The Limits of Military Power

Is overwhelming national military power a reliable source of influence in world affairs?

If so, the United States should certainly have plenty of influence today. For decades, it has been the world’s Number 1 military spender. And it continues in this role. According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States spent $640 billion on the military in 2013, thus accounting for 37 percent of world military expenditures. The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively. Thus, last year, the United States spent more than three times as much as China and more than seven times as much as Russia on the military.

In this context, the U.S. government’s inability to get its way in world affairs is striking. In the current Ukraine crisis, the Russian government does not seem at all impressed by the U.S. government’s strong opposition to its behavior. Also, the Chinese government, ignoring Washington’s protests, has laid out ambitious territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Even much smaller, weaker nations have been snubbing the advice of U.S. officials. Israel has torpedoed U.S. attempts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, the embattled Syrian government has been unwilling to negotiate a transfer of power, and North Korea remains as obdurate as ever when it comes to scuttling its nuclear weapons program.

Of course, hawkish critics of the Obama administration say that it lacks influence in these cases because it is unwilling to use the U.S. government’s vast military power in war.

But is this true? The Obama administration channeled very high levels of military manpower and financial resources into lengthy U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ended up with precious little to show for this investment. Furthermore, in previous decades, the U.S. government used its overwhelming military power in a number of wars without securing its goals. The bloody Korean War, for example, left things much as they were before the conflict began, with the Korean peninsula divided and a ruthless dictatorship in place in the north. The lengthy and costly Vietnam War led to a humiliating defeat for the United States — not because the U.S. government lacked enormous military advantages, but because, ultimately, the determination of the Vietnamese to gain control of their own country proved more powerful than U.S. weaponry.

Even CIA ventures drawing upon U.S. military power have produced a very mixed result. Yes, the CIA, bolstered by U.S. military equipment, managed to overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954. But, seven years later, the CIA-directed, -funded, and -equipped invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs failed to topple the Castro government when the Cuban public failed to rally behind the U.S.-instigated effort. Although the U.S. government retains an immense military advantage over its Cuban counterpart, with which it retains a hostile relationship, this has not secured the United States any observable influence over Cuban policy.

The Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet governments is particularly instructive. For decades, the two governments engaged in an arms race, with the United States clearly in the lead. But the U.S. military advantage did not stop the Soviet government from occupying Eastern Europe, crushing uprisings against Soviet domination in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or dispatching Soviet troops to take control of Afghanistan. Along the way, U.S. hawks sometimes called for war with the Soviet Union. But, in fact, U.S. and Soviet military forces never clashed. What finally produced a love fest between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and ended the Cold War was a strong desire by both sides to replace confrontation with cooperation, as indicated by the signing of substantial nuclear disarmament agreements.

Similarly, the Iranian and U.S. governments, which have been on the worst of terms for decades, appear to be en route to resolving their tense standoff — most notably over the possible development of Iranian nuclear weapons — through diplomacy. It remains unclear if this momentum toward a peaceful settlement results from economic sanctions or from the advent of a reformist leadership in Tehran. But there is no evidence that U.S. military power, which has always been far greater than Iran’s, has played a role in fostering it.

lawrence wittnerGiven this record, perhaps military enthusiasts in the United States and other nations should consider whether military power is a reliable source of influence in world affairs. After all, just because you possess a hammer doesn’t mean that every problem you face is a nail.

Lawrence Wittner
History News Network


  1. harry says

    I thought I might add that I have been there, done that, I lived in south Korea, south Vietnam, and east Germany among other places. I own this to my fellow citizens who funded my many vacations in Asia and Europe. It was my pleasure, thanks for the many memories.

  2. harry says

    I assume the writer would rather be the nail than the hammer. Wishing for wars to end brings me to this very old proverb “Si vis Pacem Para bellum” I respect the words and thoughts of those who have been there. I think less of those who have not. I ask each of you, if you were the POTUS/CIC, would you rather be loved or hated; feared or despised, or respected or laughed at? You can not be all of them, what would you have as your reputation?
    My advise to all is be careful for whom you vote. The person who we elect to the white house needs to have some skills at being a leader of a state, a large company, or having served in the military, plus some skill in the game of chess and be as clean as the king’s wife.

  3. JoeWeinstein says

    Wittner’s primary thesis – military power does not automatically translate into influence – is true. (But that’s not news.) The reason for its truth however is too basic for him to grasp: whether or not you have a huge military, if you are seen as unwilling to use any force at all to enforce your own very simple clear warnings, then of course you are spiking your own influence.

    USA influence is in tatters precisely because Obama is correctly seen as unwilling to enforce even his own clear warnings – with or without having a huge military to back him up. This bluffing has been demonstrated clearly to Putin, Khamenei and the rest of the world precisely by Obama’s turning tail on his own warning against use of chem weapons in Syria. Instead of using a few missiles to administer timely punishment of Assad and his family, Obama turned to Congress to make a big deal over what could have been little more than another small drone operation lasting minutes or hours, not days or weeks or years. And then he then turned to the Russians. Obama finally ended up de facto endorsing the opposite of his own stated policy: in effect he endorsed continuation of Assad as master of Syria – a rich reward to Assad (and his backers in Tehran and Moscow) precisely for Assad’s VIOLATION of Obama’s warning.

    Wittner’s dismisses ‘hawkish critics’ as allegedly urging ‘war’ using overwhelming USA military power. On the contrary, many so-called ‘hawks’ are in fact asking the opposite: they are asking that a sufficient minimum of power be used to make good on otherwise empty warnings and threats, so as to demonstrate credibility and thereby PREVENT larger war.

    Former administrations failed to make clear warnings in the first place – which is why we got wars over Korea and Kuwait – in which USA military power was able to compensate for lack of prior policy. (Contrary to Wittner, the USA was not militarily a helpless giant in Korea: the USA simply was not interested in full-scale never-ending war with China – the elephant in the living room that Wittner fails to mention. And in Vietnam, the USA was not interested in making the entire country a large-scale My Lai: destruction of the entire country in order to ‘save’ it.)

    But the Obama administration is a more hopeless case than these past administrations, because its perceived lack of will to use ANY power at all (except drones for marginal sport) ensures that the USA will lack influence no matter how much the USA arms or disarms.

    Wittner’s small examples are misleading too. Israel did NOT torpedo US efforts for a ‘peace settlement’. Given the minimum Palestinian position, the US efforts had little chance of resulting in a ‘deal’ and absolutely no chance of resulting in ‘peace’. In accord with their decades-old Charter the Palestine Authority views their primary mission not to create a Palestine state (which could have occurred in 1947, 2000, 2004 and 2008) or peace, but – at once or in stages – to drive out Israel, or indeed any Jewish state, from all the land west of the Jordan. Kerry’s talks occurred because both sides wanted to humor Kerry and the USA: both sides are so small that neither totally discounts the remaining shards of USA influence.

  4. dusty says

    While in general this article has a lot of insight it needs to be pointed out that the Soviet “Occupation” of East Europe was brought about by the fact that the east European countries joined with NAZI Germany in invading the Soviet Union in an effort that neither the US, Britain or France resisted until Hitler turned more aggressive in the West and Africa, etc. The Soviets had to defeat about 70% of the German forces plus their axis allies from eastern Europe. After WW2 ended and Winnie Churchill declared the cold war against the Soviet Union and the US began frantically rebuilding “occupied” Western Europe including Germany, there was no way in hell that the Soviet Union would stand by for the west to annex east Europe and re-empower the fascists in east Europe.

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