Academic journal article Parameters

Employing Military Force in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Parameters

Employing Military Force in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: As various states assert power more aggressively, US policymakers should apply lessons from past uses of force while developing strategic plans to manage the global and national tolerance for violence.

In the smoking wreckage of Hitler's Berlin and in the burned out ruins of Tokyo, the old world order disappeared. The geostrategic context of international relations and power radically changed, bringing new challenges, trends, and patterns. Globalism, the survival and triumph of market capitalism, the end of colonialism, and the threat of communism, all under the haunting shadow of nuclear weapons, confronted the survivors of World War II and those who followed. In the emerging new world order, the United States stood as the most powerful nation on earth, if not in history. The end of World War II brought a strategic inflection point not only for the world but for the United States specifically--what would America do with its power? In retrospect, the United States managed the emerging challenges fairly well--the world survived.

Since 1945, the United States has found it necessary to exercise its power, to use force in the pursuit of its national interests and those of its allies, but has realized mixed results. After successfully defeating the Axis powers during World War II and winning the Cold War, why has the United States had trouble applying its overwhelming military advantage? In the ledger of US military force applied in Korea, Europe, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, is there something beyond the role of policymakers or the unique strategic context of each conflict that explains success or failure? The answers lie in understanding the actual utility of force--the amount and scale of force necessary to achieve desired political control--and in understanding the lingering problems of America's use of force in an era dominated by limited war.

This era continued beyond the end of the Cold War, and many suggest, progressed to a period of limited wars characterized by nonstate actors, networked insurgencies, and new or resurgent state actors, all of which contribute to persistent conflict and challenge regional stability. (1 )The nature of this period may not necessarily alter the utility of force since force has been used successfully to assure, deter, coerce, and compel. Such reasoning, however, depends on a close assessment of our interests and objectives as well as those of our adversaries. Policymakers must understand what military force can accomplish, and once the decision to apply military power is made, remain cognizant of its inherent constraints.

America's application of military force in an age of limited war is invariably shaped by the asymmetry of interests between the United States and its potential adversaries, the fluctuation of political will during the conflict, and the challenges of building partner capacity. A better understanding of the nature of the utility of force and its relationship to several key limiting factors can help us develop and execute more appropriate strategies.

The Utility of Force: Assure, Deter, Coerce, and Compel

For allies, force may be used to influence behavior by providing assurance--the visible result of security. Sir Michael Howard, a preeminent British historian, claimed the West's use of force assured the global economy of safe passage to win the Cold War. (3) Howard's view of the Cold War as a largely economic struggle testing the viability of communism versus capitalism meant American force was deployed globally to secure trade--it takes force to assure the global commons. Assurance through forward presence and stationing has been the essence of regional stability in much of the world. Achieved through forward presence and global military capabilities, assurance also provides political leverage, giving substance to diplomacy, credibility, and international agreements. Generally positive, assurance descends on a scale of the potential use of force in which it becomes deterrence. …

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