The Role of Force in Diplomacy: A Continuing Dilemma for U.S. Foreign Policy
By Alexander George
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Alexander George, "The Role of Force in Diplomacy: A Continuing Dilemma for U.S. Foreign Policy," in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) pp. 209-222.
George examines different approaches to the use of force in foreign policy. Military force, or the threat of force, has played a key role in coercive diplomacy and deterrence strategies. Credible threats are often used to protect national interests. Historically, he finds a tension between military views on the effective use of force and what is seen as politically effective use of force.
During the Cold War, America relied on a policy of massive retaliation. The U.S. made it known that it would respond to even low level aggression against itself or its vital interests with tactical nuclear strikes. This strategy had two problems. First, threatening to escalate low- level conflicts into nuclear war alarmed American and allied peoples and produced some public opposition to such a strategy. Second, such a strategy failed in practice to deter many low-level conflicts. Because the costs of nuclear retaliation were so high, it was not a credible threat in low- level conflict situations.
Strategy shifted during the Kennedy era to emphasize flexible, controlled and discriminating military response to aggression. The U.S. came to rely more on the threatened use of conventional forces. Conventional military forces were to be developed as tools for political use, to be deployed according to political goals and subordinate to political authority.
This shift in strategy in turn prompted its own critics, who hearkened back to the events of the Korean War. Critics of the controlled response strategy argued that political constraints on military objectives during the Korean War had forced the American forces to "fight with one hand behind their backs."[p. 212] As a result many lives were lost in what was ultimately an inconclusive war. These critics argued against military interventions with limited objectives. Called the Never-Again School, they advocated that "either the United States should be prepared to do everything necessary to win or it should not intervene at all."[p. 212]
Other strategists had drawn a rather different lesson from the Korean War. They argued that low level conflicts involving important U.S. interests would continue to arise. However, the costs and dangers of allowing such conflicts to escalate into nuclear wars demanded limits on the degree of military engagement. Proponents of this view were called the Limited War School.
Both of these schools of thought were influential during the Eisenhower administration, with the Never-Again school tending to dominate. However, Eisenhower's response to the Chinese Offshore Island crisis in 1958 showed a situationally appropriate use of Limited War strategy. For reasons which remain unclear, the Never-Again school fell from favor during the Vietnam War. Presidents Johnson and Nixon both pursued a Limited War approach.
The loss of the Vietnam War led to a revival of Never-Again School thinking. Debate over these different approaches to the use of force in diplomacy came to a head once again during the Reagan administration. Secretary of Defense Weinberger tended toward a Never-Again stance. U.S. military intervention in Third World conflicts had the potential to lead us down the slippery slope of increased military commitment, landing us in another futile and costly "Vietnam." U.S. interests in the world at large should be pursued and protected by providing economic aid and expertise and by diplomacy.
Weinberger set forth a set of preconditions for the use of military force in foreign affairs. First, force is only appropriate when truly vital U.S. interests are at stake. Second, the U.S. should either commit sufficient resources to win the action, or should refrain from committing any forces at all. Third, the military must be given clear objectives, both militarily and politically. Fourth, there must be reasonable public and Congressional support for military action before troops are committed.
Secretary of State Shultz favored the limited use of force. He argued that in order to be effective, diplomacy requires credible threats, including on occasion the threat of limited military action. Put in his own words: "the hard reality is that diplomacy not backed by strength is ineffectual."[p. 215]
Shultz differed with Weinberger on each of his proposed preconditions for force. Shultz argued that important though non-vital U.S. interests still required protection. Diplomatic protection of such interests needs to be backed by the ability to make credible threats. Regarding the second condition, Shultz argues that "The need to avoid no-win situations cannot mean that we turn automatically away from hard-to-win situations that call for prudent involvement."[p. 217] Furthermore, while clear military objectives are desirable, political situations are often complex and ambiguous. As a tool of diplomacy, military force must be fitted to political reality, and military tactics must be constrained by political goals and interests. Finally, Shultz argued that decisions to use military force cannot be left up to the vagaries of opinion polls. Often decisive leadership will win public support.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, attitudes toward the use of force in diplomacy tended to follow Weinberger's views. This strategy was even broader than the old Never-Again School thinking. It held that "any contemplated use of force on behalf of foreign policy should be rejected unless it adhered to sound military doctrine."[p. 217] The successful U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War were all taken as confirming the wisdom of this approach.
Weinberger's approach to the use of force in foreign policy held sway until challenged by the failed effort in Somalia, and the outbreak of war in Bosnia. In Somalia, it was hoped that military intervention could be successful given a very limited political objective: distribution of humanitarian aid. The authors argue that "one can criticize the Bush administration for making a questionable effort to separate the achievement of humanitarian objectives from other problems that had to be dealt with in order to obtain the secure environment needed for establishing a stable political structure in the country."[p. 218] Fear of the potential for substantial American casualties and a lack of clearly definable military goals led the U.S. to delay taking military action in Bosnia. Without the backing of credible threats of force, U.S. diplomatic initiatives in Bosnia were ineffective, and the genocidal "ethnic cleansing" continued. When the international community finally united and showed its commitment to military action, then it was able to make and enforce limited demands on the Serbs. Backed by credible threats of force, the Sarajevo airport was reopened, and safe-havens and no-fly zones were established.
Drawing on the cases of Somalia and Bosnia, the author suggests a new approach to the use of force in foreign policy. George suggests that "threats of force and, if necessary, limited force may be applied effectively only on behalf of setting clear limits to intolerable behavior."[p. 219] Bosnia supplies two cautionary lessons for this approach however. First, only very limited demands can be imposed by such threats. And second, there is a pressing need to improve international preventative diplomacy.
In conclusion, George notes that "there is a fundamental conceptual tension between the logic of war as a political act and the logic of the instrument' of war itself that argues for using ample force to destroy or render impotent an enemy's forces."[p. 221] Negotiating this tension will continue to pose a substantial challenge for foreign policymakers.