The Morality of Using Military Power

Destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (foreground) and aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, in 2015. (Photo: US Navy)
A review of The Big Stick by Eliot A. Cohen.

The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, by Eliot A. Cohen

Basic Books, 304 pages$27.99 

On the first page of Zero to One, Peter Thiel’s idiosyncratic manifesto on start-ups, the technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist reveals his preferred strategy for recruiting new talent. “Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question,” he writes. “‘What important truth do very few people agree with you on?’”

Thiel explains that the question is daunting for two reasons. “It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something he knows to be unpopular.” A proper response would not only be contrarian, it would likely elicit a snort of derision from the evaluator.

My own answer (which wouldn’t get me far with Thiel, who is a strident critic of American global hegemony) is that military might is an indispensable instrument of national power. Bereft of America’s preparation and frequent employment of armed force, the liberal world order would swiftly deteriorate, and perhaps even collapse. 

In today’s political climate, it is difficult to exaggerate how out of fashion it is to utter this truth. Neither major political party is willing to count itself among the tribe that still believes unapologetically in America’s rightful role and responsibilities in the world. The Obama presidency has been distinguished by its narrow reading of U.S. interests and its reluctance to use force in defense of any wider mission civilisatrice. The incoming Trump administration promises to accelerate this trend away from global responsibility and toward a more common status for the United States in the order of nations.

In The Big Stick, Eliot Cohen dissents from this reigning consensus. A professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former counselor to the State Department, Cohen assigns himself the task of defending American military power — what Theodore Roosevelt called “the big stick” — as the linchpin of international order. The result is a bracing argument that restores this woefully neglected dimension of statecraft to its proper position as “the last argument of kings — or presidents.”

Cohen’s analysis is ineluctably shaped by his dark view of human nature. Like Plato, he grasps that peace, not war, is the aberration in human affairs. If history is any guide, order is not a natural feature of the international environment but almost always an imposition by empires and great powers — or, as the case has been since the end of the Second World War, by a single great power: hence, Pax Americana.

After the war, the United States became the guarantor of world order, as that role had been vacated with the long, withdrawing roar of British power. With vast tracts of the world in ruins, America crafted an economic order at Bretton Woods to stimulate the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor. It also constructed a political order to promote liberal and democratic institutions. And so the world has enjoyed, for more than 70 years, an era of unprecedented prosperity and freedom.

Against the intellectual fad of a post-American world, Cohen notes that America remains ‘immensely strong across many dimensions of power.’

This progress took place in a world without major global conflict, and that essential condition was made possible by a dominant power maintaining order by force of arms. The forward deployment of U.S. forces in Western Europe and East Asia suspended the cycles of war that historically made those regions cauldrons of slaughter. This feature of the post-war world has received scant attention precisely because few have noticed the absence of industrial-scale violence. It is no less of an achievement because it has been unsung.

Against the intellectual fad of a post-American world, Cohen notes that America remains “immensely strong across many dimensions of power.” The evidence for this claim is compelling. From its demographic trends (the best of any developed country) to its dynamic economy to its resilient political system (albeit less resilient than it seemed before the election of Trump), the United States maintains a clear edge over its competitors. It also boasts an alliance portfolio that includes not only longtime friends but also traditional adversaries (see Vietnam).

Advocates of a restrained American global role have advanced two main lines of argument against the active maintenance of a free and open international order. The first is that America’s deep engagement in the world has become exorbitant. Cohen defends increased military spending by comparing the current defense budget (slightly over 3 percent of GDP) with historical averages (during the Cold War, it stood between 6 and 10 percent). Contrary to popular belief, the nation’s long-term solvency is endangered not by discretionary spending at the Pentagon but by steady increases in nondiscretionary spending on so-called entitlements (e.g., Medicare and Social Security). Half of the defense budget could be scrapped tomorrow without much improving the nation’s fiscal outlook.

The second principal argument against a vigorous U.S. global role is that humanity has become more peaceable as the inevitable result of moral and material progress. On this view, an interdependent global economy and the march of science and technology, along with universally accepted “norms” of governance, have tamed the savagery of man.

Do we imagine, truly, that with the advent of the 21st century the laws of history have somehow been suspended? That, even without American power, “the underlying foundations of the liberal international order will survive and thrive,” as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry puts it?

President Obama seems to harbor just that belief. He failed to commit the United States to underwrite global security with the blood of its citizens and the strength of its arms. To judge by his refrain that “there is no military solution” to Russian aggression on the European landmass (the first such land grab since World War II) or to the geopolitical catastrophe in Syria, he was not persuaded that such sacrifices were any longer necessary.

Alas, the better angels of our nature have not prevailed. The forces of globalization have not created an age of universal peace. The march of technology has not eliminated man’s deepest motives as spelled out more than two millennia ago by Thucydides: fear, honor, and self-interest.

The march of technology has not eliminated man’s deepest motives as spelled out more than two millennia ago by Thucydides: fear, honor, and self-interest.

Cohen identifies the following dangers that will not be deterred or constrained without considerable military power brought to bear by the United States: the steady rise of China to the status of a superpower, certainly in East Asia; the generational conflict with violent Islamist movements; several powerful revisionist states, either nuclear-armed or aspiring to nuclear status, seeking to rewrite global norms; and ungoverned domains, both real (outer space) and virtual (cyberspace) in which rogue agents or regimes expand their influence by waging unconventional warfare.

Military power is not the solution to every problem, of course. Cohen gives soft power its due, observing that in the war against Islamist terror the U.S. government has not made good use of nonviolent forms of power. It’s baffling, for instance, that 15 years after September 11, 2001, America has still not directed against radical Islam the kinds of propaganda and subversion that were once hallmarks of the long struggle against Communism.

Soft power, however, is as inherently limited as hard power. Determined foes are often better positioned to withstand, say, financial sanctions than more-concentrated forms of power where America’s advantage is more decisive. Cultural exchanges did not bring Osama bin Laden to justice. Soft power has costs that Americans, in their self-absorption, tend to neglect. As Cohen notes, the most appealing features of American culture, of rights for women and minorities, is as likely to leave foreigners sputtering with rage as it is to inspire emulation.

#related#In a world full of enmity and evil, Cohen writes, America’s “ability to act with good effect internationally is inseparable from its military strength, and its ability to use that strength.” Military power is a blunt instrument, a fact that should weigh against our using it recklessly, not against using it at all. Cohen does not flinch from advocating the judicious threat and exercise of force in situations of strategic threat or humanitarian emergency. He distills a powerful truth when he posits that “U.S. power serves American foreign policy less by its exercise than by its potential; less by its action than by its menace.” Indeed, “the most beneficent form of military strength is that which is so overwhelming that it need not be used.”

If this observation sounds jarring, it merely proves how circumscribed the discussion of military power has become. In an age when American strength and leadership is waning, — by choice, not necessity — Cohen offers his reluctant but adamant conclusion that violence is often “the least bad policy choice.” Executives in Silicon Valley may continue to scoff at that important truth, but as chaos and anarchy waxes around the world, such imprudence is a luxury that policymakers in Washington, D.C., can ill afford.


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