The Big Stick

The Big Stick

The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force

Eliot A. Cohen

Basic Books, New York, 2016, 228 pages

Book Review published on: May 12, 2017

Is the United States speaking too softly and not carrying a big enough stick? Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies believes so. In The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, Cohen argues that there is still a need for a strong multidimensional military to face the threats of the current geopolitical environment. While he does give soft-power tactics due respect, Cohen contends that soft power is not enough to maintain stability on the international stage.

Cohen organized The Big Stick topically. In it, he addresses the United States’ current situation in the international arena. He analyzes four major threats facing the United States: specifically, China, Islamic terrorism, “dangerous states” such as Russia and North Korea, and ungoverned regions. Based upon this analysis, he concludes that hard power and the use of force is an essential tool in the toolbox of the United States.

Cohen’s reasoned argument is effective because he limits his analysis to the more serious threats facing the country. Additionally, his in-depth argument includes the price of deploying and sustaining forces abroad in terms of resources as well as public opinion. His careful examination and controlled analysis of foreign capabilities produces a realistic threat assessment.

However, Cohen occasionally resorts to counting tanks and helicopters at various points throughout the book. While this is an easy trap to fall into, readers must be realize that just because another state has more tanks, planes, or personnel, it does not mean it has a better-trained or equipped force. While Cohen’s arguments on capability are valid, he did not fully investigate whether intent is present. I caution the reader to remember that capability does not equate to intent. Just because a state possesses a nuclear weapon or a large conventional force does not mean it possesses the will or intent to use it. Understanding this concept will help reader better grasp the threats facing the country.

In terms of relevance, commanders, this book is for you. Since the Army’s number one priority is readiness, this country requires its soldiers to be adaptable and to be able to fight and win against conventional, nonconventional, cyber, and criminal forces. Cohen’s book provides a framework from which commanders can analyze threats abroad and create realistic training scenarios that will prepare the current generation of soldiers to fight and win in any conflict they face.

Book Review written by: Cadet Casey McNicholas, U.S. Army Cadet Command, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington