Small Wars Journal

A ‘Concert-Balance’ Strategy and the Limits of U.S. Power

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 6:57am

A ‘Concert-Balance’ Strategy and the Limits of U.S. Power

Ronald W. Sprang

The United States is undoubtedly the leading power in the world today.  The environment, in which our nation operates, is one of complexity and constant evolution.  Regional unrest, fueled by the fires of extremist groups and non-state actors, has created vacuums of power in Africa and the Middle East destabilizing nation states like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, and Nigeria.  The United States also struggles with the enduring challenge of increasing national debt, which threaten our global standing as the leading hegemon.  In 2010, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen stated, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.[i]

In the midst of the current global setting Patrick Porter argues that the United States current grand strategy is no longer sustainable.  He endorses a new collaborative “Concert-Balance” strategy to share global power and responsibility with leaders around the globe with the reality of U.S. limits of power and the emerging multi-polar world to extend the life of our national global influence[ii].  I disagree with his argument for two major reasons.  First, the Concert-Balance Strategy needlessly cedes terrain signaling weakness and undermining U.S. status as a global leader.  Second, the strategy unrealistically assumes risk to the national defense and strategic mobility of our military.

Porter argues three potential models for the Concert-Balance Strategy: “hemispheric pullback,” “over-the-horizon balancer,” and “other paths to a concert.”[iii]   All three models require a methodical approach to gradually sharing power and responsibility with other global and regional leaders like China, Russia and Japan.  These three concepts oversimplify the complexity of the global situation Porter argues is a reason for the strategic change.  By shifting responsibly around the globe we cannot predict accurately the reactions of our new partners nor the impact of our ability to influence as a global leader when the world sees our nation as neutering itself and abdicating global dominance.  Nations will seek the partnership of those growing their power not a nation redistributing its’ power.  Additionally, Porter admits that the Concert-Balance strategy will require more effort, global involvement, and investment.[iv]  This is counterintuitive to what our nation needs.  We need a grand strategy, which requires less involvement and cost less resources.  Increased involvement will be seen as interference and meddling on the international stage and undermine the strategy.  Additionally, if it requires more resources and money than our current strategy we gain nothing of value and give away our international standing as the global hegemon.

Second, the Concert-Balance Strategy unrealistically assumes risk to our national defense and cost to strategic mobility of our military.  All three methods of the strategy require a reduction territorial influence in key areas in the Middle East and with China[v].  Ultimately the forfeiture of ground leads to a potential imbalance and unseen second and third order effects that may tip the scales in the favor of our competitors in Beijing or Moscow.  Once power and influence are negotiated away, even if gained back, will come at a higher cost financially and in American lives as we deploy forces to regain once held terrain.  Over the horizon capabilities for weapons and mobility are more expensive and only cost more lives once the military arrives on ground in the next conflict.  In an era of already shrinking force levels we cannot afford to increase the risk to future mission accomplishment, national debt and leverage to our debtors. 

Porter’s monograph argues for the need of a collaborative, peaceful global partnerships with other international leaders to facilitate a combined response to future global issues.  The complexity of the global operational environment and potential for unknown global flashpoints make this passive, nefarious partner approach to risky for our national future.  It will incur unnecessary financial costs in the event of missteps and a requirement to wage war to regain what was compromised away to an opponent.  U.S. grand strategy should be focused on identifying costs and benefits of future emerging global partnerships without ceding terrain and power to nation states diametrically opposed to our national values.   

End Notes

[i] CNN Wire Staff, “Mullen: Debt is top national security threat,” 27 August 2010, (accessed January 18, 2016).

[ii] Patrick Porter, Sharing Power? Prospects For A U.S. Concert-Balance Strategy (Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2013), 66.

[iii] Ibid., 47-66. 

[iv] Ibid., 65.

[v] Ibid., 54.


About the Author(s)

LTC Ronald W. Sprang is an infantry officer currently serving as the G5, Chief of Plans, for III Corps. He has served in combat as a rifle platoon leader (OIF I) in the 101st Airborne Division, twice as a company commander (2x Iraq deployments) in the 1st Cavalry Division, and as a battalion and brigade operations officer (Afghanistan) in the 10th Mountain Division. In his most recent deployment, he served as the deputy CJ35 (future operations) Chief of Plans for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.