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THE ROLE OF FORCE IN DIPLOMACY:  CONTINUING DILEMMA FOR U.S. FOREIGN POLICY by Alexander L. George
George is professor emeritus of political science, Stanford University

... when the stakes warrant, where and when force can be effective, where no other policies are likely to be effective, where its application can be limited in scope and time, and where the potential benefits justify the potential costs and sacrifice.

There can be no single or simple set of fixed rules for using force .... Each and every case is unique.

-- President George Bush, "Remarks at the United States Military Academy," January 5,1993. [2]

The proposition that force and threats of force are a necessary instrument of diplomacy and have a role to play in foreign policy is part of the conventional wisdom of statecraft. And it is true that history as well as recent experience supports the view that efforts to deal with conflicts between states solely by means of peaceful diplomacy do not always succeed and may result in substantial damage to one's national interests. On the other hand, one finds in history many cases in which threats of force or the actual use of force were often not only costly but also ineffective.

Given that historical experience supports the necessity of resorting to force and threats of force at times, but also emphasizes the risks of doing so, we are left with a central question in the theory and practice of foreign policy; that is, under what conditions and how can military force and threats of force be used effectively to accomplish different types of foreign policy objectives at an acceptable level of cost and risk?

Efforts to address this question have sharply divided American strategic thinkers ever since the Korean War. After the Korean War, many military and civilian strategists argued that the United States should never again fight a limited, inconclusive war. Either it should stay out of such conflicts altogether, or, if it intervened, it should use whatever military force might be required to win a decisive military victory.

Those who subscribed to this lesson of the Korean War quickly came to be known as the Never-Again School. The strategic doctrine they advocated regarding American military intervention was appropriately labeled all-or-nothing--that is, either the United States should be prepared to do everything necessary to win or it should not intervene at all.

A quite different lesson from the Korean War experience was drawn by other foreign policy specialists. They argued that the United States might well have to fight limited wars again. One had to expect that other regional conflicts would occur in which the United States felt obliged to intervene because important interests were at stake. Quite appropriately, those who drew this particular lesson from the Korean War came to be known as adherents of the Limited War School.

The disagreement over strategy between adherents of the Never-Again and the Limited War viewpoints has persisted ever since and has had an impact on American policymaking in a number of subsequent crises which I do not have time to discuss.

Let me jump ahead to the period of the early and mid-1960's. By then, the Never-Again school lacked powerful spokesmen and it was unable to prevent large-scale U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. However, the costs and unsatisfactory outcome of that war triggered a major revival of the Never-Again point of view. In President Reagan's first term, his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger articulated a powerful and highly influential version of the old Never-Again philosophy. Weinberger and the Secretary of State George Shultz engaged in an impassioned, at times acrimonious debate over this issue. Shultz was not oblivious to the "lessons" of Vietnam but, echoing elements of the earlier Limited War school, Shultz observed that situations do arise when a "discrete assertion of power" is needed to support our limited objectives. Shultz argued that diplomatic efforts not backed by credible threats of force and, when necessary, with use of limited force will prove ineffectual, resulting in substantial damage to U.S. interests.

Since the debate between Weinberger and Shultz, the use of force as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy has continued to be a difficult, often highly controversial issue. The problem has taken on new dimensions in the geopolitical context of the post-cold war era. Presidents Bush and Clinton have had to confront a striking paradox. The United States has emerged as the only superpower and it possesses overwhelmingly superior military capabilities. And yet we have repeatedly experienced great difficulty in employing the strategies of deterrence and coercive diplomacy to persuade adversaries to forgo or stop actions that impose on U.S. interests.

Several aspects of the post-cold war era have added new wrinkles to the dilemma of whether and how to use force and threats of force to back diplomacy. The domestic consensus that undergirded American foreign policy during the cold war has been shattered. Since the end of the cold war there has been lacking anything approximating a national consensus on what the leadership role of the United States should be in international affairs. Lack of agreement on the nature and importance of our national interests in this new geopolitical setting has added new dimensions and twists to the debate as to when and how force and threats of force should be employed. Moreover, there is little prospect that a new national consensus can be forged to provide an underpinning to a coherent, consistent foreign policy.

This problem has been further complicated by the proliferation of intra-state conflicts in the post-cold war era, which in recent years vastly outnumber conflicts between states. The international community has been overburdened by crisis situations that call for peace-making, peace-keeping, nation-building, and humanitarian assistance.

Let me turn briefly now to the question whether any useful "decision rules" or specific guidelines can be formulated and agreed upon for using force or threats of force to deter or deal with these many challenging crises. Perhaps the best general answer to this question was given by President Bush in his "farewell address" at West Point in January 1993. President Bush stated that "there can be no single or simple set of fixed rules for using force.... Each and every case is unique."

Nonetheless, if not decision rules at least some guidelines of a rather general character are possible. President Bush himself proposed several, and I think it is significant that his guidelines implicitly but clearly rejected or qualified those that had been proposed by Caspar Weinberger. And indeed, the practice of the Bush administration on important occasions deviated from Weinberger's rules. First, as Bush's intervention in Somalia indicated, U.S. military forces were committed not only, as Weinberger had urged, when "vital interests" were at stake. Second, as Bush's policy in dealing with Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf crisis indicated, it is not the case that U.S. forces will be committed only when there is a minimal risk of casualties. Third, again as the Gulf War indicated, it is not the case that U.S. forces will be committed only when there is strong public support for doing so. (However, it is also true that the American public must understand and support the objective being pursued and be persuaded that the stakes warrant putting American lives on the line.)

Let me summarize now the general guidelines that can be extracted from President Bush's West Point address and by the practice of his administration. The first guideline is: do not commit U.S. forces unless you believe it will make a critical difference. Second, do not commit U.S. military forces unless there is a high probability of success. Third, define the military mission carefully, and tailor and circumscribe the mission to enhance the likelihood that it will succeed. Be it noted that this third guideline implies that "winning" is not simply a matter of making sure that overwhelming force is used; rather "winning" is in the first instance a matter of choosing the objective of the intervention wisely and limiting it if necessary.

Let me turn in the time remaining to the problems we have experienced in making effective use of deterrence and coercive diplomacy--two strategies that have received or will receive attention in some of your panels. Both of these strategies require the ability to make threats of force that will be sufficiently credible and sufficiently potent in the eyes of the adversary to persuade him not to act against our interests or to stop or undo what he has done.

As I noted earlier, in the post-cold war era the United States has repeatedly experienced great difficulty in making threats that were credible and potent enough to deter or coerce adversaries. Two particularly striking examples will suffice to illustrate the inability of a superpower that is in possession of overwhelmingly superior military capabilities to make sufficiently credible and sufficiently potent threats, the paradox I alluded to earlier. In the Persian Gulf crisis, despite an amazing demonstration of U.S. military capabilities deployed to the Gulf and a declared willingness to use force if necessary, Saddam Hussein refused to comply with the demand to remove his troops from Kuwait and had to be expelled by force.

The second example concerns the efforts of the Reagan and Bush administrations to persuade the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega, to leave office by threatening to use force, if necessary. After ineffectual efforts at coercive diplomacy to gain this objective, President Bush was finally forced to send combat forces into Panama to capture Noriega.

How can the failure of coercive diplomacy in these cases be understood? While it is difficult to understand Saddam Hussein's mind-set or his calculations, it would appear that he was insufficiently impressed with the credibility or the potency of U.S. threats of force. He may have been influenced more by an image he had formed of U.S. irresolution, one which attributed to the United States a peculiar reluctance and inability to sustain casualties that stemmed from its catastrophic experience in Vietnam.

As for Noriega, it is clear that only a stronger variant of the strategy of coercive diplomacy coupled perhaps with "carrots" and efforts to provide him with face-saving would have been necessary to overcome his unwillingness to give up power. (This was perhaps a "lesson" learned and finally applied by the Clinton administration in its efforts to remove the Haitian dictators.) Analysis of the Bush administration's efforts to pressure Noriega reveals that it employed a weak variant of coercive diplomacy, resembling a "try-and-see" approach rather than an ultimatum.[3]

This interpretation of the Noriega case gains strong support from General Colin Powell who stated in an interview that the limited military actions taken by the U.S. in 1988 and 1989 probably reinforced Noriega's pre-existing perception that the U.S. was irresolute, and that he could possibly persevere.

The authors of a recent study of these and other cases have offered the trenchant observation that "there is a generation of political leaders throughout the world whose basic perception of U.S. military power and political will is one of weakness, [leaders] who enter any situation with a fundamental belief that the United States can be defeated, can be driven away." In support of this observation, these authors cite the statement by Mohammed Farah Aidid, the leader of a key Somali faction, in a conversation with Ambassador Robert Oakley, U.N. Special Envoy to Somalia during the U.S. involvement there in 1993-1995: Aidid said, "I've studied Vietnam and Beirut. I know that all I need to do to send you home is to kill some Americans."[4]

Aidid was proven to be correct! The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia by the Clinton administration after U.S. soldiers died in a clash with Aidid's forces was not only a humiliating experience, it also confirmed perceptions that America lacked resolve, and it severely complicated and undermined U.S. efforts thereafter to make effective use of threats of force.

It is clear that domestic public and congressional support for threats or use of force is a critical variable. Such support does not guarantee success, but without it, presidents have great difficulty making threats of sufficient credibility and of sufficient potency to back their demands on adversaries. The American public's strong aversion to the risk of suffering casualties, a legacy of Vietnam, is all the more constraining when the U.S. is confronted by intra-state conflicts that have become so prominent in the post-cold war era. Ever mindful of the public aversion to casualties, presidents have been reluctant to make threats as clear, potent, and credible as required by the situation. They have reacted cautiously or not at all to some challenges to American interests.

One can acknowledge that the United States has been correct not to intervene in every one of many crises around the globe. American interests do not always clearly require us to do so, and the international community itself is overwhelmed with such crises and cannot respond to all of them. But often U.S. interests do merit some response and the response, if any, has tended to be a minimal one taken in the hope of limiting the extent of involvement and costs.

As a result, the United States has often acted in ways that inadvertently support the image of American irresolution. Even in cases when firm U.S. military action was finally taken--Panama, Haiti, and Bosnia--it came only after considerable delay. Such belated responses could not be counted upon to erase the image of U.S. hesitation and irresolution held by foreign leaders who thought they could benefit from the pronounced reluctance of the American public, Congress, and the administration leaders to accept the risk of casualties. For the simple fact is that the inconclusive threats and delayed military action taken by the U.S. in many situations are likely to be perceived as others "more as signs of weakness than as potent expressions of America's true military power." As a result, foreign leaders are likely to be willing to withstand American threats--necessitating the U.S. either to resort to force to achieve American goals, or to engage in embarrassing retreats.[5]

There is much merit in General Colin Powell's observation that "threats of military force will work only when U.S. leaders have decided that they are prepared to use force." The logical and practical implication of this observation is that when presidents are not prepared to use force, threats to do so should not be made.[6] General Powell also pointedly observes that when resorting to force, "The president must begin the action prepared to see the course through to its end.... He can only persuade an opponent of his seriousness when, indeed, he is serious...."

The dilemmas regarding use of force and threats of force in American diplomacy will not yield to the imperatives of the Weinberger Doctrine. It is noteworthy that not only the Bush administration but also President Clinton's has found it necessary to introduce some flexibility in applying the Weinberger Doctrine. Force has not always been used, as Weinberger argued, only when truly vital U.S. interests are at stake. Force was used by President Clinton in Haiti and again in Bosnia--as, indeed, earlier by President Bush against Saddam Hussein--with only marginal domestic political support at best, and not with the "reasonable assurance" of assured domestic support Weinberger held to be a prerequisite. And Weinberger's injunction that U.S. combat forces should be employed only "as a last resort after exhausting other means" for safeguarding U.S. interests has been subjected to considerable questioning.

So, in conclusion, I note that rightly or wrongly, the press of world events has driven American policymakers inevitably toward Secretary Shultz's prescriptions for use of force in support of diplomacy.[7]

These important emendations of the Weinberger Doctrine in the direction of Shultz's position have been taken uneasily and have occasioned considerable criticism. By no means do we have a synthesis or a clear resolution of the two competing points of view. The tensions and dilemmas surrounding the use of force and threats of force remain and they can be expected to challenge American presidents, Congress, and the public into the foreseeable future.



Endnotes

[1]Talk at CSIS Security Strategy Symposium, Renaissance Washington DC Hotel, June 25, 1998. This paper draws from a paper of the same title prepared for the Dedication Conference of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, September 9-10, 1997, which will appear in a forthcoming publication.

[2]Reprinted in Richard N. Haass, Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-cold war World (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment, 1994), Appendix F, pp. 199-204.

[3]A recent study of the case finds that the Bush administration "...never stated clearly and definitively that the U S. would he willing to invade the country and throw Noriega out if he did not comply with the demand to relinquish office...a [sufficiently] potent threat was never made.... Nor was any deadline set for his compliance with the demand.... U.S. verbal demands were not directly supported by tangible military actions. Although reinforcements were sent to the Canal Zone and some exercises were held there, they were all downplayed U.S. officials and explained by a general concern for the security of the zone in light of deteriorating U.S.-Panamanian relations." Barry Blechman and Tamara Corman Wittes, "Defining Moment: The Threat and Use of Force in American Foreign Policy Since 1989," National Research Council, Committee on International Conflict Resolution. Occasional Paper No. 1 (Washington, D.C. 1998).

[4]Interview with Robert Oakley by Blechman and Wittes.

[5]Blechman and Wittes.

[6]Colin L. Powell, "U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead," Foreign Affairs, vol. 72:5 (Winter 1992-1993), pp. 32-45. Powell, "Why Generals Get Nervous," New York Times, 8 October 1992, p. A35. (Quoted by Blechman and Wittes.)

[7]Blechman and Wittes. At the same time, however, other criteria associated with the Weinberger Doctrine continue to characterize the approach of the Clinton administration, in particular the requirement for clearly defined political and military objectives, and its adherence until recently to the requirement that a specific exit time be set for removal of U.S. forces when they are committed to a crisis area.

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