Forceful Engagement: Rethinking the Role of Military Power
in US Global Policy
Project on Defense Alternatives
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
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
Global terrorist activity has increased, not decreased. And there is no real
end in sight for US commitments in Iraq
Instead, instability is spreading to other countries and so are US military
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.