The Return of Hard Power

December 15, 2016

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Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (Basic Books, 2016).

Part of me would like to think that Eliot Cohen’s new book, The Big Stick, is just not necessary. This is the part of me that knows that half or more of the bestselling history books are political or military history, that the news is saturated with coverage of today’s exercises in so-called hard power (the threat or use of coercive force) by states and non-state actors, and that video games, movies, and television shows depict the timelessness of hard power incessantly. I think: Surely people….um, get it?

Well, no.  They don’t. Not a lot of them, anyway. Sir Michael Howard described this larger human and intellectual phenomenon in his little treasure of a book, War and the Liberal Conscience. In almost every generation, and especially since the enlightenment when the notion of human progress and improvement became baked into our collective psyche, we yearn to see peace as the natural condition of mankind. War, we come to believe, is an aberration; an unlucky disease that, if not cured this time, will be cured the next. We know of course, that war, or at the very least the exercise of hard power by societies even in the deterrence of war, is closer to a constant condition — peace unsecured by it the far more fleeting phenomenon.

Even so, it is tempting to many different strategic thinkers to think of hard power being reduced, if not replaced, in its importance and utility on the world stage. Harvard Professor Joe Nye famously promoted the rise of “soft power” at the end of the Cold War. Any hard power practitioner of any age would have recognized Nye’s intelligent book as fundamentally correct, except in one claim: that something had so fundamentally changed that soft power could in some circumstances supplant hard power altogether. Others picked up this concept and took it further than Nye ever intended, embellishing it in an effort to downgrade the importance (or cost) of the military and its use.

Power that is “soft” is seductive — promising more sophistication, less cost, a more refined and nuanced tool, more flexibility, and less intractability. The arguments for soft power and against hard power have been welcomed by pacifists, elite political scientists socialized to chafe at muscular exertion of American power, and anyone else embarrassed by America’s use of military force since World War II. The inconclusiveness of modern military conflicts involving the American military and the seeming lack of return on the overall investment bolster arguments against hard power. These concerns were vocally taken up by the president-elect during his campaign when it came to Iraq and other conflicts.

This was a new development in American politics in the last 50 years: a leading figure on the political right (several figures actually during the campaign) displaying a discomfort with the American exercise of hard power. At the same time, though, the right did not depart from its traditional stance of supporting a strong military, at least as a domestic constituency. As radio host and Trump supporter Sean Hannity said on the night of the election, “America is going rebuild its military and probably not get involved in foreign conflicts.” I thought to myself, well, those are sort of the only kinds of conflicts the military has — those foreign kinds. If Hannity has hit upon the “Trump doctrine,” it sure is a gift to an adversarial strategist.

For two generations prior to this election, there was a reliable split on the use of American hard power that defined much of mainstream strategic thinking. It came from a different answer to a basic question: Do you believe that on balance, the muscular exertion of U.S. power in the world has left the world better off or worse off in the past 50 years? If you answered worse off, you were predominately on the left (or a libertarian perhaps) and you opposed (as Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry did through much of their Senate careers) the way American force was used in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Those who thought, even with its errors and inconclusiveness, that on balance the muscular use of American hard power has left the world better off, were generally on the right.

It seems that this paradigm might no longer apply. As such, it is good to have Eliot Cohen’s necessary corrective to both notions of soft power as being in the ascendant as well as fundamentally flawed understandings of hard power. My old mentor Leslie Gelb issued an important rejoinder to the soft power movement in his book Power Rules, but Cohen is a military historian and military strategist so he goes into much greater detail on the military front than Gelb.

President-elect Trump’s choice for secretary of defense, Gen. (ret.) James Mattis, certainly will not need this book, but others in the administration or Congress will. The president-elect campaigned to “make America great again,” but as Cohen notes, Winston Churchill cautioned the United States in 1943 that “with greatness comes responsibility.” As this book fluidly points out, the responsibility of the United States as a global leader in today’s geopolitical climate will require more, not less, U.S. hard power. Cohen states flatly that in order to do this, “America needs a substantially larger military than the one it now has.”

Cohen usefully unpacks the principal arguments made from many quarters against hard power: that the world is getting steadily more peaceful and conducive to U.S. interests, that politics or soft power can maintain its peace and protect the United States, that domestic priorities require an inward focus, or that the United States is simply bad at wielding hard power, or —  more charitably — that some of these problems we blunt our lance on are just too hard to solve.

The last of these are the most important to take on, and he does so at length. Cohen, who served in the late Bush administration and during the surge in Iraq, directly addresses the Iraq War hangover that, for eight years, has afflicted America with no sign of abatement. On last 15 years of war, Cohen warns

it is essential to reflect on these….It will be equally important not to be overwhelmed by these experiences, or to read too much into them. To draw conclusions exclusively from them would be to misunderstand America’s strategic challenges, and the strengths that American can bring to bear on them.

Cohen goes on to define that world and its geopolitical setting. America has a good hand to play. It is a vigorous, prosperous, and inventive nation blessed by wealth, demography, geopolitics, natural resources, and other enduring sources of competitive advantages. But America’s advantages and interests cannot be secured without a sober appreciation for the necessity of hard power, he argues. And more of it.

China, in the author’s view, is America’s biggest geopolitical challenge. The challenge is unlike that of the Cold War:

to convince a rising, assertive, and yet vulnerable peer of the United State that attacks on its neighbors would in the end not only fail, but endanger the regime that launched them. And that will only be accomplished by an American force structure, alliance system, and mobilization capacity that makes such attacks self-evidently unwise.

It is hard for me to disagree. China will use hard power to exert geopolitical pressure that will advantage its strategy and hamper the strategic freedom of other East Asian nations. Witness the Chinese fortifications in the South China Sea as the most prominent manifestation of Beijing’s intent.

Cohen explores the hard power dimensions of the long war against Islamic militarism and jihadists; the threats from dangerous status such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea; as well as the use of force in the world’s ungoverned space and the global commons. When one looks at the world as it is rather than how one may want it to be and has a better understanding of the logic of hard power within these geopolitical challenges, Cohen’s prescriptions make sense. Despite his opposition to the president-elect, I hope the valuable strategic analysis in this book will be taken up by the new administration. In a world in which political dialogue is built on the gross simplification of policy, Cohen’s book shows there is a lot of room for the adroit use of hard power in between sitting in garrison flush with political largesse and being tied down in an intractable conflict that syphons off American strength and power to no good end.

For the cognoscenti in the field who actually have to implement the building and wielding of U.S. hard power (many of whom Cohen has trained as students over the past decades), he has heretical thoughts on the process of strategy — most of which should probably be tried. He is against having too finely articulated a grand strategy, saying it “runs on the rocks when it confronts the power of accident, contingency, and randomness that pervade human affairs.” To combat the somewhat mechanistic, formulaic, and highly bureaucratic current process he suggests that “the United States should begin by discarding its current array of high level strategy documents.”

Instead, he suggests that the United States should consider setting defense spending as a percentage of GDP and insists that American strategy should have balance, flexibility, and “a fundamental acceptance of uncertainty — an acceptance that must be articulated to the American people.” He continues, arguing that “a much more concrete adaptation to uncertainty is investment in mobilization as a strategic concept.” In a poke at the current structure of the professional military, he advocates thinking about the deployment of large numbers of lower tech systems and people. This could

require a difficult adjustment for a military used to the idea of small numbers of high-performance platforms manned by elaborately trained operators, commanded by officers who have learned their craft during a slow and careful ascent through the ranks.

In the final part of The Big Stick, Cohen advises the abandonment of the so-called Weinberger doctrine on the use of force as being too precise, too guaranteed, and too restrictive for the fluid nature of strategy and America’s role in the world.  Instead, “American strategists should build in a large and explicit margin of error, in terms of the forces that may be needed, the time operations may take, and the price that may have to be paid.”

This places a large burden on America’s public leaders to constantly explain — indeed sell — the more assertive use of American hard power in the world than certainly has been seen in the past eight years. They will need Cohen’s arguments to do so.


John Hillen, a combat veteran, was Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs in the Bush administration.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. William A. Tanner

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8 thoughts on “The Return of Hard Power

  1. Why can no one get “speak softly, and carry a big stick” right? We seem either to “speak loudly and carry a big stick” or “speak softly and carry a small stick,” neither one of which has ever worked that well. And it’s not just the size of the stick–the kind of stick needs to match up with the content of the speaking. Too hard or too subtle, I guess.

    A second point: I was working as a military attaché when the Bush II administration took office. Their initial policy instructions, literally: Do exactly opposite of what you’ve been doing. This was conveyed to me word-for-word by a DASD, as I recall, who then told me that every new administration had to learn that they faced the same constraints and opportunities as their predecessors, and that their predecessors were not the imbeciles they believed. Ditching “the current array of high-level strategy documents” seems to me a similarly mindless approach. The people who wrote them weren’t imbeciles, and the constraints and opportunities to which they reacted weren’t imaginary.

    1. Our near peer rivals use alternative sticks. Russia cries loud but carries a small stick. China speaks softly but carries a big stick. Our happy middle is OK. Nothing should change in our approach.

      Use of hard power will be matched by the opponents. War is not just bricks and mortar. Cyber is very much part of it.

      Looks like our near peer rivals’ biggest weapons is our (kneejerk) reaction.

  2. A couple of points to counter:

    1) Whenever hard power is used stupidly, it automatically discredits hard power in the minds of both its natural critics and opponents, as well as the general voting population. See: Viet Nam; Operation Iraqi Freedom. And it’s not even a proportional, one for one sort of formula. Rather, it’s more like the old saying in business that “bad news travels fast”, and one happy customer will say nice things about your company to one potential customer, while one pissed off customer will tell a hundred potential customers how rotten your company is. In today’s realm of worldwide social media, one pissed off customer will write a bad review on Yelp that comes up first in virtually every Google search thereafter, to millions of potential customers.

    Likewise, one il-advised use of hard power will cripple its use for a generation thereafter. Throughout the 90s we kept hearing “Viet Nam syndrome” as an excuse to do nothing when bad guys were coming after us (see: Al Qaeda).

    So the moral of the story is, speak softly, carry a big stick, but only pull it out and beat your enemy senseless with it when the potential gain is worth the pain that will naturally come from using it.

  3. The comments are great, and the book is probably worth reading. From my standpoint (business, history), the diagnostic is relatively simple: The (US) military is professionally competent and capable, most of the time. It is the political level (i.e. State or WH principally) which is broadly incompetent (and keeps being replaced every four years by more incompetent/clueless ignorami. And this has been going on for the past 55 years I have been watching, from the accountant McNamara, who was happy that “67% of meals served to the frontline troops are hot meals” to Madeleine Albright wondering why the “wonderful military” wasn’t used more, etc.
    The result is that the clueless politicians at best leave the decision-making to the policy people (academics, etc.) who are mostly happy to write more strategy papers… If this were a major business, the top echelons would be all fired (and banned for life). Conclusion: Hard Power is back, but must be used wisely, i.e. not to satisfy (political) whims and fancies, or to please a client state, or whatever. Less Grand Strategy, more Pragmatic Analysis.

  4. I have purchased the book and can’t wait to read it. However, the review stating that Cohen holds that we should no longer employ forces per the Weinberger Doctrine. We tried that in OIF and thus, I would argue, we have the mess we encountered and are still operating with. If appropriate amount of forces had been committed I believe we may have been able to avoid the insurrection. Forces that the Chief of Staff of the Army had stated would be necessary to achieve our objectives in Iraq. An estimate that I am sure that the Sec State at the time would agree with. Additionally, the SECDEF clearly abrogated the Secretary of State’s role in being the main organization of American Diplomacy. In fact, the almost the entire “post -war” recovery process was mishandled and mismanaged by a department that is tasked to subordinate to politics and had no real experience it the efforts it was undertaking. It seems that the US forgot the models of successful recovery efforts that we had at the end of WWII, or at least forgot to adapt them to the current situation. I think the crux of the problem is that we have turned von Clausewitz’s maxim from “war is politics by other means,” to “politics is war by other means.” I look forward to Cohen’s views on the subject.

    1. We had and still have the mess we have in Iraq because we invaded Iraq. The fundamental error was not in how we handled the post-invasion process .. the fundamental error we made was in invading Iraq and toppling the government. Taking out Saddam Hussein was the equivalent of kicking out the bottom of a ladder and then being surprised when the ladder, and all who stood on it, came tumbling down into a massive heap of failure.

      It continues to amaze me that there are people who still believe invading Iraq was a smart thing to do, and our only problem was figuring out how to deal with Iraq thereafter.