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America: the Hapless Hegemon?
Review by James L. Abrahamson

bookcoveriThe Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might. RAND Studies in Policy Analysis. By Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xv, 281. $65 cloth, $23 paper.)

"Byman and Waxman… account for the paradox that America's apparently overwhelming power—economic, political, cultural, and especially military—often fails to ensure that even smaller nations will readily submit to its demands."

Many commentators now claim that the global reach of America's power—economic, political, cultural, and especially military—has become so vastly superior to that of all other great powers as to merit describing the United States as a hyperpower. With such resources at the disposal of the world's hegemon—another new label—surely no small nation—a Somalia, Serbia, North Korea, or Iraq—would dare fail to comply promptly with whatever the U. S. demanded of it. With varying degrees of success, each of those nations, and many others, nevertheless resisted such demands. In The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might, Daniel Byman, a RAND Corporation policy analyst, and Matthew Waxman, an attorney and RAND consultant, undertook to account for that paradox and suggest how the U. S. might in future better overcome such resistance.

Beyond illustrating how clever opponents have often made "successful coercion . . . hard to achieve," forcing American "policy makers [to] face difficult and at times irreconcilable tradeoffs among national interests, the concerns of coalition partners, and the demands of voters," the two authors offer no general conclusion. The strength of their study lies rather in its details and the authors' skillful use of analyses and examples to reveal questions that policy makers must ask themselves when planning to use military coercion. As implementation of strategy is a dynamic process, those plans must also include steps to counter all an opponent's possible counter moves.

After an introduction that expounds on defining coercion as "the use of threatened force, and at times the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to change its behavior," Byman and Waxman present the heart of their argument in two parts of several chapters each. "Coercive Strategy Making" reveals that those using coercion face a challenge familiar to every military strategist: how to threaten or use violence—in their terminology an instrument—against some tangible objective—a mechanism—which if attacked might produce an intangible political result—submission to American demands—not directly vulnerable to violence.

Following some theoretical propositions, the authors' first focus on choice of a mechanism, each a pressure point capable of affecting the policy of the target nation's government. The mechanisms include decapitating attacks on its leaders, eroding their power base by threatening such core supporters as the elite or the armed forces, creating general unrest sufficient to topple the leadership, undermining the target's physical capacity to resist by debilitating attacks on the country as a whole, and denying the target any battlefield victory essential to its purposes.

The list of instruments that might be used to attack those pressure points contains few surprises: air strikes, the current U. S. favorite; ground forces; nuclear weapons; economic sanctions; political isolation of the target; support for insurgencies. In regard to each possible instrument, Byman and Waxman offer insightful analyses, supported by illustrations from recent events, of the merits and shortcomings of instrument as they pertain to the United States. If the points made sometimes seem blindingly obvious, that is usually only after they are pointed out. Part One therefore highlights many issues that advocates of coercion must carefully assess.

The four chapters of the second part, "The Context of Coercion Today," reveal the many ways that a target of coercion might exploit American society and values in order to neutralize U. S. power. In regard to domestic politics, Byman and Waxman observe that Americans expect their government to justify each use of armed force, seek to avoid casualties among not only U. S. troops but also the adversary's civil population. The American public's preference that the U. S. act internationally as a member of a coalition can also modify—sometimes to the point of ineffectiveness—use of force. Because of the recent American tendency to involve itself in humanitarian interventions, the authors also describe the special limits on the use of armed force when used to move food and medicine or protect basic human rights. Very appropriately in light of the situation with regard to Iraq, the authors close this part of their study with a discussion of how a target nation or group with weapons of mass destruction might affect the success of coercion.

In a closing third part of four short sections, Byman and Waxman predict "The Future of U. S. Coercion." Policy makers, they state, must recognize that targets of coercion will give the U. S. few opportunities to play to its strength—its great military power. If the target does confront the U. S. militarily, it will most likely do so by means of terrorism, taking hostages, harassing aid workers—anything that might force American concessions in what might be, for the U. S., a low-stakes case. Americans must also anticipate that their adversaries will protect their pressure points and behave so as to disrupt possible coalitions and exploit American reluctance to use force likely to cause significant casualties. Because past successes and failures will both affect the credibility of American coercion, policy makers should avoid thoughtlessly adopting low-stakes coercive policies. Failure, the authors caution, will increase chances of resistance and raise "the chances of a destructive spiral."

The first chapters of this work, written in the style of a RAND analysis and filled with definitions and specialized terms, may deter many readers. Although well researched, largely from secondary sources because of the topic's current nature, the book's many brief examples often lack convincing detail. Rather than so much early theory and so many examples, the authors might rather have allowed their insights to emerge from a comprehensive presentation of a few case studies that collectively illustrate their principal observations, which they might then have summarized in a short theoretical and conceptual section. Even so, this work is soundly conceived and well worth study by policy makers, military strategists, and those interested in current history.bluestar


Dr. James L. Abrahamson, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a retired army colonel who previously taught history and government at the United States Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949 (Praeger, 2002).

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