Book Review: The Big Stick by Eliot A. Cohen

The Big Stick by Eliot A. Cohen is an examination of the usefulness and/or necessity of having credible military force as part of US international relations.

First the numbers, the book is 243 pages of text divided into 8 topical chapters with an introduction and postscript.  There are 36 pages of endnotes and an index as well.

The central thesis of the book is that the United States has to have a credible military capability in order to engage with the wider world.  The basic idea is that even if we wanted to, it is impossible for the US to disengage and take up the kind of isolationist stance that some people advocate.  Certain actors in the world will be coming after US interests whether we actively participate on the global stage or not.

The topical chapters deal with the United States’ place in the world, the effect of the seemingly endless War on Terror, and an examination of the most likely adversaries and issues the US is likely to face in the next several decades.  The analysis is cogent and well written.  Of particular interest to me were the chapters on China and ungoverned space.  These present a very good description of the issue and an analysis if the ways in which the US can and should respond. 

Cohen goes out of his way to point that there is no single solution to the multitude of challenges facing the US in the decades to come.  The point is made that while military force is most often not the first tool of international diplomacy, the credible threat of its deployment is and that for that reason alone a strong military will be a necessity for the foreseeable future. He is undoubtedly correct; the question is if the American public will go along with it and demand the reforms necessary to eliminate bloat in the defense budget to keep the military strong.

One of Cohen’s best ideas is to both reform defense acquisition programs and peg defense spending as a percentage of GDP.  Both are probably unworkable in reality regardless of how laudable they are as ideas.  The reality of defense budgets, entrenched bureaucracies, and the power of the defense lobby is such that absent a true national emergency, nothing is likely to happen beyond playing around on the edges and he acknowledges that.

This is an excellent book full of thoughtful analysis that should make the reader think.  The reality is that the US is likely to need a strong military for the foreseeable future as there is no other power on the horizon that shares American values that looks even remotely capable of sharing the burden of protecting those values and those powers that should have taken advantage of the moral welfare of the US doing the lions share of the work to protect the values they claim to cherish.  This will not change any time soon and this book explains why that is so. 

I highly recommend this book.