Professor Eliot Cohen Gives Lecture on the Necessity of Military Force

Sofia Maietta

News Editor


On Wednesday, October 18, political scientist Eliot Cohen visited the College of the Holy Cross to give a talk on his new book, “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.” As a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a former senior advisor to Condoleezza Rice during the George W. Bush administration, Professor Cohen is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and military power.

Professor Cohen explained that his motivation for writing “The Big Stick” was the lack of debate about the necessity of military might after the Cold War and during the early 2000s. Cohen, however, argued this debate surrounding the United States’ role on the world stage is emerging today. At the heart of the book is an analysis of the dichotomy between diplomacy and the use of military force, and a subsequent attempt to bridge the discrepancy between these two often-conflicting schools of thought. Essentially, his book seeks to answer the question of whether the U.S. should use military power to maintain world order, and whether to replace soft power with military might. According to Cohen, a crucial factor to consider when addressing this question is what makes the United States so significant and distinctive in the international realm. His explanation is that only the United States has the combination of a flourishing and diverse economy and a military unrivaled in terms of size, funding, training, and weaponry. Additionally, Cohen argues that the U.S. is the only nation in the world with its degree of influence and number of allies. In his words, “Absent the U.S., there is real anarchy.” Therefore, his argument follows that the United States must continue to assume an active military role in international affairs as the preeminent world power because only the U.S. is equipped to do so.

During his talk, Cohen identified what he believes to be the four biggest international issues facing the United States today: China, jihadi terrorism, “dangerous states” such as North Korea and Russia who seek nuclear weapons, and the “Great Commons,” which are largely unclaimed spaces that spark rivalry, such as outer space and Antarctica.   Throughout the talk, Professor Cohen also made reference to and critiqued many former U.S. presidents and their administrations, citing how they affected American foreign policy and how the military shaped the international sphere during each president’s tenure. Additionally, Professor Cohen identified six criteria which he advises the U.S. to follow in order to wield more effective military power: 1) Understand your war for what it is and not what you want it to be. 2) Being able to adapt is more important than planning. 3) If you believe this to be a short war, be prepared for a long one. 4) Prepare for tomorrow’s challenge during today’s fight. 5) Perseverance matters more than strategy. 6) The president can launch a war but must maintain support for it from Congress and the public.

Cohen argued that, contrary to popular belief, military power revolves around possessing the ability to use force, not the act of using force itself. When asked whether the U.S. should exert military power to maintain order in the world, Professor Cohen responded that, in particular cases, it should. Although he views a militarily-strong United States with alliances as a force for peace, prosperity, and freedom, he argued that the kind of force the U.S. ought to use is circumstantial and, as a result, differs from case to case.

When asked about his opinions on the talk, Professor Burnep of the Political Science Department at Holy Cross commented, “I think the talk was really thought-provoking. One thing that stuck out to me was the way in which he clearly thought about and had criticisms of both the past two administrations and the current administration. I particularly appreciated that part of the talk.” He added, “My sense is that we have a tendency to focus on the proximate, the tangible, the short-run threats and we forget about the long-term threat that Russia poses for instance, or that China poses […] [I appreciated] the value of the talk in taking a holistic approach to all the threats we face and not focusing on the topic of the day or the week.”  

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