A Humbled Neoconservatism’s Rebirth? Reading Eliot Cohen’s “The Big Stick”

In the aftermath of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq, many writers proclaimed neoconservatism’s rightful place in “the ash heap of history.” This intellectual movement played a major role in the second Bush administration’s foreign policy with calls for nation-building and democracy promotion, muscular, unilateral United States global leadership, and a ideological and physical struggle against fundamentalist forms of Islam comparable to earlier confrontations with fascism and communism. Its death seemed all but confirmed during the 2016 Republican primaries when Donald Trump vanquished rivals who argued for a more active U.S. role in the world. Such candidates and their intellectual allies at conservative journals and think-tanks looked on as former supporters of George W. Bush cheered Trump’s denunciations of the Iraq War. First Things columnist Peter Spiliakos explains, voters applauded Trump’s awareness of the invasion’s folly; meanwhile, interventionist Republicans “never gave the impression that they had learned anything that would prevent them from making the same mistake again.”

But the obituaries for neoconservatism could be premature; in times of crisis, ideologies have often reinvented themselves. Capitalism looked increasingly untenable in the interwar period, only to renew itself and win broader public support thanks to Keynesianism. Wilsonian liberal internationalism collapsed under the weaknesses of the League of Nations but was resurrected in a more credible form under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Repackaged forms of ethnonationalism and socialism are providing far more serious challenges to liberalism than anyone imagined in the euphoria of 1989. In like manner, if Republican hawks can humbly learn from the missteps of the second Bush administration, neoconservatism could again become a credible approach to foreign affairs.  

If such an intellectual rehabilitation comes to pass, Eliot Cohen’s new book The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force will be remembered as its first step. A professor of international relations at John Hopkins University, former State Department official in the Bush administration, and gifted military historian, Cohen was acclaimed during the early 2000s as the “most influential neocon in academe.” The task of Cohen’s book is daunting: how to convince a war-weary U.S. electorate facing convulsive domestic crises that their country must remain “the guarantor of world order.” Furthermore, this leadership role cannot rely only on soft power, foreign aid, or skillful diplomacy; its foundation must be “the big stick” of Theodore Roosevelt—the credible “hard power” of an active military willing to deter and confront dangerous actors.

Cohen begins his work by deconstructing five principal arguments against the United States’ role as the “global sheriff.” He finds naive the optimism of modernity’s organic advance toward a world of peace, commerce, and goodwill. This idealism not only ignores the tragic nature of history, but it also neglects that quite recent positive trend lines are best guaranteed by “the deliberative action of one state above all—the United States.” Political realists find the means of global stability through the natural development of balances of power between states driven solely by calculation of national interest. But this faith in the mechanical emergence of strategic balance fails to “appreciate the intangibles” of human nature: “the power of faith and ideology…the messiness of day-to-day politics and the ambiguities of culture and contingent events.” Conscious statesmanship of great powers matters.

Drawing from the work of Joseph Nye, others embrace non-violent “soft power”—be it sanctions or the attraction of U.S. culture and prosperity—to change the behavior of other countries. But these methods can suffer, like military action, from many drawbacks and ambiguities. According to Cohen, sanctions cannot limit the actions of states with little concern for their public’s well-being and can instead be craftily turned into effective propaganda victories by these regimes. The mass media and consumerism of the United States creates both converts and enemies within more traditional societies. With a decaying infrastructure, ineffective schools, and rising inequality, many Americans wonder why they should not withdraw from the global stage and focus on “nation building at home.” But current U.S. defense spending is actually lower than during the entire Cold War and even in the early 1990’s, when the Soviet Union lay vanquished. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never brought defense spending to “6 percent [of GDP], which was close to the Cold War minimum”. Cohen perceptively notes that America’s strongest leaps in national development actually took place during (and in connection to) to the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War. We need not assume a false dichotomy between our national and global responsibilities.

But the best argument against Cohen, as he indeed acknowledges, is that, outside of World War II and a few other conflicts, the United States cannot transfer its vast military power into lasting victories. The United States can win wars but does it truly secure the peace, especially as a country that often fails to comprehend the cultures and histories of places where it intervenes? From Vietnam to Iraq, this skepticism bears ample historical weight. However benevolent the grand destiny Cohen assigns to the United States, its achievement seems elusive. Is the United States destined to imitate the CIA officer Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance,” with idealism blinding him “to all the trouble he caused?”  

To answer this argument, Cohen first reminds readers that U.S. interventions after 1989 are not entirely littered with tragedies: we should remember the 1991 Gulf War and NATO’s Balkan campaigns in the 1990s. But Cohen knows Afghanistan and Iraq must be critically examined. Here, he acknowledges that the “Iraq war was a mistake,” with lasting scars to U.S. credibility. Later he writes that future “expeditions of hundreds of thousands of soldiers [in the Middle East] will neither be required nor tolerated by the American public.”

Unfortunately, Cohen blames the Iraq invasion solely on poor intelligence. He overlooks the strategic failures of the Bush administration, namely the deeply selective use of intelligence and its downplaying to the public the high costs and troop levels required for a successful occupation. Nor does his chapter revisit the fundamental question of preventative and preemptive war.

Cohen refuses to see both these wars as inevitable losses and instead closely examines specific mistakes. Government officials “[failed] to understand the societies in which the United States was conducting its wars.” In comparison to the impressive national mobilization at the onset of the Cold War, the military struggled to recruit exceptional civilian talent to guide reconstruction efforts. Fatal choices, like the early disbanding of the Iraq’s mostly Sunni army, unnecessarily exacerbated sectarian conflicts. Nor does Cohen ignore the disastrous harm for the U.S. global image because of “enhanced interrogation tactics” (torture) and Abu Ghraib. Instead of living forever fearfully in the shadow of these wars, Cohen hopes their lessons can guide future efforts in counterinsurgency and state-building.   

Cohen crafts a stronger argument in examining the needs and strengths of U.S. hard power. In the face of a maritime buildup by China, Russia, and Iran, the United States Navy demands serious investments. War colleges are inadequately educating new officers and failing to promote strong intellectual thinking within the military. Reflecting a nationwide economic trend, creativity and innovation in the armed services is stifled by bureaucratic and cultural inertia. The United States forever faces the challenges of confronting rivals—Russia, China, and Iran—across multiple geographic “neighborhoods” that are not its own. But Cohen hardly laments the United States as a “New Rome” facing terminal decline. Between its favorable demographics, economic dynamism, and alliance systems, “no other country…has a better hand to play in international politics.”

On China, Cohen sees “the newly prosperous, nationalistic, and sometimes belligerent Middle Kingdom” as the United States’ “greatest geopolitical challenge.” Competition over the South China Sea and leadership of Asia’s economic integration will determine if China can achieve its goal in transforming its neighbors into vassals reminiscent of “its imperial past,” and undermining the postwar international system. In one of the book’s most formidable sections, Cohen offers a comparison of Chinese and Western strategic philosophies through the writings of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. The former prizes “knowledge…careful positioning…deception [and] psychological shrewdness” while the latter attributes victory to decisiveness and skillful improvised decision-making in the shifting “fog of war.” Given the challenge of a rising China to the West, the final test between these competing philosophies will likely unfold in the coming century.

Turning to the recent emergence of ISIS, Cohen calls the challenge against Islamic jihadism one “that will go on for decades, if not generations.” It is a long-term struggle that must be taken with utmost seriousness— in contrast to Obama’s comparison of terrorism’s casualties to that of “slippery bathtubs”—and patience, contra Trump’s plan to “bomb the shit out of [ISIS].”

Cohen then designates Russia, Iran, and North Korea as “dangerous states.” While less powerful than China, they are driven by a far more ideological, emotional anti-Americanism and are “willing to take risks that Beijing will not.”

Cohen prudently avoids calls for regime change and instead advocates firm deterrence, strong assurances for regional allies, and the use of the same tools of “subversion, propaganda, clandestine operations, [and] proxy forces” employed by these countries. In these chapters, Cohen impressively draws The Big Stick’s policy recommendations from his deep reading of military history. The book concludes by discussing proactive U.S. leadership in new “ungoverned spaces” (cyberspace, outer space) and deconstructing the cliches (“end game,” “exit plan,” and “grand strategy”) that are the lexicon of Washington thinking.

For all these merits, The Big Stick suffers from the idealistic hubris that first haunted the neoconservative project. Consider, for example, his call for a “war of ideas” against Islamist movements with U.S. programs modeled on the Cold War’s “Radio Free Europe,” offering an unapologetic “assertion of American values.” However well-intentioned, this project severely overstates the U.S. public image in the Middle East, both thanks to its own missteps and the pathologies of victimhood in the Arab world directed against the West. The much needed reconciliation of much of the Islamic world with modernity can only be done by and within that civilization.

Nevertheless, The Big Stick also leaves readers with many critical, present issues unresolved. Strangely, the problem for Cohen with the Libyan intervention was not its very conception but the lack of follow-up. Crucial questions of how far the United States should challenge “dangerous states” are left aside. Should it permanently delay NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine? Should it refuse to accept a nuclearized Iran, even with rigorous containment? Must it regard its current dominance in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as a fait accompli?

Nor do readers get a clear sense of how to rank all these respective threats. As the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, there are fundamental restraints even on the United States. These limits are not questions of defense spending so much as the ability of the executive branch and military and political bureaucracy to focus adequately on multiple theatres of conflict and the amount of political capital of a wartime U.S. president. These limitations do not excuse Obama’s naive hopes that Iran’s new “moderates” could learn to “share the neighborhood” of the Middle East. Nor does it justify the ambitions of some on the Right for a pact of Russia and the United States against China. But at least these policies acknowledge certain limitations on U.S. power and the need to set priorities with that assumption. This is not so in The Big Stick. And the danger then lies in overextension, resulting in further public support for isolationism at home that will limit the United States’ future ability to act when it fundamentally matters.

For all these limitations, Cohen’s The Big Stick will be a crucial source for conservative internationalists trying to regain the trust of the U.S. public. Reading it, one is reminded of two truths for the United States after 15 lackluster years of foreign policy under Presidents Bush and Obama. One must learn, as Reinhold Niebuhr asked of Americans in the Cold War, to relinquish “our dreams of managing history.” But this humility also requires an equal confidence to bear responsibilities that can only be taken by the United States. In Cohen’s own words, “The use of force is always fraught but so too is passivity; it is also a choice.” Let us hope both Trump and an anxious citizenry looking more warily at the outside world take heed of this balance.

ImageU.S. soldiers quickly march to the ramp of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter that will return them to Kandahar Army Air Field on Sept. 4, 2003. The soldiers were searching in Daychopan Province, Afghanistan for Taliban fighters and illegal weapons caches. 


David Jimenez is an English Teaching Assistant in Romania for the Fulbright Program, where he teaches courses in English and American Studies at Ovidius University of Constanta for the academic year 2016–2017. He is a 2016 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he completed his BA in history. His WordPress blog, “‘Polar Bear in the Balkans,” features his writing on both travel and ideas. He is also a contributing opinion writer for Revista 22, a leading Romanian news weekly.

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