Farewell, Obama

By Mackubin Thomas Owens

Weekly Standard

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 liberal capitalism.

The end-of-history 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 sense today?

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?

The argument 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.

Next, Cohen 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:

Wars must be judged by what they helped avoid as well as by what they produced. Those who direct them should be judged by what they knew and could have known, as well as what the underlying facts actually were. Once a war has been launched, even in error, one must judge how well or poorly it was waged, because it is possible to recover from a misconceived conflict. On all of these points, the wars of 2001 to the present offer a mixed and unsettling record.

Cohen then 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."

Cohen also 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.

In theory, political and military leaders at the top of the U.S. decision-making pyramid should establish national security priorities and devote adequate time to the most important of them. In practice they find themselves dealing with multiple problems—about many of which they have only superficial knowledge—at the same time. They have too little time to learn, and less ability to set 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:

·         Understand your war for what it is, not what you wish it to be.

·         Planning is important, but being able to adapt is more important.

·         You will prefer to go short, but prepare to go long.

·         While engaging in today's fight, prepare for tomorrow's challenge.

·         Adroit strategy matters but perseverance matters more.

·         A president can launch a war, but to win it requires congressional and popular support.

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."

A world without U. S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

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.

Prudence also 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.