Forceful Engagement: Rethinking the Role of Military Power in US Global Policy


Carl Conetta

Project on Defense Alternatives

December 2008




The limits of force


During the past ten years (and especially since the 2001 attacks) there has been a remarkable surge in US military spending and operations abroad. On balance, the costs have outweighed the benefits.


Despite initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, an over-reliance on military instruments has weakened America’s armed forces, unsettled its alliances, spurred anti-Americanism, and prompted balancing behavior on the part of China and Russia. Global terrorist activity has increased, not decreased. And there is no real end in sight for US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, instability is spreading to other countries and so are US military operations.


The cost-benefit balance sheet indicates that the United States is using its armed forces and military power beyond the limit of their utility. Thus, the nation finds itself paying more and more for less and less security.


The new administration seeks to place greater emphasis on diplomacy. Even more fundamental, however, is the need to roll back America’s over-reliance on military instruments. This is essential to the revival of America’s reputation and leadership position. What most divides the United States from those it hopes to lead is the issue of when, how, and how much to use force and the armed forces.


The Lure of Primacy


For many American policy leaders, the advent of US military predominance in 1992 seemed to provide the leverage with which America might enhance its security, preserve its leadership position, and advance a new vision of world order. This implied a reorientation of the military from a reactive “defense and deterrence” stance to a more proactive one. Thus, the willingness to use force increased. So did the roles and missions of the US armed forces. And America’s war objectives grew steadily more ambitious.


Beyond seeking to deter and defend against aggression, there has been since 1992 an increasing emphasis on using military instruments to try to actually “prevent the emergence” of threats and “shape” the strategic environment. In the past, these functions were largely the job of the State Department. But the Pentagon has been increasingly intruding on the provinces of State. And diplomatic functions have been increasingly militarized. Thus, “coercive diplomacy” today plays a bigger role relative to traditional “quid pro quo” diplomacy.


With the demise of the Soviet threat, Pentagon planners refocused defense preparation on a broad array of lesser threats and possible future ones. They lowered the bar on the plausibility of threat scenarios and brought ”worst case” scenarios to the fore. This approach was supposed to help immunize the United States against unpleasant surprises. Instead, it dissipated America’s resources and attention. Thus, when the 9/11 attacks came, America’s defenses were mostly preoccupied with other concerns.


Prevention and Environment Shaping


The post-Cold War focus on potential worst case scenarios also increased the attraction of taking “preventive” military action. Such action implies treating adversaries (or potential adversaries) who do not pose an imminent threat of attack as though they do. Our recent experience—with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea— shows that this approach can make matters worse. The Iraq case also suggests that preventive military strategies overestimate our capacity to control war outcomes and underestimate the costs and consequences of going to war.


“Environment shaping” is another form of “preventive” military activity. This encompasses America’s worldwide military presence and exercises, its alliances and military-to-military contacts, and its arms transfers and military assistance programs. These are supposed to strongly assert or “stake out” US interests. A key goal is to “dissuade” other nations from taking undesirable paths or competing with US power. This might be thought of as “preemptive containment” or “preemptive deterrence”.


If pressed too far, efforts at armed dissuasion can be more provocative, than helpful. If dissuasive acts impinge on the internal affairs, sovereignty, core interests, or normal prerogatives of a target country, they are likely to prompt resistance. Likewise, if the United States seems to be claiming extraordinary privileges through dissuasive acts, others will strive to alter the power balance. In these ways, armed dissuasion can feed a process of global re-polarization and re-militarization.


Precepts for a New Direction


Setting a new course in policy begins with acknowledging that the surge in US military activism that followed the 9/11 attacks has gone too far and has become, on balance, counter-productive. National leadership must become more realistic about what can be reliably accomplished by military means and more sensitive to the costs and chaos that attend war.


Although military primacy has proved less useful than many had hoped, it has become a US security goal in its own right. This distorts US global policy and practice. More relevant than the power balance between the United States and its adversaries is the balance between US power and US objectives.

Military primacy is not sustainable, at any rate. The more it is exercised, the more it invites balancing behavior on the part of others. Notably, present global disparities in military power do not reflect the distribution of human and material resources. This means that other nations have considerable latent capacity to narrow the military gap between themselves and the United States, if they so choose.


Elements of an Alternative


America’s armed forces should focus more narrowly on containing, deterring, and defending against actual threats of violence to critical national interests. Peace and stability operations are important, but they should be undertaken only as multilateral affairs under the auspices of inclusive international institutions. Efforts at “environment shaping” and “threat prevention” are most appropriately the job of the State Department.


Attempts to “hedge against uncertainty” by preparing in all directions for all scenarios will leave America less ready to deal with what is actually emerging. A better way to manage uncertainty is to invest more in intelligence and homeland protection, improve America’s capacity to quickly adapt its defenses as new circumstances arise, and ensure that the nation has the fundamental strength to absorb unexpected blows and “bounce back”—as it did after Pearl Harbor.


An alternative security policy would emphasize broad multilateral cooperation in containing and resolving regional crises, reducing conflict potentials, and redressing the sources of instability in the international system. And, it would recognize that the sources of instability today are not principally military, political, or ideological in character, but instead economic, demographic, and environmental.


The real measure of a renewed US diplomacy will be efforts to reach across current strategic divides— especially to Russia, China, and the Muslim world— and find common ground. Cooperation on water, food, energy, and health security, global warming, economic development, and the management of globalization could serve as a foundation for progress on more divisive issues. A re-emphasis on traditional “quid pro quo” diplomacy will pay higher dividends in resolving divisive issues than will the resort to coercive diplomacy and saber rattling.