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America's modern addiction to the big stick

The history of US interventions shows that Washington's 'first use' policy of military force is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The United States has always "‘suffered" from exceptionalism in its foreign policy, but for much of its nearly 300-year history, that exceptionalism led to a foreign policy of distance keeping; a sense that the United States should lead by example, intervening by means of armed force except as a last resort. This sense was aptly summed up in Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” aphorism.

That advice explains the long-delayed U.S. military interventions in the 20th Century’s two world wars — an experience that nudged the United States closer to the idea that its leadership should have a more robust military capability, especially the capability to deploy armed forces globally. But its overall grand strategy — containment — and its subordinate military intervention policy, remained fundamentally reactive. It was also tethered to economic and diplomatic tools, not pro-active and independent of trade, aid, and diplomacy, established institutionally through the “western liberal order.” 

Two watershed conflicts would change this. First, the Korean War led to a new understanding that major interstate war was too dangerous after the advent of thermonuclear weapons and their possession by the USSR. Second, the United States crept into a military intervention in South Vietnam which led to a fundamental reassessment of U.S. military intervention as a support of containment.

The Vietnam War (1965–73) led to a widening division in U.S. military capability between a conventional military with tanks, carrier task forces, combat aircraft (i.e. platform-centric) and something called “special operations forces” (SOF). This included the new Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon, Delta, and so on. That division has created bitter controversy to this day, as influential generals like Colin L. Powell argued that U.S. military intervention failures were due to the mis-application (over-application) of SOF abroad. 

In a still-influential 1992 essay in Foreign Affairs following the stunning success of the U.S. military against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the year before, Powell argued that U.S. military power should only be used to fight and win the nation’s wars. Others — famously the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright — argued that the use of U.S. military capabilities like SOF made it possible to intervene militarily in the shadows, in limited ways, sparring with Powell.

And in the 1990s, the U.S. military would be used to engage in operations other than war (such as counterterrorism, humanitarian intervention, nation building, and drug trafficking interdiction), thereby supporting important U.S. national security interests without risking escalation to interstate and possibly thermonuclear war.

The Military Intervention Project (MIP) at Tufts Fletcher School provides a comprehensive effort to document military intervention justifications and outcomes, enabling the data to referee between arguments for and against the use of U.S. armed forces abroad to represent its national security interests. By analyzing all U.S. military interventions since the founding of the United States in 1776, MIP can say whether Powell’s opponents have a stronger or weaker argument. It appears that their arguments were weaker.

As said, in the 1990s, the use of conventional U.S. military forces would be used to engage in a series of operations other than war to support U.S. interests overseas. However, just as the U.S. embarked on this set of operations, a good number of our adversaries set out to de-escalate their conflicts with the United States. Just consider the graphic below, which highlights U.S. engagements since the country’s founding. 

(Source: The Military Intervention Project, Fletcher School, Tufts University)

The left axis measures the level of use of force by the U.S. and adversaries (state and non-state actors) against whom we have engaged — from no usage to threat of use to the deployment of force to outright war. Notice how for most of American history, U.S. actions largely matched those of its adversaries. After 2001, this changed dramatically, with the U.S. ramping up its level of engagement at a time when its adversaries were trying to de-escalate. 

Adversaries i.e. al Qaeda and later ISIS, may have escalated for short periods after 9/11 and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The U.S. military accordingly ramped up and succeeded in tamping down those threats, but nevertheless, Washington continued to actively project power overseas through 2017. At the very minimum this should have leveled off.

This raises the uncomfortable question of whether the U.S. needed to resort to force in many circumstances in the first place, and whether these escalations actually achieved what we needed to secure our interests. Given the failure in Afghanistan (and earlier in Vietnam), the answer seems to be unlikely. It’s clear that Powell was right when he said that the U.S. can't be unilateralist because “the world is too complicated.”

Bluntly, since 9-11, U.S. military intervention abroad has come at an escalating cost to U.S. national, and national security interests.

MIP data also reveal that following the collapse of the USSR, the United States began increasingly leading with armed force abroad, rather than intervening militarily as a last resort, and in combination with trade, aid, and diplomatic tools. And crucially, it did so at a time when the stakes, in terms of national security narrowly defined, had never been lower. No one was coming to conquer us. No one was threatening to attack us with nuclear weapons. The peoples of Eastern Europe were free to choose their own destinies, and the United States remained the only powerful state with global reach; with the capability to deploy armed forces abroad in significant numbers quickly.

America appears to have become addicted to the over-use of the stick, and the under-use of leadership by example, trade and aid, and diplomacy. The results — as illustrated by the 2002 and 2003 U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively — have been disappointing at best, and generally left the U.S. worse off.

Today, U.S. power has been diminished in two ways. First, when other states are surveyed as to which country is most threatening to world peace and prosperity, the United States ranks number one. And along with the perception that the United States has become only a hammer which views the rest of the world as nails, there’s the problem that contemporary U.S. "leadership by example" has provoked others to pick up the pace of military interventions.

Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation is a case in point: if “power” and “leadership” mean military intervention, and Putin yearns for recognition as a U.S. equal in international affairs, it’s less surprising that since 2014 he’s authorized escalating use of military intervention to support his own power and, by extension, Russia’s reputation as a “great power.” His invasion of Ukraine in March is the apex of this approach.

If Putin could only look a little further, or analyze our MIP data, he’d also see that since World War II, achieving victory through military intervention has become much more difficult for major powers. Big sticks do not seem to be securing our interests. Rather we need a bit more diplomacy or speaking softly. 

(U.S. National Archives)
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