Hard Truths About Soft Power

Review: Eliot Cohen, 'The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force'

• January 15, 2017 4:50 am


"Can then force, broadly considered, be regarded as an inevitable factor in international adjustments and in the maintenance of the general international balances … May it not be that by confounding force with war we are simply ignoring a fact of not only general but universal existence?" Alfred T. Mahan, the first great American military strategist, wrote that in 1912, two years before the First World War. Perhaps that protracted and gruesome struggle would have dimmed Mahan's enthusiasm for war, but one doubts that even the brutal face of war would have changed his belief in the necessity of force, especially to avoid war.

Eliot Cohen's new book, The Big Stick, is very much in the spirit of Mahan, who, fittingly, was a friend and subordinate of Theodore Roosevelt. Cohen argues for the enduring importance of hard power, the global role America must play to maintain stability and ensure freedom of movement, the need for new and better thinking about military strategy, and the importance of individuals more than institutions or theories in determining military outcomes. In a despairing age, he also makes a case for optimism about the United States's economic, academic, demographic, and, military prospects.

Most interesting for the general public is Cohen's analysis of the last 15 years of war in the Middle East, starting in 2002 in Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, in which Cohen served. Like all good historians, Cohen acknowledges the complexity of the situation: the many actors, relationships, decisions, theories, and government agencies involved, and where each succeeded or broke down. And he makes clear that there is plenty of blame to go around for failures, with special blame for inefficient and inflexible government programs like the Defense Department's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and the State Department-staffed Provincial Reconstruction Teams.  According to Cohen, these programs failed miserably at planning and executing a post-war Iraq. Still, Cohen's focus on describing the situation in all its complexity does not preclude him from drawing conclusions: He states in unequivocal terms that the Iraq War was a mistake in conception and execution. While interesting in its own right, this chapter comes across strangely disconnected from the rest of the book, which is an analysis of threats facing America today and our ability to counter them. It's possible that Cohen saw an opportunity to weigh in on a topic that still generates controversy and not a small amount of bitterness from those who served in the Bush administration.

Foremost in terms of current threats is China. The country's great power status and unparalleled investment in its military seem to portend a coming showdown with the United States. Cohen describes a fundamental incompatibility between the United States and China: The U.S. defends an international order of equal national states governed by the rule of law, whereas China would like to be at the top of an international hierarchy characterized by deference from "lesser" states. Viewed in this light, the American foreign policy community's hope for peaceful coexistence with a rising China seems naïve. Western foreign policy experts have failed to understand China, describing the China they wish to see rather than the one that exists for fear of straining relations. Cohen criticizes this tendency throughout the book—he argues that discussing the possibility of war with China does not make it any more likely to happen. The Chinese, he points out, have no such compunction in their discussions about grand strategy, regularly describing the United States as a "major threat."

Cohen goes on to describe more fundamental differences between Chinese and Western strategic thinking. The Chinese approach, developed from the time of Sun Tzu, is "indirect, psychological, rooted in camouflage, deception, and patience." This style of warfare is unfamiliar and threatening for Americans, but Cohen sees Western military strategy, defined by Clausewitz, as superior. "Energy and mass," when combined with adaptability, win the day over cold calculation.

Still, Cohen concludes that war with China is unlikely, primarily because both powers prefer to avoid one. This is less the case with Islamist terrorists, who pose a second, smaller threat to America. Here Cohen advocates more Cold War-style tactics, such as propaganda and indirect efforts to exacerbate conflicts within jihadist groups.

Russia, Iran, and North Korea constitute a third and more immediate threat. All three are controlled by authoritarian, nuclear-armed, ideologically driven regimes that compensate for internal weakness through nationalism. Countering these states requires a different strategy than countering China, Cohen asserts. Each country seeks to dominate its region, so the United States must tailor regional responses, reassuring allies by maintaining a credible nuclear umbrella and military presence, and employing pre-emptive strikes in the event of existential threats.

The final threat Cohen considers is ungoverned spaces—territorial, cyber, maritime, and outer space. In addressing the challenges of ungoverned spaces, Cohen focuses on the conflict in Syria and the broader question of "responsibility to protect." Ungoverned territory is generally defined by weak states that are unable to police their entire countries, creating "anarchy at the periphery." These situations invite intervention, most recently by Russia and Iran in Syria, where those countries saw an opportunity to advance their interests and knock the United States on its heels. Cohen argues:

The term ungoverned is always qualified. International agreements cover various forms of conduct in the great commons of mankind; but ultimately, the question is whether anyone can effectively police those agreements. In the end, that comes down to the United States.

In this respect Cohen places himself squarely in the internationalist—and further, what some pejoratively call "neoconservative"—position. Yet his position isn't as controversial as that label implies. He argues that U.S. intervention to mitigate "anarchy on the periphery" must be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account U.S. interests and values. Humanitarian interventionists such as Samantha Power, he says, are misguided by relatively minor post-Cold War conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. Most U.S. intervention has been less successful, not least because the United States failed to commit the necessary resources and time—often decades—to avoid an outcome like the 2011 adventurism in Libya. Even worse, Cohen says, are European "bleeding hearts" who refuse to commit military resources to conflict zones, instead showering those regions with money and aid. Such well-intentioned actions often supplant local efforts to build infrastructure and create a vacuum of experience and wealth when international aid workers leave.

In 1946, Winston Churchill remarked to Harry Truman that he wished the eagle on the U.S. presidential seal could swivel its head between the olive branches in one talon and the arrows of war in the other. Cohen's book makes a strong case that America has the prudence, intelligence, and courage to turn its gaze from one to the other as circumstances demand.

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