The American Way of War Reconsidered

Remarks prepared for the “Cigars, Scotch, and Strategy Group”

I’m a retired diplomat.  The late Arthur Goldberg, who served on our Supreme Court and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once said that “diplomats approach every question with an open . . . mouth.”  No doubt that’s often true at the U.N., where parliamentary posturing and its evil twin, declaratory diplomacy, are the rule.  But the essence of diplomacy is not talking but listening carefully and with an open mind to what others don’t say as well as what they do, and then seeking common ground.

As a whisky-sipping former smoker who has been known to dabble in strategy, I’m honored to have been asked to meet such an august group of fellow sinners and schemers.  I want to hear your views on the politico-military challenges the United States now faces and those the next administration will likely have to deal with.  Let me take twenty minutes or so to make some general remarks about diplomacy and the American way of war to set the stage for that discussion.

Ask the average American what diplomacy is, and he or she is likely to say something like: “saying nice doggie, while reaching for a stick.”  Civic literacy on matters of peace and war is low in our society.  Pardon me if I appear to speak seriously for a few minutes.

Diplomacy is how a nation advances its interests and resolves problems with foreigners with minimal violence.  It is the nonbelligerent champion of domestic tranquility and prosperity.  It promotes the achievement of a modus vivendi – mutually acceptable coexistence between differing perspectives and cultures.  It seeks to solve problems rather than perpetuate them – unless time is clearly on its side.  Then it dithers elegantly.

Diplomacy is the translation of national strategy into tactics to gain political, economic, and military advantages without the use of force.  It is the outermost sentry and first guardian of national defense.  The lapse or failure of diplomacy can bring war and all its pains to a nation.

In the spectrum of statecraft, peaceable diplomacy is as far as you can get from armed conflict.  It is often thought of as an alternative rather than a complement to war.  But it doesn’t end when war begins.  And when war proves necessary to adjust relations with other states or peoples, it is diplomacy that must translate the outcome of the fighting into agreed adjustments in relationships, crafting a better peace that reconciles the vanquished to their defeat and stabilizes a new status quo.  By any measure, therefore, diplomacy is vitally important to the power, wealth, and well-being of the nation.

At its deepest level, diplomacy is a subtle strategic activity.  It is about rearranging circumstances, perceptions, and the parameters of international problems so as to realign the self-interest of other nations with one’s own in ways that cause them to see that it is in their interest to do what one wants them to do, and that it’s possible for them to do it without appearing to capitulate to any foreign power or interest.  In otehr words, diplomacy is about getting others to want to play our game our way and to think they’re smart to do it.

Judging by results in the increasingly complex post-Cold War environment, diplomacy is something the United States does not now understand or know how to do.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union liberated Americans from our fear of nuclear Armageddon, the foreign policy of the United States has come to rely almost exclusively on economic sanctions, military deterrence, and the use of force.  Such measures are far from the only arrows in the traditional quiver of statecraft.  Yet Americans no longer aim at leadership by example or polite persuasion backed by national prestige, patronage, institution building, or incentives for desirable behavior.  In Washington, the threat to use force has become the first – rather than the last – resort in foreign policy. We Americans have embraced coercive measures as our default means of influencing other nations, whether they be allies, friends, adversaries, or enemies.

For most in our political elite, the overwhelming military and economic leverage of the United States justifies abandoning the effort to persuade rather than muscle recalcitrant foreigners into line.  We habitually respond to challenges of every kind with military posturing rather than with diplomatic initiatives directed at solving the problems that generate these challenges.  This approach is making us less – not more – secure, while burdening future generations of Americans with ruinous debt.  It is unsettling our allies without deterring our adversaries.  It has destabilized entire regions, multiplied our enemies, and estranged us from our friends.

Outside our own country, American military prowess and willingness to administer shock and awe to foreign societies are nowhere in doubt.  In Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other places, Americans have provided ample evidence of our politico-military obduracy and willingness to inflict huge casualties on foreigners whom we judge to oppose us.  As a nation, we nonetheless seem to doubt our own prowess and to be obsessed with proving it to ourselves and others.  But the issue is not our ability and willingness to use force.  It is whether our policies are wise and whether military campaign plans dressed up in domestically appealing rhetoric can equate to strategies that can yield a world more congruent with our interests and values.

In recent years, the United States has killed untold multitudes in wars and counterterrorist drone warfare in West Asia and North Africa.  Our campaigns have spilled the blood, broken the bodies, and taken or blighted the lives of many in our armed forces, while weakening the society that sent them into combat by diverting necessary investment from its human and physical infrastructure.  American power and determination have inflicted vast amounts of pain and suffering on foreign peoples.  They have not bent our opponents to our will.  Far from yielding greater security for us or our allies, these interventions – whether on the ground or from the air, whether human or robotic – have multiplied our enemies, intensified their hatred for us, and escalated the threat to both our homeland and our citizens and friends abroad.

We have come to see the world through a military periscope.  The response of much of America’s political elite to the repeated failure of the use of force to yield desired results has been to assert that we would have succeeded if only we had been more gung ho and hit ‘em again harder.  But none of the wars we have started or the military postures we have struck has halted dynamic change in the global and regional distribution of economic, military, and political power.  There is no reason to believe that greater belligerence and more bombing could yield a better result.  Many Americans  are now skeptical both about the wisdom of staking our future on the preservation of a rapidly crumbling post-Cold War status quo and the neoconservative agendas the military-industrial-congressional complex seeks to impose on our nation to do this.

The American way in national security policy, like that of other countries, is steered by unexamined preconceptions drawn from the peculiarities of our history.  In the aggregate, these convictions constitute a subliminal doctrine with the authority of dogma.  Legions of academics and think tankers now make a living by exploring applications of this dogma for the United States Department of Defense and related institutions.  They have produced an intellectual superstructure for the military-industrial complex in the form of an almost infinite variety of ruminations on coercion.  (No one looks to the Department of State for support for research on less overbearing approaches to international relations.  It has neither money nor a desire to vindicate its core functions by sponsoring the development of diplomatic doctrine.)

War is the ultimate argument in relations between states and peoples.  Its purpose is sometimes the conquest and subjugation of populations.  More commonly, however, war is a means to remove perceived threats, repel aggression, restore a balance of power, compel acquiescence in a shift in borders, or alter the bad behavior of an adversary. Since war is not over until the defeated accept defeat and accommodate their new circumstances, wars usually end  in negotiations directed at translating military outcomes into mutually agreed political arrangements that will establish a  stable new order of affairs.  Not so the wars of the United States.

Our objectives in our civil war, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were not adjustments in relations with the enemy but “unconditional surrender,” that is a peace imposed on the defeated nation without its assent and entailing its subsequent moral, political, and economic reconstruction.  The smaller wars of the 20th century did not correct this idiosyncratic American rejection of models of warfare linked to limited objectives.  We fought to a draw in Korea, where to this day we have not translated the 1953 armistice into peace.  We were bested in Vietnam.  In Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and Iraq in 2003, we imposed regime change on the defeated, not agreed terms for war termination and peace.

So Americans have no recent experience of ending wars through negotiation with the
vanquished, as has been the norm throughout human history.  Our national narrative inclines us to equate success in war with smashing up enemies enough to ensure that we can safely deny them the dignity of taking them seriously or enlisting them in building a peace.   Our wars are typically planned as military campaigns with purely military objectives, with little, if any, thought to what adjustments in foreign relations the end of the fighting might facilitate or how to exploit the political opportunities our use of force can provide.  As a rule, we do not specify war aims or plan for negotiations to obtain a defeated enemy’s acceptance of our terms for ending the fighting.

The absence of clearly stated war aims for U.S. combat operations makes it easy for our politicians to move the goal posts.  Our wars therefore almost invariably entail mission creep.  Our armed forces find themselves in pursuit of a fluid set of objectives that never solidifies. With victory undefined, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines cannot say when they have accomplished their missions enough to stand down.

Our habit of failing to define specific political objectives for our military also means that, in our case, war is less “an extension of politics by other means” (as Clausewitz prescribed) than a brutally direct way of punishing our foes linked to no clear conception of how they might take aboard the lessons we imagine they should draw from the drubbing we give them.  Our chronic inattention to the terms of war termination means that U.S. triumphs on the battlefield are seldom, if ever, translated into terms that reward military victory with a stable peace.

The U.S. armed forces are highly professional and admirably effective at demolishing our enemies’ power.  But their expectation that American civilian policymakers will then make something of the political vulnerabilities they create is almost always disappointed.  The relevant civilian policymakers are almost all inexperienced amateurs placed in office by the spoils system.  Their inexperience, the theories of coercive diplomacy they studied at university, the traditional disengagement of American diplomats from military operations, and our now heavily militarized political culture converge to assure that American diplomacy is missing in action when it is most needed – as the fighting begins and ends.

Thus, our military triumph in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait was never translated into terms to which Saddam Hussein or his regime were asked to pledge their honor.  Instead, we looked to the United Nations to pass an omnibus resolution imposing onerous restrictions on Iraqi sovereignty, including inspections, reparations, and the demilitarization of portions of Iraq’s territory. No one consulted the Iraqi government about these terms.  Saddam assumed no explicit obligation to comply with them.  To the extent he could get away with ignoring them, he therefor did.  The war never really ended.  In our 2003 re-invasion of Iraq, U.S. planners assumed apolitically that military victory would automatically bring peace. No Iraqi authority competent to accept terms and maintain stability was left in place.  Subliminal doctrine instead prevailed.  The U.S. government devised no mechanism to translate its success on the battlefield into a legitimate – politically viable – new order and peace in Iraq.

In the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, we were guided by the historically induced, peculiarly American presumption that war naturally culminates in the unconditional surrender and moral reconstruction of the enemy.  The Department of State was excluded from all planning.  The notion that a political process might be required for war termination on terms that could reconcile the enemy to its defeat never occurred to the White House or DOD.  Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya offer different but analogous examples of Washington’s blindness or indifference to the utility of diplomacy in translating battlefield results into political results.  So our military interventions have nowhere produced a better peace.  We Americans do not know how to conclude our wars.

American confusion about the relationship between the use of force and political order-setting extends to our approach to situations that have the potential to explode in war but have not yet done so.  Our country learned how to behave as a world power during the four-decade-long bipolar stalemate of the Cold War.  The Cold War’s strategy of containment made holding the line against our Soviet rivals the central task of U.S. diplomacy.  Americans came to view negotiated adjustments in relations as part of a great zero-sum game and as therefore, for the most part, infeasible or undesirable, or both.  After all, a misstep could trigger a nuclear war fatal to both sides.

The Cold War reduced diplomacy to the political equivalent of trench warfare, in which the absence of movement constituted success.  Americans learned to deter conflict by threatening escalation that might lead to a mutually fatal nuclear exchange.  This conditioned us to believe that it is often wiser to stonewall – to freeze a situation so as to contain potential conflict –  than to waste time and effort exploring ways of mitigating or eliminating it.

We Americans have yet to unlearn these now largely irrelevant and counterproductive lessons of the Cold War.  We are no longer engaged in overarching strategic or ideological contests.  But we still respond as though we were.  We react to adverse developments with threats of escalating pressure calculated to immobilize the other side rather than with diplomatic efforts to resolve the issues that motivate it.  We impose sanctions to symbolize our displeasure and to enable our politicians to appear to be doing something tough, even if it is inherently feckless.  Sometimes we decline to speak with our adversary on the issue in question until it has agreed to end the behavior to which we object.  But, almost invariably, the core of our response is the issuance of deterrent military threats.

To sum up: the American way of war – the craft most of you here practice – is unique.  So is the way we Americans relate the use of force to the creation of political order.  Both reflect our history and our culture and, in many ways, both are deeply problematic in the context of the new world disorder.  Think about it!  The last war we were able to end in a stable peace was World War II.  Our inability to end  the many wars we have fought since, including those we are currently fighting or preparing to fight, suggests that we have a few things wrong.  And it has become obvious that we do not know how to deal with the key geopolitical challenges we now face.

Da`esh – the so-called Islamic caliphate – has provided powerless Muslim youth with an opportunity very similar to the one young Christians seized in the Crusades.  They can dominate others, show off their martial prowess by killing infidels, and affirm a religious identity without having to endure the tedium of actually studying the theology they profess.  In and of themselves, bombing and boots on the ground are no answers to this.

Russia is back as a great power in its neighborhood.  China is beginning to eclipse the United States economically and to stand its ground against American forces in its region.  North Korea is utterly refractory.  Iran remains deeply alienated from the United States.  Dealing with these phenomena in exclusively military terms is no answer to the challenges they represent.  It adds to their truculence and provokes them to double down on their efforts to counter American power and influence.  It aggravates rather than solves our problems with them.

The next administration must do better in coping with these challenges.  But the next four years seem likely to generate still more tests for American statecraft.  One can easily imagine, for example: a military clash with a nuclear power like China, North Korea or Russia; expanded terrorist attacks here as well as in Europe and Asia; the violent birth of new states and new alignments that further undercut the American position in the Middle East; or disagreements with European allies over trends and events that lead to greatly reduced transatlantic cooperation and the de facto disintegration of NATO.   Of course, we must prepare to deal with the military consequences of such crises.  But it would be vastly cheaper, safer, and more effective to focus on heading them off – making them less likely by addressing their underlying causes as best we can through measures short of war.

To do that, we need strategies that focus on shaping the future, not preserving past privilege, and that begin with diplomacy and other non-military instruments of statecraft.  Ready, fire, aim does not work.  We must fundamentally rethink how we conduct our foreign relations.  The structure by which we formulate foreign and military policy has become as dysfunctional as our government overall.  We need to rethink how we organize ourselves to protect our national security.  The price of continued failure to adapt to post Cold War circumstances is in the process of climbing to unacceptable levels.

I’ll stop here so I can listen to your thoughts on the issues I have raised.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) | Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

Washington, DC

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