on the steppe. It was a risky strategy. Occasionally it went horribly awry, as when the Jurchens, initially supported by the Song Dynasty to place pressure on their enemies, the Liao, conquered not only the the Song’s enemies, but half of the Song’s territory as well! This “Humiliation of Jingkang” was one of the greatest military disasters of Chinese history. The story would repeat itself a century later when the Jurchen’s own dynasty, the Jin, backed a young warlord named Temujin as their man on the steppe. After he defeated his enemies there Temujin would be crowned as Chinggis Khan. 
The lesson Rehman seeks is hard to find in these histories. The most obvious conclusion is the opposite of his: unipolar powers have never been able to deftly intervene in the affairs of others. When all roads lead to Rome, no Roman learns barbarian. Rome succeeded despite of its continual interventions in barbaricum, not because of them. The story in imperial China is quite similar, and success there–where military parity between the barbarians and the forces of civilization was usually much closer than in Rome–is much harder to find. Its notable that the only dynasty that managed to fully nullify the barbarian threat was a dynasty that began as a group of barbarians itself. Long before the Manchus conquered China they began to form marriages alliances with Mongolia’s noble houses and incorporate Mongol units into its armed forces. Steppe politics was built into the Qing’s DNA, and they played the game masterfully.  Ethnic Chinese dynasties had a much tougher job coming to terms with their enemies on the steppe.
But we don’t need to turn to ancient geopolitics to see how poorly unipolar powers fail to manage the intricacies of the world around them. Rehman wonders if “a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments.” But as Rehman has already chronicled, America does not possess these wonderful things already. America doesn’t need retrenchment to lack “regional acumen” and the ability to “accurately predict regional convulsions.” The United States has spent the last seven decades actively engaged in all corners of the earth, and it still lacks the kind of human capital Rehamn argues for. Whether America is retrenched or whether its influence is felt in every crisis to convulse the globe is immaterial. Americans just don’t do regional acumen. If Rehman’s preferred foreign policy requires them to, then it will never be implemented.
Thus you can see the weakness inherit in Rehman’s conclusion:
A regional competitor’s home court advantage does not only apply to the density of its localized military systems or to the advantages provided by its interior lines of communication. It also extends to less tangible aspects of great power competition such as knowledge of the socio-cultural terrain, networks of human contacts, and access to effective proxies that can advance the regional state’s interests. If the United States wishes to preserve its positional status as the world’s leading power, it needs to remain deeply engaged and invested in key regions such as Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, however tempting it may sometimes seem to do otherwise. As the former Secretary of State George Schultz has noted, diplomacy, like gardening, requires sustained, patient efforts, in order to bear fruit. One might also add that effective statecraft, like good wine, requires a knowledge of what the French call “terroir”— a deep grasp of the region’s climate, terrain, and local conditions. That’s not something you can do from an office thousands of miles away. 
The United States of America has been more intimately involved in the far-flung regions of the Earth this century than it has in any other. But our record is dismal. Despite spending 14 years in Afghanistan, we still don’t recognize who our real enemy in South Asia is. We have deeply involved ourselves in the politics of the Near East for the last decade but have been blindsided by the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and still cannot explain the success of ISIS. An entire generation of Kremlinologists graduated from American universities in the waning days of the Cold War, but we find ourselves unprepared and surprised by Russian moves in Ukraine and now the Middle East. Japan has been the bed rock of the U.S. alliance system in Europe for six decades, but we still don’t understand it’s strategic priorities. The list could go on. Like many things prized by the French, terroir is something Americans never will value. Rehman calls for a sensitive foreign policy of implemented by regional experts with proven acumen. What we need is a foreign policy that can be understood by any big-dollar donor–and if they pay enough, implemented by them too.
In short, we need a foreign policy that is StupidProof.
 Iskander Rehman, “Remote Control Statecraft: The Limits of Offshore Balancing,” War on the Rocks (29 October 2015).
 Susan P. Mattern, Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkely: University of California Press, 1999), p. 7.
 Ibid, 21. For Roman ideas of education and generaliship, see Brian Campbell, “Teach Yourself How to Be a General,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 77 (1987), pp. 13-29.
 For example, Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia, which created the strategically vulnerable proruption of Dacia Triana, were likely founded on the common belief that the ocean was only 396 miles North of the Danube river. For Roman geographic generally, see Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, pp. 24-66; for Dacia, ibid, 61.
 On stereotypes see Thomas Burns, Rome and the Barbarians: 100 BC-AD 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 22-24, 94, 137; Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, 67-80; on conflation of culture and political units, Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; one particularly clear example of flawed Roman ethnography is Tacitus’s account of the Jews in Histories 5.2-5, the flaws of which are easy to see as significant Jewish sources have survived to provide inside accounts of Jewish life and customs.
 Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 452-459
 For example, see Sechen Jachid and V. J. Symons War and Peace along the Great Wall (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989); Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD.
 The most accessible English language history of Humiliation of Jingkang is found in Frederick Mote, Imperial China 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), ch. 11.
On the Jin’s support of Temujin, see Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 49-54; Thomas Allsen, “The rise of the Mongolian empire and Mongolian rule in north China.” in Cambridge History of China: Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 710–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 344.
 Nicola Di Cosmo, “The Rise of Manchu Power in Northeast Asia,” lecture at U.C. Berkeley (Berkely, California), 28 June 2013; “From Alliance to Tutelage: A Historical Analysis of Manchu-Mongol Relations before the Qing Conquest,” Frontiers in Historical China, Vol 7, iss 2 (2012), 175–197; Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), pp. 109-127.
 Rehman, “Remote Control Statecraft“