The history of US engagement in Cold War Europe illustrates how US commitments swung between the extremes of the pendulum as a result of entanglement abroad and overselling at home. In “All-In or All-Out: Why Insularity Pushes and Pulls American Grand Strategy”, senior strategic analyst Paul van Hooft shows how this dynamic applies to Sino-American maritime competition.
Critics of the expansive US grand strategy of deep engagement argue that the United States should pursue strategies of retrenchment to avoid provoking conflicts with major powers and allied freeriding. Retrenchers believe the United States can rely on the inherent security its insularity and distance from other major powers provides and delay its possible interventions until strictly necessary. Should a hegemonic power emerge in Eurasia, its command of the maritime commons will allow US reentry into the region. This paper argues that such strategies are not likely to succeed for the US in Asia, but neither is the US likely to avoid escalation with China if it continues deep engagement. The balance of interests between the United States and its allies and adversaries is inherently asymmetric because the United States is a distant, offshore power. This in turn makes it difficult to convince adversaries and allies that it is willing to spend blood and treasure and to convince the domestic audience of the need to do so. Entanglement abroad and overselling at home are thus endemic in the US grand strategy. The history of US engagement in Cold War Europe illustrates how US commitments swung between the extremes of the pendulum. This paper shows how this dynamic applies to the Sino-American competition in the Western Pacific, where China seeks to raise the costs for the United States, and the United States seeks to maintain military-technological superiority to maintain access. If the United States is committed to upholding the balance of power, it must be willing to court disaster and treat China as an existential threat. In Asia, the former thus faces a stark choice between dangerous escalation and retreat.
Paul van Hooft, “All-In or All-Out: Why Insularity Pushes and Pulls American Grand Strategy to Extremes,” Security Studies 29, no. 4 (2020): 701–729.