Part of me would like to think that Eliot Cohen’s new book, The Big Stick, is just not necessary. This is the part of me that knows that half or more of the bestselling history books are political or military history, that the news is saturated with coverage of today’s exercises in so-called hard power (the threat or use of coercive force) by states and non-state actors, and that video games, movies, and television shows depict the timelessness of hard power incessantly. I think: Surely people….um, get it?
Well, no. They don’t. Not a lot of them, anyway. Sir Michael Howard described this larger human and intellectual phenomenon in his little treasure of a book, War and the Liberal Conscience. In almost every generation, and especially since the enlightenment when the notion of human progress and improvement became baked into our collective psyche, we yearn to see peace as the natural condition of mankind. War, we come to believe, is an aberration; an unlucky disease that, if not cured this time, will be cured the next. We know of course, that war, or at the very least the exercise of hard power by societies even in the deterrence of war, is closer to a constant condition — peace unsecured by it the far more fleeting phenomenon.
Even so, it is tempting to many different strategic thinkers to think of hard power being reduced, if not replaced, in its importance and utility on the world stage. Harvard Professor Joe Nye famously promoted the rise of “soft power” at the end of the Cold War. Any hard power practitioner of any age would have recognized Nye’s intelligent book as fundamentally correct, except in one claim: that something had so fundamentally changed that soft power could in some circumstances supplant hard power altogether. Others picked up this concept and took it further than Nye ever intended, embellishing it in an effort to downgrade the importance (or cost) of the military and its use.