My Weekly Reader 29 June 2017.

A pessimist’s analysis of the American position in the world might run something like the following.  The United States is the world’s only global power.  (As such, it performs many of the vital military, political, and economic functions of a world government.)  It faces a host of regional powers bent on disrupting the global order created through American leadership after the Second World War.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and radical Islamist jihad all offer examples of the failure of military power as a solution to challenges.[1]  Moreover, the foundations of American power have been cracked by changes in America’s society and economy.  Liberal internationalist elites ignored the human costs of their policies until they inspired a backlash under the last three presidential administrations.  Domestic politics have come to center on divisive identity politics and the expansion of entitlements (including the entitlement to not be taxed) beyond what the traditional economy can support.  In light of these grim facts, America should shift from “hard” (lawyers, guns, and money) power to “soft” power (diplomacy, humanitarianism); America should seek to lead from behind by encouraging allies to assume their responsibilities; and America should do its nation building at home.

Eliot A. Cohen takes sharp issue with this point of view.[2]  “The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century.”  Even over the short-run, the United States faces complex challenges: China’s rise as an economic and military power in a key region for American interests; an aggrieved Russia trying to punch above its weigh while it still can; and a transnational radical Islam that will continue to inspire local insurgencies.  These quarrels may have to be resolved in places as different as the high seas, the anarchic peripheries around or between failing states, and even outer space.  So far as he’s concerned, micro-lending isn’t going to cut it.  “Hard” power will have to be at least part of the response.

Cohen is equally persuasive, alarming, and rough-edged in the rest of the book.  Asking whether America possesses the means to use force where needed, Cohen answers with a qualified “Yes.”  His deepest concern lies in the nature and quality of thinking about the use of the instruments of power, rather than about the quality and quantity of those instruments.  One danger springs from what he sees as the capture of strategic thinking by process-oriented bureaucrats.  Plans, working papers, studies, and a deep dive into minutiae introduce rigidity and myopia into thinking about the long-term strategic environment.  In short, dopes have a large voice in the use of military power.  Another concern arises from our public discourse on these issues.  The United States, says Cohen, needs to do some serious thinking and debating on its relationship to the outside world and on how and when to use military force.  Not only must Americans recognize the need for force, they will have to accept that the country is in for a series of long wars with no easy resolution, let alone parades.  In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, decision-makers are too much concerned to define the “end state” of any military action.  Get in, wreck stuff, get out defined the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.  Neither resolved the basic problem.  Here Cohen could profit from a review of the post-WWII experience.[3]

Left largely unaddressed is the problem of paying for all this power.  It seems presumptuous to believe that Americans will prefer national security to Social Security.

[1] Hence, the Obama administration recognized that the American people opposed any new war in the Middle East.  From this perspective, a deal to slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made a lot of sense.

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

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/06/29/soldiers-become-governors/

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