By Mackubin Thomas Owens
January 16, 2017
The late 1980s and
early ’90s were characterized by liberal optimism, if not triumphalism. The
Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had dissolved, marking the end of
the Cold War. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama had written an influential article
entitled "The End of History," which argued that with the collapse of
the Communist Soviet Union, liberal democracy had prevailed as the universal
ideology. While conflict might continue on the peripheries of the liberal world
order, the trend was toward a more peaceful and prosperous world. The economic
component of the end-of-history narrative was globalization, the triumph of
narrative was complemented by a technological-optimism narrative, which held
that the United States could maintain its dominant position in the international
order by exploiting the "revolution in military affairs." This
complementary narrative, arising from the rapid coalition victory over Saddam
Hussein that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, led some influential defense
experts to argue that emerging technologies and the military revolution had the
potential to transform the very nature of war.
One of the most
influential volumes of this period was Bound to Lead: The Changing
Nature of American Power (1990), in which Joseph Nye coined the phrase
"soft power," which he defined as shaping the preferences of others by
noncoercive means such as culture, political values, ideology, and diplomacy in
contrast to "the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it
wants." Even if soft power made sense in the 1990s, does it still makes
Despite a rising
China; naked Russian aggression against Ukraine and other Eastern European
states; the proliferation of jihadi movements, especially ISIS; Iranian and
North Korean troublemaking; and the debacle in Syria, many American policy
makers, especially within the Obama administration, remain wedded to soft power
as the answer to international affairs. They contend that those who rely on
force are acting against the arc of history, which, they claim, favors soft
power in this brave new world.
Eliot A. Cohen,
eminent scholar and author of innumerable books on national security affairs and
civil-military relations, isn't buying this argument, and in The Big
Stick, he makes the case for hard power. It is an excellent response to what
can only be called strategic happy talk, a phenomenon that has adversely
affected American security policy for over two decades.
Cohen begins by
noting that although after a decade-and-a-half of war many Americans still
believe that the United States should continue to play the role of guarantor of
world order, leader of free states, and "spokesman for, and in some cases
defender of, the liberties of foreign peoples in remote lands," a great
many Americans do not. The Big Stick addresses the issues that
have given rise to skepticism about the use of military power: What role should
military power play in foreign policy? What are its limits? What is the purpose
of the armed forces? Why should they be used for anything beyond self-defense?
What are the lessons of recent wars? What are the main threats and challenges
that the United States faces? What are the main instruments of military
power—so-called hard power?
unfolds logically. In his opening chapter, entitled "Why the United
States?," Cohen makes a convincing case for continued American primacy.
Although he does not mention him by name, his argument is essentially a
restatement of Robert Gilpin's theory of hegemonic stability, which holds that a
liberal world order does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global
invisible hand. Instead, such a system requires a hegemonic power, a state
willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic
stability and international security. For a hundred years, from the end of the
Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of World War I, Great Britain was that
power; from 1945 until the Obama administration, the United States pursued a
bipartisan grand strategy of primacy based on hegemonic stability. In both
cases, the hegemonic power assumed the role not out of altruism but because it
was in its national interest to do so.
examines (and refutes) the five main arguments against the use of military power
to maintain American primacy: that the world is becoming more peaceful and no
longer needs this sort of policing; the realist view that, somehow, the logic of
Great Power politics will maintain peace in a way that it has not done in the
past; the explicit view that soft power can replace hard power; that the United
States is incompetent in applying hard power; and the argument that domestic
priorities require a reorientation from external to internal affairs.
From the question
of "Why the United States?" Cohen moves to address the lessons of 15
years of war—"Without coming to terms with America's recent strategic
past, it is impossible to think clearly about its strategic future"—and
here he is tough but fair:
addresses what he calls the "American hand," examining the strengths
and weaknesses of American power. He shows that the United States still
possesses a strong hand in international affairs—"no other country, or
collection of countries, has a better hand to play in international
politics"—but that it has made self-defeating choices about defense
spending, strategy, and force structure. As others have noted before, American
decline is a choice, and although Cohen lays most of the blame at the feet of
civilian policymakers, he does not let the uniformed military off the hook. He
also criticizes professional military education and its failure to produce
strategic thinkers, yielding what the British strategist Colin Gray has called
"a black hole where American strategy ought to reside."
assesses the four major challenges we face: The rise of China, the continuing
threat from assorted jihadist movements, "dangerous states" such as
Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and the challenge posed by "ungoverned
space" and the "commons"—that is to say, the maritime realm,
space, and cyberspace, which no one state or alliance rules or controls. China
clearly tops his list of challenges, but we ignore others at our peril. The
problem is that the American hand, as strong as it is, is hardpressed to respond
to all the challenges simultaneously. An important role of strategy is to
establish priorities, and deciding how to allocate military power in response to
these diverse threats will be the great strategic challenge for the foreseeable
future. As Frederick the Great is supposed to have said, "He who attempts
to defend everything ends up defending nothing."
The final chapter
on the logic of hard power examines how the United States should think about the
actual use of hard power: "The rules of thumb and strategic aphorisms that
do not make sense and those that do." Here he discusses such concepts as
risk assessment, the aptitude of different kinds of forces to deal with a
variety of challenges, and establishing strategic priorities.
Cohen also argues
that certain concepts that once made strategic sense no longer do so:
containment, deterrence, "end states," and exit strategies. He also
takes issue with the idea of "grand strategy." I am persuaded by his
argument against the first four, but not the fifth. For as long as it is not
applied mechanistically—all too often the case when it comes to strategy in
general—grand strategy has utility in discussions of hard power, especially
when designed to think about how to bring to bear all the
elements of national power—military, economic, and diplomatic—to secure the
nation's interests and objectives.
Most useful of
all, perhaps, Cohen concludes by discussing the circumstances under which
military force should be used. He is notably critical of the Weinberger
Doctrine, six rules for the use of military power offered by Secretary of
Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984. After laying out the shortcomings of the
Weinberger Doctrine, Cohen suggests a list of his own:
your war for what it is, not what you wish it to be.
is important, but being able to adapt is more important.
will prefer to go short, but prepare to go long.
engaging in today's fight, prepare for tomorrow's challenge.
strategy matters but perseverance matters more.
president can launch a war, but to win it requires congressional and popular
In sum, The
Big Stick is an immensely useful assessment of military power and why
it remains necessary. Cohen is especially effective in refuting the arguments
against hard power and American hegemony, for as his teacher Samuel Huntington
once observed, "The maintenance of U.S. primacy matters for the world as
well as for the United States."
Indeed, the Obama
administration's retreat from primacy provides a preview of the world described
by Huntington: a fragmented globe in which our friends and allies are making the
best deals they can because they no longer have faith in the United States while
our adversaries act aggressively, constantly probing for weaknesses. The idea
that the use of military power is at odds with the arc of history is equally
absurd. Its use must be governed by prudence, but it cannot be unilaterally
dismissed as an instrument of statecraft. For too long, American policymakers
have acted as if diplomacy alone is sufficient to achieve our foreign policy
goals; but to cite Frederick the Great again, "Diplomacy without arms is
like music without instruments." Policymakers need to relearn the lesson
that diplomacy and force are two sides of the same coin.
recognizes that the use of military power cannot be open-ended. During the
Clinton administration it was suggested that American foreign policy had become
(in the words of Michael Mandelbaum) "social work," and in 2000,
George W. Bush campaigned against the overuse of American armed
forces for reasons not associated with American interests. Cohen recognizes the
limits of military force, but there is enough ambiguity in The Big Stick to
allow critics to charge that he supports the use of force in order to secure
goals beyond American interests.
The sole purpose
of American power is—or should be—to secure the American republic, to
protect liberty, and facilitate the prosperity of the American people. It is
not, or should not be, intended to create a corporatist globalism divorced from
national interest or national greatness. The United States does not have a moral
entitlement to superior power for the global good: We have to work constantly at
maintaining it. A healthy regard for our safety and happiness requires that
American power remain supreme, but we should never succumb to the idea that the
purpose of American power is to act in the interest of others, the
"international community," international institutions, or the like.