'America First' (with global military dominance)
July-September 2017
By: Keoni Marzuki

  The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force 
By Eliot A Cohen                        
(Basic Books, 2016, 304 pp)

Reviewed by
Keoni Marzuki

American President Theodore Roosevelt once famously remarked: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Despite the seemingly bellicose overtone, for which he was known, it is but a reminder that the United States should “use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.”

For the better part of the 20th century, the US military was an essential – if not the centerpiece – instrument of American foreign policy, to show adversaries that it would follow up with necessary force when push came to shove. Many Americans today, however, question the utility of US military power and its global military presence as an effective tool of foreign policy. Given the inconclusive results of armed conflicts involving the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere since 2001, and the sizeable quantity of expended material and economic resources for military operations, it is hardly surprising that the sentiment to downsize the US military and limit its global military presence gained traction among many Americans.

In his book, Eliot A Cohen, professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a prominent neoconservative and former counselor at the US State Department, disagrees with the prevailing consensus that American military power is an outdated and even unnecessary instrument of its foreign policy. The author argues that US military power remains indispensable, not only for America’s foreign policy but also to maintain a stable global order, despite various other instruments in Washington’s foreign policy toolbox. The persistent use of military force during the Obama administration, such as in Libya and Syria; the reintroduction of aerial assets in Iraq; the use of drone strikes in the campaign against Islamist extremism; and US Navy ships sailing in the proximity of artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea, demonstrate the utility of military power.

Cohen asks two interrelated underlying questions about the main argument of the book: first, why should the United States continue to maintain its prodigious military power rather than downsizing it for self-defense purposes and the pursuit of national interests? And second, why should the United States preserve its overreaching global engagements instead of leaving other countries to get along as best they can on their own? Several arguments – such as the declining trend of violence and armed conflict, as substantiated by numerous statistical analyses and reviews on armed conflict, and the instrument of soft power, as the ultimate substitute for hard power, among others – have been made advocating for, either directly or indirectly, restrained American military power and global engagement.

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