While the preservation of American democracy should be a lodestar of any US foreign policy, having employed hard power over 200 times since the end of the Cold War, such events as Washington’s exit from Afghanistan and departures from Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, with their human, economic and political costs, have demonstrated the limitations of using excessive military force as a leading component of foreign policy.
- Soft power is hampered when policies, culture or values repel others instead of attracting them and, consequently, substitute hard power in its place, which mostly (and erroneously) appears to be a quick fix.
- According to a Congressional Research Service estimate, the United States has employed hard power/military force over 200 times since the end of the Cold War.
- The US foreign policy establishment is prone to panic and often blows potential threats out of proportion, thereby justifying military interventions that frequently prove counterproductive.
- The past two decades and Washington’s forced exit from Afghanistan and unavoidable departures from Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere due to unbearable human, economic and political costs, however, have made clear just how short-sighted and counterproductive the use of excessive military power as a leading component of foreign policy was.
In politics, hard power refers to the use of military and economic means to influence the behaviour or interests of other states. This form of coercive political power is often aggressive and is most immediately effective when imposed by one political body upon another of lesser military and/or economic power. Hard power contrasts with soft power, which derives from diplomacy, culture and history. Soft power can be wielded not just by states but also by all actors in international politics, such as NGOs and international institutions. A country’s soft power, according to Joseph Nye, who invented the term, rests on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority). Soft power is hampered when policies, culture or values repel others instead of attracting them and consequently, substitute hard power in its place, which mostly and erroneously appears to be a quick fix. According to the Global Soft Power 2021 Survey by Monocle, the top ten countries exercising soft powers are Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, the United States, France, China, Sweden and Australia. However, some other international surveys do not include the US in their lists due to its excessive use of hard power, including its military.
According to Nye, hard power involves ‘the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will’. Here, “carrots” stand for inducements such as the reduction of trade barriers, the offer of an alliance or the promise of military protection. On the other hand, “sticks” represent threats, including the use of coercive diplomacy, the threat of military intervention, or the implementation of economic sanctions. The use of hard power is often tedious. Insurgencies and more aptly stiff resistance against the external force can be prominent. The United States has demonstrated a “hard power” policy in regard to the Iraq War, Syrian war/ISIL, the Afghanistan war/Taliban and its continued approaches to Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran and even Pakistan.
It is well-acknowledged that on its way to becoming a leading global power, the US mostly relied on use of soft power, i.e., relying on the power of example, rather than the example of power. In January 2020, I wrote in an article titled “Hammer Versus Nailhead USA Policy” that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem appears to be a nailhead. A close examination of American use of military muscle abroad since the Second World War effectively proves that dictum. According to a Congressional Research Service estimate, the United States has employed hard power/military force over 200 times since the end of the Cold War. Many of these operations have taken place in or around the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. But other, less frequently recalled interventions have occurred elsewhere, as in Bosnia, Colombia, Haiti, Kosovo, Liberia and the Philippines. What’s more, the tendency to intervene is not simply the product of the United States’ emergence as an unbridled superpower after the Cold War. Between 1948 and 1991, while allegedly stabilising bipolar competition, the United States sent its military to fight abroad more than fifty times. American military action is not, as many believe, a feature of post-Cold War overstretch; it has been a central element of the United States’ approach to the world for decades, e.g. Korea, Vietnam and wars in Middle Eastern countries.
Notwithstanding the real situations or conspiracy theories regarding Congressmen in the US supporting American wars abroad in order to sustain the defence-industrial complexes in their constituencies or to benefit an elite class that is associated with the war economy, besides war-mongering based on ideological differences and politico-economic grievances, the vanity of using hard power stands badly exposed today. The ultimate rationale that is most commonly offered for getting out of the intrusion business relates to its costs, both direct costs – the lives lost and damaged, the dollars borrowed and spent – and opportunity costs. As the casualties and financial costs of the United States’ Middle Eastern wars have mounted, Americans’ appetites for new interventions and their commitment to existing ones have understandably diminished. The costs of these wars have been extraordinary: at a rally in Ohio in April 2018, Trump estimated them at US$7 trillion over 17 years and concluded that the country has nothing to show for the effort “except death and destruction”. Although the precise financial cost depends on how one estimates them, what is certain is that more than 4,500 US military personnel have been killed in Iraq and nearly 2,500 in Afghanistan, plus tens of thousands injured in both wars – to say nothing of the casualties among allied forces, military contractors and local civilians. Critics of these resource-intensive operations blame them for bogging down the United States in a region of second-tier importance and distracting Washington from the greater threats of China and Russia, as well as from pressing domestic issues. And above all, American reliance on NATO allies is less certain than before for the same human and economic cost; besides other more complicated foreign and economic policy objectives of each ally.
As President Biden seeks to resurrect American leadership on the world stage, the recurrent question of how the United States should respond to international crises looms large. It is encouraging to hear sane voices from within the US now supporting my broad views on the subject. In his latest book, the political scientist John Mueller offers a refreshingly straightforward answer: Washington should aim not for transformation but for “complacency”, which he characterises as ‘minimally effortful national strategy in the security realm’. Mueller’s case rests on two claims. The first is that war is in decline; not only do wars occur less frequently, but the idea of major wars has effectively gone out of style. The second is that the US foreign policy establishment is prone to panic and often blows potential threats out of proportion, thereby justifying military interventions that frequently prove counterproductive. Almost everyone – including those urging restraint – would agree that the preservation of American democracy should be a lodestar of any US foreign policy. Hence, one can conclude that for the time being, at least, the United States should shrink its military and resist the temptation to put a finger in every foreign policy pie. Washington should do so because the current state of US domestic politics demands that the country turn its attention inward if it is to do itself or anyone else any good. In the near future, it may just be more practical for US policymakers that, instead of settling into wishful thinking, they should accept that the use of military force will remain an essential tool of US strategy, maybe as a last resort with stricter congressional oversight and approval. That, in turn, requires applying the right lessons from recent decades with respect to the outcome of all interventions, cost versus benefits and, above all, the limits of hard power or kinetic military operations as continuations of state policy.
The main reasons for the excessive use of hard power and its pitfalls have been discussed in detail in my pieces, “Lessons from Afghanistan Conundrum”, “Pentagon’s Foolish Friends” and “USA Needs to Revisit Newton’s Third Law”. I had opined that Washington and its allies have come to realise (or at least they should have) that an open-ended war on terrorism is futile and that a successful counterterrorism policy must address the legitimate political grievances that al Qaeda claims to champion – for example, US support for dictatorships in the Middle East. The past two decades and Washington’s forced exit from Afghanistan and unavoidable departure from Iraq, Syria, Libya and some other places due to unbearable human, economic and political cost, however, have made clear just how short-sighted and counterproductive the use of excessive military power as a leading component of the foreign policy was. Going by what has already been accomplished so far by the hardliners in the US establishment, Iran seems on the anvil now, as well as Turkey, being a new irritant in the eyes of the West despite being a NATO member. Nevertheless, Pakistan with nuclear deterrence in place and with war-hardened military forces, cannot afford to blink under any complacency as all designs remain focused on the denuclearisation of Pakistan. Luckily, the remarkable rise of China and resurgent Russia with prospective, as well as existing, regional economic, diplomatic and military alliances like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), besides a long list of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries are around now to better enable the targeted countries stand together, lest they get targeted and fall one by one.