American President Theodore Roosevelt once famously remarked: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Despite the seemingly bellicose overtone, for which he was known, it is but a reminder that the United States should “use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.”
For the better part of the 20th century, the US military was an essential – if not the centerpiece – instrument of American foreign policy, to show adversaries that it would follow up with necessary force when push came to shove. Many Americans today, however, question the utility of US military power and its global military presence as an effective tool of foreign policy. Given the inconclusive results of armed conflicts involving the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere since 2001, and the sizeable quantity of expended material and economic resources for military operations, it is hardly surprising that the sentiment to downsize the US military and limit its global military presence gained traction among many Americans.
In his book, Eliot A Cohen, professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a prominent neoconservative and former counselor at the US State Department, disagrees with the prevailing consensus that American military power is an outdated and even unnecessary instrument of its foreign policy. The author argues that US military power remains indispensable, not only for America’s foreign policy but also to maintain a stable global order, despite various other instruments in Washington’s foreign policy toolbox. The persistent use of military force during the Obama administration, such as in Libya and Syria; the reintroduction of aerial assets in Iraq; the use of drone strikes in the campaign against Islamist extremism; and US Navy ships sailing in the proximity of artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea, demonstrate the utility of military power.
Cohen asks two interrelated underlying questions about the main argument of the book: first, why should the United States continue to maintain its prodigious military power rather than downsizing it for selfdefense purposes and the pursuit of national interests? And second, why should the United States preserve its overreaching global engagements instead of leaving other countries to get along as best they can on their own? Several arguments – such as the declining trend of violence and armed conflict, as substantiated by numerous statistical analyses and reviews on armed conflict, and the instrument of soft power, as the ultimate substitute for hard power, among others – have been made advocating for, either directly or indirectly, restrained American military power and global engagement.
Cohen, however, ripostes that these arguments fail to make a strong case for reducing US military power and its continued global engagement. As an example, while it is indeed correct that the trends of violence and armed conflict are in decline – as suggested by various statistical analyses and reviews on armed conflicts across the globe throughout the late 19th century to the present – several major outliers (such as two world wars) indicate the continuing possibility of major conflict breaking out, underlining the necessity for the United States to maintain its military power for when circumstances call for it. Moreover, complete disengagement from international affairs and/or avoiding the use of military power may bring severe consequences for the United States and global stability in the long run, as evident in the case of Syria.
Through assessment and reflection on US engagement across the globe post9/11, Cohen explains the implications of the three major conflicts in which America has fought: Afghanistan, the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2014 Iraqi civil war. He finds that the total cost of these conflicts hardly put a dent in the US economy. In more than 15 years of war, American defense spending did not exceed 6 percent of gross domestic product. By comparison, US defense spending during the height of the Cold War was nearly double that, at 10 percent, and 8 percent during the 1980s. These more recent conflicts have indeed stressed and stretched the US military, but they conferred both intangible and tangible advantages, such as combat experience for military personnel and command at the senior level; operational innovations born out of actual combat; vast logistical hubs around the globe that would ease future military operations; interoperability training with allies; and experiences in formulating real, instead of hypothetical, military campaigns.
While there is the obvious human cost of war, advances in protective equipment and combat medical care have greatly reduced the mortality rate of soldiers, though often at the price of severe, debilitating injury. Cohen concedes that military engagements do have negative repercussions. For instance, US defense spending, immense as it is, was not funneled toward large-scale arms modernization or investments in futureproofing the military, diminishing America’s competitive edge vis-à-vis its rivals. Military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that seemingly yielded inconclusive if not counterproductive results have strained alliances with countries including Britain and France. Moreover, the past 15 years of military engagement have exacerbated tensions between the US military and civilian leadership.
Yet, despite the negative legacy commonly associated with US military engagements post9/11, they do have beneficial lessons that could be extracted to prepare for future conflicts and how one should apply hard power when conducting foreign policy. Hard power will continue to be a relevant instrument of foreign policy because the United States is endowed with the necessary resources, capabilities and capacity to generate and consistently sustain its military power.
America’s armed forces, be they nuclear, conventional or unconventional, remain the largest, most sophisticated and most experienced, even though other countries are catching up. Moreover, the availability of overseas bases around the world helps to negate, though not completely, the challenges that geography poses to the mobilization of its nimble force. The entirety of American military capabilities rests on the foundation of its economic pre-eminence, which has allowed the United States to consistently maintain its armed forces. Indeed, its defense spending was more than $600 billion last year, according to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, constituting 36 percent of total global military spending. To add context to America’s massive defense spending, it is larger than the combined defense expenditure of the next eight highest spending nations: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Britain, Japan and Germany.
Indeed, there are certain problematic aspects of American defense spending that Cohen does not address comprehensively, namely the efficiency, or perceived efficiency, in terms of the development and procurement of weapons systems and defense platforms. The costs of big-ticket defense hardware acquisition programs, including the Army’s Comanche attack helicopter and Crusader self-propelled howitzer, and the Navy’s Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyer, ballooned far beyond initial estimates and eventually underdelivered, much to the dismay of the American public and politicians. That said, economy is but a part of the grand foundation that sustains America’s military power. Other aspects, such
as the country’s relatively young demographic, manufacturing/industrial capabilities, robust political system as well as the technological capability to integrate technological innovation, provide an anchor to its vast military power.
Cohen’s work certainly does not argue that the United States should maintain its military power just for the sake of maintaining it or because it can, but because there are looming challenges to America and the stability of the global order, and its military power is an essential, although not the only, instrument to respond to these challenges.
The author separately identifies the rise of a China that seeks to impose its will and, most probably, reshape the international order in its image; the threat posed by Islamist terrorist groups; hostile or revisionist states (eg, Russia, Iran, North Korea and, to some extent, Pakistan) that aim to dominate their respective regions and are willing to use force to do so; and the ungoverned spaces or realms (cyberspace and outer space) in which various modes of unconventional warfare – cyberespionage, disinformation exercises and technological expropriation by means of cyberattacks – will intensify and evolve, which will pose unprecedented challenges to America’s security.
While this book certainly advocates the utility of hard power, it gives credit to other instruments of foreign policy when it is due, and recognizes that “American armed force, used wisely by American statecraft, cannot eliminate these challenges, but it can manage, contain, and reduce them.” Nor does it argue for reckless and heedless use of hard power.
Military power, when exercised carelessly, is a blunt and imprecise instrument that would have grave consequences for those who exercised it. More important, the author acknowledges that when measures of hard power are implemented, the United States should follow through with every ounce of commitment.
The case of America’s limited involvement in Libya, in the form of airstrikes, enforcement of a no-fly zone and the provision of “consultancy” by Special Forces units that resulted in chaos and calamity within the country, gives evidence as to what might occur when the application of force is not accompanied by strong commitment. Perseverance, planning, determination to carry out military operations for the long term, along with understanding the nature of present and future war, vision for future geopolitical challenges and ensuring popular support for military engagements, are several necessities that Cohen prescribes in the implementation of hard power.
“The Big Stick” is certainly a timely publication, considering President Donald J Trump’s rhetoric about “America first.” More important, it makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the utility of hard power in the changing strategic environment and the limits of other nonmilitary foreign policy instruments, as well as some principles on and pitfalls associated with the use of hard power.