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Book Review, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force by Eliot Cohen

“Power is the ability to get people to do things that they would not otherwise do. It implies purposiveness – the ability to make things happen.”[1]

In his most recent book, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, Eliot Cohen frames this concept of power to provide a logic for its implementation. Power, the ability to make things happen, is not distinctly hard nor soft. Violence does not define power. The art of statecraft is to apply the various tools of hard and soft power in a manner that is consistent with our values, directed toward our interests, and appropriate to the situation.

Cohen provides an understanding the necessity of hard power, not as a replacement of diplomacy and economic power, but as its guarantor. He argues that the United States is uniquely situated to influence the course of world events, and to retreat from engagement with the world is to indulge the fallacy that Americans are not affected by what happens beyond our shores. He contends that the United States has been a global power since its inception, and seeking to disengage will not result in a more peaceful world. I perceive this question not between war and peace, but between order and chaos. The United States, must ensure that our allies and adversaries recognize that our words carry the force of American military strength. Carrying a “big stick” reassures those who mean us well, deters those who mean us harm, and leaves no question as to where the United States stands.

Cohen’s work addresses the fundamental questions of why the United States must carry this burden, what we are to make of the last 15 years of war, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the United States, how do China, Jihadis, dangerous states such as Russia and North Korea, and ungoverned spaces impact our strategic calculus. He concludes his work with a chapter that articulates his logic of hard power that provides useful guidelines to strategists and policymakers.

The question of why the United States must carry such a burden is answered by Cohen,

The United States cannot insulate itself from world disorder for many reasons, and not least because, in some measure, it is necessarily the cause of it. American beliefs about political equality, rights (to include rights of women), religious freedom, and civil liberties, including the right to property, are a menace in many places, often without America’s knowing or wishing it.[2]

The United States bears a unique burden because American norms, values, and institutions make the United States a target for states and non-state actors who mean us harm. While he contends that the United States cannot impose its values and institutions on the people of other nations, it is hard to imagine the United States flourishing in a world that is hostile to those values. The world is more global and interconnected than any time in history, for this reason values and norms will be defined by dominant actors, and failure to defend those norms and values will have a detrimental effect on the freedoms of people around the world.[3] Cohen does not contend that armed force alone is capable of mitigating or eliminating the challenges posed by these global problems, but he does contend that if American values are not backed by the force of arms the world will become increasingly disordered. In an environment of disorder, the weak and vulnerable will be at the mercy of those most willing to use violence. It is not an argument that the United States will destroy evil, rather it is the argument that the United States, by wielding a Big Stick, can impose a sense of order that reduces the influence and capacity of those intent on violence and ensures that American values of civil liberties, economic freedom, and rule of law are promulgated – not restricted further. The United States has an interest in maintaining these freedoms for ourselves and expanding them abroad to create an environment where freedom is not threatened, but thrives.[4]

In the final chapter, Cohen describes a logic of hard power governed by principles. He is critical of the overly simplistic conceptions of grand strategy. He writes that the concept of grand strategy creates the expectation that the intractable problems present in foreign policy can be woven into a comprehensive vision. This is an alluring ideal that places greater emphasis on the development of brilliant ideas than on the practical implementation of such ideas.[5] He observes, “the very idea of grand strategy, then, runs on the rocks when it confronts the power of accident, contingency, and randomness that pervade human affairs.”[6] For Cohen, strategy is not defined by the rigidity of a definitive operating concept, but by the art of matching the available means to the strategic ends. This is fundamentally a balance that requires strategic judgment. To this end, he advises a simplification of the national security documents produced by the Department of Defense and the White House as well as a defense funding mechanism based off of a percentage of GDP. Whereas the current system produces regular documents at (supposedly) regular intervals to explain strategy and review military capabilities, Cohen advises documents to be ordered when needed, at the discretion of the president. This would allow the national security decision-making apparatus to parallel the uncertainty of the operational environment, and would ensure that when a strategic appraisal is requested, it is requested with a vision of interests identified by the Commander-in-Chief.[7]

Beyond the need to streamline funding and strategic analysis, American decision-makers also need a set of principles upon which to develop strategies. Cohen, is not fond of overly simplistic models or set procedures, so he advances a set of principles to applied with prudence.

The principles of Cohen’s logic of hard power are:

  1. Understand your war for what it is, not what you wish it to be.[8]

This principle is apparent in every war the United States has ever fought. American leaders have frequently sought to characterize war as conforming to a template. There is a constant reluctance to engage with the difficult problems of protracted irregular wars, consistent with the theme of this website, we must understand these wars not as the exception, but as the rule. Powerful countries desire conflict that conforms to the expectation that power, as perceived by that nation, will be decisive. Yet power is not defined as a preponderance of strength but as the ability to make things happen. The weak actor has no incentive to conform to American strengths, to a contest on our terms. Rather, the non-state actor, the insurgent (or freedom fighter) will contest the powerful at the time and place, and in the manner, which most effectively mitigates the advantage possessed by the powerful actor.

  1. Planning is important; being able to adapt is more important.[9]

America’s experience over the last 15 years has confirmed this principle. It is always essential to have a plan for engagement, but we must recognize that the adversary has agency, there will be unforeseen environmental factors, and domestic politics will intervene to frustrate progress. Military and civilian decision-makers must be prepared for this eventuality, and they must recognize that they will be called on to be creative problem solvers for the duration of any conflict.

  1. You will prefer to go short, but prepare to go long.[10]

To prepare for a quick and easy campaign is to prepare for failure. The early intervention in Afghanistan is an example of this. When expectations are created in the minds of leaders, and the American public, failure to meet those expectations elicits a sense of crisis and risks losing support for the war. Leaders must prepare the American people for uncertainty, and the interests at stake must be justifiable to the risk imposed by the uncertainty that lies ahead.

  1. While engaging in today’s fight, prepare for tomorrow’s challenge.[11]

War is a policy laboratory for military decision-makers. The lessons of each conflict are different, and failing to learn, adapt, and prepare for the next challenge is to exhibit the intellectual laziness that will invite future destruction. The conclusion of the First World War provides an example of two distinct armies and their different cultures of learning and preparation. The Germans learned that to allow a war to become static was to surrender the initiative. The Germans streamlined decision-making by granting more autonomy at the lowest levels, and developed a tactical framework built on maneuver warfare and combined arms. The French, constructed the Maginot line, thus preparing the French army not for tomorrow’s challenge – but to fight today’s war again. This principle should inculcate in military and civilian leaders an understanding of the need for constant innovation.

  1. Adroit strategy matters; perseverance usually matters more.[12]

Cohen cites President Bush’s commitment to the Iraq surge, against the judgment of his military advisers, as one of Bush’s finest moments. Cohen’s argument in favor of this principle coincides with Clausewitz’ observation that a strong mind is preferable to a great mind. The concept being that strength of will is more necessary in war than brilliance. I can think of no better historical example of perseverance than the Romans in the Second Punic War. After suffering several humiliating defeats at the hands of the Hannibal, Scipio led a consular army to Spain to attack his rear. The Romans suffered tremendous losses, yet refused to yield. Perseverance was the hallmark of Roman strategy, and this is a profound reminder of the continuity of certain transcendent principles of the logic of force.

  1. A president can launch a war; to win it, he or she must sustain congressional and popular support.[13]

This principle echoes the sentiments of Bacevich. The criticism that the American people were not asked to participate or sacrifice during the last 15 years of war. This lack of participation is anathema to democracy, and a war-time president can never forget that he or she is the leader of a democratic people. Failure to account for popular support, as well as the support of the other branches of government, dooms a war to failure. Vietnam serves as a case study in this. Despite tactical successes, and General Abrams embrace of a counterinsurgency strategy that yielded promising results, the president lost the support of the American people and the war was unwinnable.

Cohen’s conclusion is instructive, “A checklist of criteria for using hard power is pointless. Rather, what is needed is a prudent set of reminders to guide American leaders who have concluded, however reluctantly, that violence is the least bad policy choice.”[14] Principles that guide judgment, not strategic models that simplify decision-making, should be the focus of strategy. National security decisions are not a contemplation of good and bad options, they are frequently framed as a choice between bad and worse.

[1] Eliot Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force, Basic Books, 2017. 16.

[2] Ibid, 25.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Ibid, 204.

[6] Ibid, 205.

[7] Ibid, 206-209.

[8] Ibid, 216.

[9] Ibid, 217.

[10] Ibid, 219.

[11] Ibid, 220.

[12] Ibid, 221.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Ibid, 223.


  1. Sebastian De Beurs says:

    Cohen calls for a U.S. foreign policy based on “principles that guide judgment, not strategic models that simplify decision-making.” You mention that “national security decisions are not a contemplation of good and bad options, they are frequently framed as a choice between bad and worse.”

    This seems to be the cynical reality of much of foreign policy decision-making.

    What is your opinion on the following: how can we incorporate moral principles into foreign policy decision-making in the event that our interests and values don’t align?


    • warforourtime says:

      Sebastian, thanks for your comments. To your point, I don’t believe that Cohen, or myself for that matter, are overly cynical. I would describe Cohen’s acceptance of the fact that policymakers are often confronted with dilemmas that present no obvious best option as sobering, not necessarily cynical. Libya and Syria both act as examples of foreign policy dilemmas with no clear right answer. Intervention brings the prospect of suffering as does a policy of non-intervention. Cohen’s point is to situate the reader in the grey reality of foreign policy, not in the illusion of easy right and wrong answers. This is not to say that we should not act according to values, it is to demonstrate that our values (in the previous example the protection of innocents from genocidal dictators) are not non-controversially expressed by a discreet “right” answer.


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