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The late 1980s and early ’90s were characterized by liberal optimism, if not triumphalism. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had dissolved, marking the end of the Cold War. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama had written an influential article entitled “The End of History,” which argued that with the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union, liberal democracy had prevailed as the universal ideology. While conflict might continue on the peripheries of the liberal world order, the trend was toward a more peaceful and prosperous world. The economic component of the end-of-history narrative was globalization, the triumph of liberal capitalism.
The end-of-history narrative was complemented by a technological-optimism narrative, which held that the United States could maintain its dominant position in the international order by exploiting the “revolution in military affairs. ” This complementary narrative, arising from the rapid coalition victory over Saddam Hussein that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, led some influential defense experts to argue that emerging technologies and the military revolution had the potential to transform the very nature of war.
One of the most influential volumes of this period was Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (1990), in which Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power,” which he defined as shaping the preferences of others by noncoercive means such as culture, political values, ideology, and diplomacy in contrast to “the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants. ” Even if soft power made sense in the 1990s, does it still makes sense today?
Despite a rising China; naked Russian aggression against Ukraine and other Eastern European states; the proliferation of jihadi movements, especially ISIS; Iranian and North Korean troublemaking; and the debacle in Syria, many American policy makers, especially within the Obama administration, remain wedded to soft power as the answer to international affairs. They contend that those who rely on force are acting against the arc of history, which, they claim, favors soft power in this brave new world.
Eliot A. Cohen, eminent scholar and author of innumerable books on national security affairs and civil-military relations, isn’t buying this argument, and in The Big Stick , he makes the case for hard power. It is an excellent response to what can only be called strategic happy talk, a phenomenon that has adversely affected American security policy for over two decades.
Cohen begins by noting that although after a decade-and-a-half of war many Americans still believe that the United States should continue to play the role of guarantor of world order, leader of free states, and “spokesman for, and in some cases defender of, the liberties of foreign peoples in remote lands,” a great many Americans do not. The Big Stick addresses the issues that have given rise to skepticism about the use of military power: What role should military power play in foreign policy? What are its limits? What is the purpose of the armed forces? Why should they be used for anything beyond self-defense? What are the lessons of recent wars? What are the main threats and challenges that the United States faces? What are the main instruments of military power—so-called hard power?
The argument unfolds logically. In his opening chapter, entitled “Why the United States?,” Cohen makes a convincing case for continued American primacy. Although he does not mention him by name, his argument is essentially a restatement of Robert Gilpin’s theory of hegemonic stability, which holds that a liberal world order does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global invisible hand. Instead, such a system requires a hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. For a hundred years, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of World War I, Great Britain was that power; from 1945 until the Obama administration, the United States pursued a bipartisan grand strategy of primacy based on hegemonic stability. In both cases, the hegemonic power assumed the role not out of altruism but because it was in its national interest to do so.
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