Power has been on my mind as of late. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two presidential candidates that currently poll quite favorably, published foreign policy statements (here and here) in Foreign Affairs. Neither one explained the positive use of hard power—that is, military power amongst other things—in their foreign policy, except to criticize it. It’s a familiar shtick: endless wars…wasted money…not making us safe…bring the troops home. Though they realize there are threats in this world, the spoken and unspoken assumption is that we can solve the problems that face us—terrorism, Russia, Iran, North Korea—without or with very little use of our military. This is wishful thinking in the extreme. It is irresponsible to imagine that if we just had a greater distribution of wealth then there would be world peace. And yet Sanders and Warren peddle this sentimentalism like a John Lennon lyric.
But the belief that war is the problem has fans on both sides of the aisle. A new think-tank in Washington, DC, funded by George Soros and Charles Koch—yes, that Charles Koch—called The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is peddling the same pie-in-the-sky belief that endless wars are the problem and that we just need to commit to diplomacy.
What these views share in common is the belief that politics can exist without hard power. Hard power, the use of force, is something foreign to politics. It is alien instead of being essential, which in fact it is. What is alien is the modern notion, which has persisted for some time, that politics can exist without power, that the use of power is bad or somehow corrupt, or that we can have politics with diplomacy, aid, economics, or any other program in the place of hard power.
Please hear me: I do think our foreign policy and recent wars should and must be criticized. We should always remain self-critical and weary of our own complacency. When we make mistakes, we should expose them to the light of day and learn from them. But being self-critical and learning from mistakes is quite different than adopting a view of politics that rules the use of force out or treats it like a secondary issue.
In academic debates on international affairs and ethics, there is a squeamishness with relation to the role of power in our foreign policy. Many on both sides of the aisle imagine we can have a foreign policy that skirts around the question of power and deny, at least in word if not deed, the need to have power, in all its forms, in order to execute an effective and moral foreign policy. The brutal truth of international politics is simple: if you do not possess power you cannot get anything done. The American people are also uncomfortable with the use of American power as the basis for the sustaining the global order and deterring revisionist powers—Russia, China, Iran—who are intent on disrupting and breaking up this order.
Power is the ability to do something and comes in many flavors, so we should be clear that economic, cultural, and other forms of power are critical. In fact, many forms of non-military power are crucial and essential for sustaining peace, justice, and prosperity for the world. The institutions that were built after World War II—such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations—rightly understood that in order to ensure that another world war would not happen we had to get at the causes that bring about warfare. While not perfect, these institutions have helped to facilitate greater peace and stability in our world.
But what is even more fundamental and necessary is the backing of these institutions with hard power, lest we tell ourselves that the Cold War was won merely because democracy and capitalism were better. And, of course, they were. But it was both the projection and real application of American hard power during the Cold War that was the necessary ingredient to our strategy and success.
Sanders and Warren are right that diplomacy is important to any effective foreign policy. But they imagine it is sufficient unto itself. Maybe in office they would practice otherwise. If we take them at their word, though, they paint a vision of world order in which war is the problem, meaning power is the problem, rather than an indispensable part of the solution.
The world of economic prosperity and the growth of liberal values such as rule of law, the worth of individuals, and liberty came about because, not in spite of, American hard power. Of course it was more than just hard power. Hard power by itself is not enough. But it is a necessary ingredient if the global order is to remain stable and functioning.
The recent events in the Straits of Hormuz are a good example. The free flow of oil keeps the world economy running. If Iran can sabotage oil tankers with impunity without any consequences, then they will be able to further extend their reach and cause further chaos in the region that will have effects across the globe. We have attempted for decades to work with Iran diplomatically, and it has failed. So what are we to do? What truly keeps Iran at bay at the end of the day are economic sanctions, which is a form of coercion, and those aircraft carriers and warships parked in the Persian Gulf. The open hand of diplomacy works because, not in spite of, the fact we have means at our disposal to cause Iranians pain, including physical pain.
Many of our politicians have over-learned the lessons of recent American overreach. Just because America has sometimes blundered does not mean the problem is the use of power but the fact that we have not used it well. Hal Brands, in his excellent new study of the Treaty of Versailles and its fallout, makes exactly this point of the generation of politicians who lived in the aftermath of World War I. The problem with World War I was that many politicians who lived through it learned the wrong lesson. They were traumatized by the war and drew the wrong conclusion that war must be avoided at all costs. This gave rise the policy of appeasement rather than confrontation with Hitler, which only emboldened him.
As is usually the case, Paul Ramsey says it best, even if in his characteristically complicated way: “The use of power, and possibly the use of force, is of the esse of politics. By this I mean it belongs to politics’ very act of being politics. You never have politics without the use of power, possibly armed force… You never have good politics without the use of power, possibly armed force.” Power is essential to politics. And using force is an aspect of that power. We forget this truth to our detriment.