The Big Stick

The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force


By Eliot A. Cohen

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“Speak softly and carry a big stick” Theodore Roosevelt famously said in 1901, when the United States was emerging as a great power. It was the right sentiment, perhaps, in an age of imperial rivalry but today many Americans doubt the utility of their global military presence, thinking it outdated, unnecessary or even dangerous.

In The Big Stick, Eliot A. Cohen-a scholar and practitioner of international relations-disagrees. He argues that hard power remains essential for American foreign policy. While acknowledging that the US must be careful about why, when, and how it uses force, he insists that its international role is as critical as ever, and armed force is vital to that role.

Cohen explains that American leaders must learn to use hard power in new ways and for new circumstances. The rise of a well-armed China, Russia’s conquest of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, and the spread of radical Islamist movements like ISIS are some of the key threats to global peace. If the United States relinquishes its position as a strong but prudent military power, and fails to accept its role as the guardian of a stable world order we run the risk of unleashing disorder, violence and tyranny on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The US is still, as Madeleine Albright once dubbed it, “the indispensable nation.”




Why indeed? Why should Americans take on a web of entangling alliances and responsibility for maintaining order, including through the use of force, in the world beyond their own borders? To most Americans from the middle through to the end of the twentieth century, the answers to this question seemed self-evident. To do otherwise would mean not only to acquiesce in civilization-shattering horrors, but to jeopardize their own prosperity and freedoms. This was the logic that led both Roosevelts to favor intervention in the world wars; it was the logic that led Americans, even many who were deeply reluctant to do so, to accept the burdens of world leadership after 1945.

Today, as those who carry with them personal memories of World War II disappear from our midst, the case is no longer self-evident. And even if it were, it would warrant a reexamination. If it is to be acted upon, a conviction that America’s foreign policy requires commitments to deploy and use force overseas should reflect live belief, not dead dogma.

Let us begin with examining why at least two generations of Americans came to believe that theirs should be a global power; considering the arguments for retreating from, or at least ratcheting down that role; and then asking what the arguments are on the contrary for maintaining it.

On September 6, 1943, Harvard University hosted a special convocation to award an honorary degree to Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain. He spoke first in Sanders Theatre, and then before an audience that included 6,000 undergraduates in uniform, and almost as many civilians in the open space between Widener Library and Memorial Church. The Harvard Crimson reporter thought he had heard Churchill offering some warnings about postwar isolationism in the United States. Actually, the British prime minister’s speech had a larger meaning.

Churchill, recently returned from a difficult conference in Quebec at which the decisions for the invasion of Europe were forged, had a simple and pressing message. He began by noting that twice in his lifetime, the United States had had to send vast armies overseas.

There was no use in saying “We don’t want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old.” There was no use in that.

Why in Churchill’s view did the Americans find themselves committed abroad?

The price of greatness is responsibility . . . one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilised world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes . . .

He then turned directly to his audience. “You cannot stop,” he said.

There is no halting-place at this point. We have now reached a stage in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be world anarchy or world order.1

Churchill summoned the United States to not only engage in the world, but assume responsibility for setting the rules of international politics and maintaining order. It was no accident, moreover, that he addressed not only the middle-aged and elderly members of Congress, but the thousands of young men in uniform at a university that produced more than its share of America’s leaders. Churchill made his appeal to America’s youth, and he understood that although leadership might take many forms, military power would be chief among them.

The United States, as the half-American prime minister knew better than most, had never been truly isolated from the rest of the world. Every one of the great global wars between Britain and France from the end of the seventeenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth had, in one way or another, engaged the American colonies and then the infant United States. Two of those wars—the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution—started there. As a young and growing power, the United States employed force globally as most countries have—to protect its interests. During the early years of the republic it twice sent fleets to the Mediterranean to punish the piratical states of the North African littoral and protect its commerce. When Commodore Perry and his flotilla knocked on the doors of a closed Japan in 1853 and again in 1854, they did so in pursuit of American interests. Through the Monroe Doctrine, the United States gradually levered European powers out of Latin America, confronting even Great Britain during the Venezuelan crises of 1895 and 1902. And, of course, it employed military power to wrest much of the continent from Mexico in 1846, threatened to use more to evict French influence from that state after the Civil War, and at the end of the nineteenth century forcefully stripped Spain of its colonial possessions in the Caribbean and the Philippines. In the First World War it engaged in conflict at least in part because of attacks on its shipping, but also because of a conviction that a changed balance of power in Europe would be inimical to its interests.

But all these uses of force were, with the possible exception of the intervention in the European conflict in 1917, designed to promote American interests as narrowly understood. Until 1914 even Theodore Roosevelt, proponent of a navy on a par with the Royal Navy and a larger, modernized army, had not yet conceived of the United States as the guarantor of the international system—although at that point, alarmed at the likely consequences of German domination in Europe, he favored an early entry into the Great War. The isolationism of the 1930s, far from being consonant with the American tradition in foreign policy, was more a historically anomalous twitch of withdrawal from international power politics in the wake of disillusionment with what was, until then, the second costliest war in American history after the Civil War. The norm had been American strategic engagement in the world but for limited interests. What was at stake in Churchill’s speech, however, and in the decisions of the immediate postwar period, was something far more expansive and consequential.

The United States took up Churchill’s challenge. In the wake of the desolation of Europe and Asia resulting from World War II, the rise of communism, a virulent ideology hostile to American principles, and the fatal weakening of its strongest ally, Great Britain, the United States was impelled to take on the duty that Churchill flung before it—the accretion of massive military power not to defend merely American prerogatives or interests, but rather to maintain global order. The United States government did not make that decision easily or swiftly in the years immediately after World War II. But by the end of the Korean War it had become clear that the United States would remain a global military power, locked in permanent, peacetime alliances, and using its strength to sustain an order that it was painfully rebuilding in the aftermath of the catastrophe of more than a decade of interstate war. Even after Vietnam, despite some retrenchment (the so-called Nixon Doctrine, which placed greater burdens on local allies to defend themselves), the United States sustained its role as guarantor. Indeed, under President Jimmy Carter, it actually expanded its military commitments in the increasingly important Persian Gulf. Under Ronald Reagan it deepened its involvement in European security, rebuilding American forces that had been depleted during the Vietnam War, and preparing to deploy advanced theater nuclear weapons there as well.2

The American consensus behind playing the dominant role in the world remained intact beyond the conclusion of the Cold War at the end of the ninth decade of the twentieth century. For a time it appeared that the US commitment to using force to maintain a peaceful global system would continue indefinitely. The United States won a short, smashing, and astoundingly cheap war in 1991 against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had invaded the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait. In the run-up to the war, President George H. W. Bush suggested the creation of a “new world order” maintained by the force of American arms as a possible objective. In its wake, he more triumphantly affirmed it.

Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. . . . The Gulf war put this new world to its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test.3

In 1998, Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state of his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton, took a similar view proclaiming the United States “the indispensable nation.” The Clinton administration waged two short, nearly bloodless (from the American point of view) wars in the Balkans in 1995 and 1999, and periodically administered punishment to the fractious Iraqi rump state still controlled by Saddam Hussein. All things considered, the military power required for world order was cheap, drawing as the United States could on the arsenals built in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and even before. The cost of using this power was limited in blood and treasure—fewer than 150 battle deaths in the 1991 Gulf War, for example—its efficacy remarkable. Hard power, and ample quantities of it, in support of being the global sheriff seemed a good bargain.4

It no longer appeared so in the early years of the twenty-first century. Ten years to the day after President George H. W. Bush’s first proclamation of a new world order, during his son’s presidency, airplanes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists plowed into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. In the aftermath of these attacks, the United States engaged in three grueling wars: in Afghanistan against the Taliban; in Iraq against the regime of Saddam Hussein; and then against a variety of Sunni and Shia guerrilla and terrorist movements, and globally, affiliates of and successors to al-Qaeda. This period saw, as well, the rise of China as a great power. Unlike the Soviet Union, China had a dynamic economy that might in time surpass even that of the United States in size, and which was building a military to match. American statesmen during this time contemplated problems—the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats, in particular, but also a revanchist Russia’s brandishing a nuclear arsenal while brutalizing several of its neighbors, former states of the Soviet Union—that might only be contained or remedied with conflicts far bloodier than those in Yugoslavia in the 1990s or even in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. And although militant Islamic movements posed a widespread threat, including to the continental United States, American leaders and their society could see no coherent ideology comparable to Nazism or communism that could threaten American institutions or offer an alternative to the basic formula of liberal economics and democratic politics underpinned by religious tolerance and the rule of law.

In this context, then, the first-order question has reopened: why American military power? Or, rather, why American military power for any purpose other than self-defense and the pursuit of national interests as narrowly defined? Why should not the United States content itself with a nuclear arsenal to deter attack, an air force to protect its skies, a navy to protect its commerce, and a small army to defend its shores and serve as the nucleus for expansion should circumstances warrant it? This, after all, was the traditional American posture. One could argue that the United States should draw a line under the period 1940–2000. For two generations it had maintained a liberal world order by force of arms. Now that the two great totalitarian ideologies that threatened order were crushed, however, should it not henceforth bear arms only in its own defense, and in support of its own interests? Such a position is not isolationist per se—no one suggests that the United States should stop trading globally, withdraw from the United Nations, or unilaterally disarm. It is merely a return to pre-1914 traditions of American statecraft.

Such arguments have been made in recent years, in five distinct variants: the contention that the world is becoming a more peaceful place and hence not in need of policing; the assertion that the logic of power politics will maintain the peace in ways that it has not in the past; the suggestion that soft power can replace hard power; the proposition that the United States is simply incompetent at using hard power and would do better not to try; and the argument that more urgent domestic priorities require a period of inward focus rather than external activity. All deserve serious examination.

The first and most optimistic argument has it that—despite the headlines that so often highlight mayhem and massacre—the world is an increasingly peaceful place. This runs against the grain for students of military history, who naturally tend toward pessimism, taking a dark view of humanity’s proclivity to use violence, and doubting its ability to learn from its mistakes. But perhaps they are wrong, ignoring hard data to the contrary.

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University, certainly believes so. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he argues that the use of violence has declined precipitously throughout human history, and that this decline reflects changes in society and indeed conceptions of what it is to be human that make the trend well-nigh irreversible. A variety of changes “allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes,” he concludes.5

Pinker is unquestionably right in documenting the decline of violence in the very long sweep of human history. Whereas anthropologists in the early twentieth century liked to portray primitive men and women as generally peaceful, their less starry-eyed colleagues of today accept that tribal life was often extremely brutal and bloody. Even a cursory familiarity with the Middle Ages makes one understand that violent death was far more prevalent then than today, not just through crime, but as a matter of calculated policy. In the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan there stands on a picturesque hill a ruined city, Shahr-e Gholghola; it is known to the locals as the City of Silence (and alternatively, the City of Screams), because in 1221 Genghis Khan put its inhabitants to death in a three-day orgy of killing to avenge the death of his grandson. The conqueror Tamerlane left behind pyramids of freshly severed heads—over a bloody career, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them—to make clear to all who stood in his path the penalty for resistance or rebellion. The Crusaders, their horses’ fetlocks stained red with blood, rode into Jerusalem in 1099, making their way to the center of a city carpeted with the bodies of Muslim and Jewish defenders and their families.6

In many ways, violence has declined in most, if not quite all, societies—there are fewer homicides, and there is less frequent war. Indeed, despite what many believe, there is actually much less gun violence in the United States now than twenty years ago. The causes for this decline in violence within societies and among them are multiple, Pinker argues: the rise of states that can maintain law and order; changing norms with regard to the use of force to include a growing reverence for human life; the declining utility of force as a way of acquiring money, possessions, or other goods (to include, in the case of men, sexual favors) for both individuals and groups; and the rising utility of other means—chiefly economic acquisition—for achieving the same; the global spread of democratic norms; and the extension of rights beyond adult males to women, children, and even to animals.7

Pinker’s argument is the most serious, extensive, and scholarly of many such. Many of the trends and much of the data that he presents are true and support his views, although the older the statistic the more questionable it often becomes. And over the long sweep of time, Pinker is correct. As he admits, the world wars of the twentieth century pose something of a challenge to optimists such as himself. But, he insists, “the enduring moral trend of the [twentieth] century was a violence-averse humanism that originated in the Enlightenment, became overshadowed by counter-Enlightenment ideologies wedded to agents of growing destructive power, and regained momentum in the wake of World War II.” To be sure, some of his use of statistics is problematic, to include his inflation of earlier centuries’ death statistics by including nonviolent deaths (the Indian famines of the nineteenth century, for example, and the wiping out of Native Americans by disease in the sixteenth through the nineteenth). Moreover, his focusing on the number of deaths as a proportion of total population size is calculated to support his argument by diminishing somewhat the absolute magnitude of slaughter during the twentieth century. He relies as well on quantitative studies of the numbers of wars per century that count a nasty border conflict in Latin America and World War I as one war each, a rule that by its nature misleads.8

But more to the heart of the problem, Pinker, like social theorist and Stanford researcher Francis Fukuyama in his earlier famous argument about the end of history, has to view the slaughter of the twentieth century—the world wars, not to mention the massacres committed by totalitarian regimes of left and right—as a kind of blip, explosions of violence that owed a great deal to the randomness of circumstances, the unfortunate coming together of particular events and particular leaders that do not, however, invalidate the general trend. As Pinker freely admits, there is something heartless about brushing aside the deaths of tens of millions in the world wars with reference to an overall benign trend. But leaving the question of callousness aside, the world wars nonetheless present three deeper problems with his argument.9

The first is that Pinker might just as easily have written his book in 1900, for the trends he describes were already well in place then. But he could not have in any way anticipated the mayhem that a child born in that year would then have witnessed by the time he was forty-five. Or, put another way, if the world’s randomness is such that it can produce slaughter on such an epic scale, why should we today be any less fearful of it in today’s world—a world with far better tools for inflicting mass death than those available in the early twentieth century? In any way you care to measure it, ours is a more complicated world than that of 1900—over two hundred independent states rather than mere dozens, for example. But more complicated systems are more prone to unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents than simple ones.10

A second problem is that by introducing randomness as an explanation, Pinker has created a proposition that cannot be logically disproven. If the twenty-first century turns out to be generally peaceful, Pinker could claim to be right; if, however, it includes a decade of war that takes a hundred million lives, he could set that down, too, to randomness and still be right. It is an enviable debating position, but not convincing. “Randomness” is a cop-out: our lives are filled with randomness, but that does not diminish human responsibility or our ability to react to unpredictable circumstances in ways that shape them. Big choices, to include the United States’ decision not to intervene in the European conflict until 1917, or the British and French governments’ decision to appease Hitler in the 1930s, had real consequences.

Third, interestingly, the one explanation that Pinker does not explore as a cause for the limiting or controlling of violence is statecraft, the application of political and military judgment to particular circumstances. Yet politicians must decide, and most of us believe, that choices have consequences as well as that skill in conceiving and conducting policy can—not always, but often—make the difference between war and peace, between a swiftly concluded victory or a prolonged and painful defeat. Pinker’s is a social scientist’s, not a historian’s argument; it falls prey to the rationalist’s fascination with structural causes, long-term trends, and impersonal forces. He is right that wars seem to have decreased in number, as has mayhem in general (though not in particular—see the Great Lakes region of Africa, the devastated countries of Syria and Iraq, the ruined lands of eastern Ukraine). But there is reason to believe that contingent events, and the deliberate action of one state above all—the United States—has had something to do with the relative peacefulness of the world after 1945, even as the action of Great Britain as the world’s dominant maritime power had a similar effect after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It follows that an American decision to stop acting that way could yield a far nastier twenty-first century than the one Pinker expects.

One may doubt that human beings are turning into a nicer lot, however, and still believe that the need for American power to maintain world order has diminished. Indeed, the second case against American predominance could be described as “pacific realism.” It takes the hard-headed view that human beings and states are rational, self-interested, and amoral. In the world of contemporary social science, the term realist is used to describe political scientists who have a certain common understanding of international politics: that it is dominated by states, and that state behavior internationally can be understood in terms of either a drive for security, or a drive for power over other states; that the domestic constitution of states has little to do with their behavior abroad; and that responsible statecraft sees its duties overwhelmingly in terms of prudently furthering security, rather than advancing particular ideals.11

Despite what one might expect, some realists these days are a fairly cheerful lot, at least in terms of how they view world order. They believe that the United States may have been prudent to exert power abroad so as to beat back Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. These states were mortal threats not because of their pernicious ideas, but because of their ambition to conquer and absorb other states, and particularly the productive heartland of Europe, one of the great engines of the global economy. The threat to global order created first by Germany and Japan, and then after World War II by the Soviet Union and its allies, was properly met by a United States that led a countervailing coalition. In time, being richer and more advanced, the United States and its allies prevailed.

In the realists’ view, the world having resolved itself into a more familiar pattern of competing powers, the United States has far less need to meddle in matters abroad. The natural logic of the balance of power, to include the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” will naturally stabilize international politics: a rising China will be balanced by a coalition of its apprehensive neighbors, as will Iran or Russia in their respective regions. At the most, a gentle pressure on the scales from the United States acting as an “offshore balancer” will restore equipoise to international politics. A more assertive American foreign policy is not only unnecessary, but possibly dangerous. A typical product of this way of thinking is an article suitably titled “America Unhinged,” by John Mearsheimer. In his view, the United States has never been more secure than it is today. And while declaring that he is not an isolationist, he sympathizes with that position: “If the case for isolationism was powerful before Pearl Harbor, it is even more compelling today.” The chief threat to the United States that Mearsheimer detects is the misguided behavior of its interventionist foreign policy elites, hence the title of the article.12

Realists often argue, further, that nuclear weapons will have a profoundly dampening effect on conflict. Hydrogen bombs are the great equalizer of international politics. Their gradual spread should not be rejected but welcomed by politicians and publics, because they inhibit traditional forms of aggression. As one analogy famously has it, international relations becomes like a room crowded with individuals severely affected by arthritis—no jostling or shoving, because it will hurt the aggressor as much as the victim. The more states that have nuclear weapons, the less the need for American intervention abroad. Since states, no matter what their forms of government, are deeply rational, they will deter one another from the most gross forms of violence that have, in the past, preceded all-out war.

Finally, the realists argue, a change in the nature of economics has diminished the utility of force. In the bad old days, conquest meant the acquisition of material resources—slaves, coal mines, and agricultural land. But in a world in which one of the most prosperous societies, Singapore, exists on a tiny, sandy, hot, and humid island devoid of just about any usable material asset, what is the point? In a world in which value is created by information technology and higher forms of organization, in which labor is increasingly creative, and raw materials a readily available commodity, what is the point of seizing territory?

The realists’ argument begins with the advantage of a semantic preemptive strike: if those who hold these views are “realists,” after all, those who hold contrary points of view are, by definition, unrealistic. Their contentions have, moreover, the great attraction of simplicity, allowing students of international affairs to overlook the messiness of day-to-day politics and the ambiguities of culture and contingent events. But they are problematic as well. They disregard the role of personalities and regime type; they also put little weight on the importance of nonstate actors, and even less on ideology.

The most fundamental principle of contemporary realism is that all states are alike, that they have interests, and will use power to protect and further those interests. But common sense and even a slight knowledge of history suggests that such judgments are true only up to a point. Hitler was not Bismarck with bad manners: his aims, his methods, his tolerance of risk, and his willingness to kill put him in a different place. Indeed, he benefited from the inability of his English and French counterparts in the 1930s to comprehend the scale on which he planned on playing a role in the world, or his intentions to enslave and kill. In more recent times, any Iraqi government would likely have viewed Kuwait as a problem for insisting on repayment of war debts run up during the war with Iran, and quite possibly as an illegitimate state that should logically be under Baghdad’s rule. In 1990, however, it took a Saddam Hussein to seize it by force, and wager his country’s welfare on a war with the United States to retain it.


  • "Insightful."—Kori Schake, Foreign Affairs
  • "A balanced and sensitive analysis of America's military record since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001...Mr. Cohen's lucid book is a must-read for anyone interested in military might--and how it can help us maintain the edge we need in this treacherous age."—Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal
  • "Even if you disagree with Mr. Cohen... it's easy to spend time in his company. He writes thoughtfully, methodically, with unfussy erudition... an unfashionable, unabashed and - above all - unwavering case for the use of force in the service of American security and ideals."—Jennifer Senior, New York Times
  • "When one looks at the world as it is rather than how one may want it to be...Cohen's prescriptions make sense... I hope the valuable strategic analysis in this book will be taken up by the new administration."—John Hillen, War on the Rocks

On Sale
Apr 10, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Eliot A. Cohen

About the Author

Eliot A. Cohen is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Robert E. Osgood Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Formerly a counselor of the Department of State, his books include The Big Stick and Supreme Command. He lives in the Washington area. 

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