Roundtable Review: Christopher Preble's "The Power Problem"

The following post examines Christopher Preble's The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance make us less safe, less prosperous, and less free (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2009). It features reviews by Andrew Futter (University of Leicester), Dragan Živojinović (University of Belgrade), Dan Plesch (SOAS University of London), Ashley Cox (University of Leicester), and William C. Wohlforth (Dartmouth College). The post concludes with a reponse by author Christopher Preble (The Cato Institute).

By Andrew Futter, University of Leicester

The question of how military power can be successfully used to achieve political and strategic ends has been a problem confronting policymakers in powerful states for many hundreds of years. Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that the more power that a state has – especially in terms of military capability – the easier it becomes to force others to do your will. However, as history has shown, the reality has rarely been this simple. The predicament in which the United States currently finds itself – a preeminent global power with unrivalled military capacity that seeks to control and shape the international system within which it is acting, but which has often struggled to convert military dominance into political and strategic successes - is arguably the latest incarnation of this enduring quandary. It is in this long tradition of wrestling with the realities of the efficacy of ‘hard power’ that Christopher Preble’s highly readable and engaging critique of contemporary American thinking about power, the use of military force, and of how US resources can best be used to achieve security, is situated.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the US stands alone as the world’s preeminent military power, with a defence budget and power projection capabilities that far exceeds that of any other nation state. In fact, the US spends more on its military than the next five countries put together, and while some argue that the US is in decline, this vast qualitative and qualitative advantage will ensure that it remains the world’s foremost military power for a long time to come. However, as Christopher Preble points out, at the same time, the US has proven remarkably bad in converting this power into foreign policy and national security successes. One only has to look at the largely poor record of using the threat of US military power for purposes of coercive diplomacy; notably the inability to prevent North Korea (and it seems likely Iran too) from acquiring nuclear weapons, the decision to resort to force in both Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the previous experience in Vietnam. In many instances, overwhelming US military power has not only failed to prevent actions taken by other states, but through its reliance on armed force, strategic bombing, and stationing many thousands of troops overseas, has often exacerbated or even created new national security challenges. According to Preble, this is a result of the misguided notions of US power that have come to dominate in Washington since World War Two; notions which have largely prioritised a military solution to often political problems, and that have expanded the concept of US national security far beyond that which is consummate with the security of the US population. In essence, Preble wonders whether the growth of the US military ‘hammer’ has made too many foreign policy challenges look like ‘nails’.

Why then has the US got into this position? Part of the answer, Preble suggests, is the influence of a variety of domestic dynamics, and specifically how these have sought to shift current notions of US power toward ever greater reliance on military might. A central component of this is surely the dual rise in the power of the president vis-à-vis Congress, and of the Defense Department at the expense of the State Department. Compounding this has been the steady growth in influence of the military industrial complex which has grown expeditiously since the warnings given by Dwight Eisenhower in 1961. The net result of these developments has been a tendency towards military solutions to problems of national security, and towards ever-greater expenditure of the weapons and technology needed to achieve this. This has left many wondering whether it is international requirements that shape US military spending and policy, or US military spending and desire the use its power that designate international requirements. The 20-year epoch of American primacy that began with the end of the Cold War has essentially served to exacerbate these tendencies by providing a strategic window of opportunity for the US to use its power throughout the globe. There is no better example of this than the Bush Administration’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9-11; and the establishment of force-backed notions of democracy promotion. A victim of this over reliance on the military and of misguided notions of national security interests is almost certainly the possibilities to expand the use of ‘soft power’, and at times a neglect of the huge cultural power that the nation wields.

Two broader and fundamental dynamics come to mind when reading Preble’s book. The first is whether what he is advocating is premised on a too-narrow reading of what future wars will look like, and second, that he perhaps fails to take into account relative American decline and the ‘rise of the rest’. Specifically, much of the book appears to be premised on the notion that we have reached an era that is no longer dominated by major interstate war, but instead by internal and irregular combat against terrorists and insurgents. It is still far from clear that we are living through a period of irreversible change in warfare and human relations, and the spectre of conflict with Russia, China, or some other global challenger at some points in the future cannot be discounted. In this regard, it would seem hasty to base military power around short-termism and the fallacy of ‘preparing for the last war’. The second dynamic, and which is in many ways linked to the first, is whether the last few decades – particularly since the end of the Cold War – have represented a historical aberration that has been magnified by the dominance of the US military, that is unlikely to continue for much longer. In this sense, we may already be stepping back organically from the worst excesses of the ‘power problem’ that Preble describes, because of the emergence of new centres of global power amongst the BRIC group of nations. Indeed, this is especially the case if one believes that the US is in relative decline vis-à-vis these competitors. In many ways Preble’s book therefore drives right to the heart of arguably the central dilemma of US foreign policy: is the US a missionary nation charged with divine providence to make the world safe for democracy through military force, or is it more of an exemplar nation – one which in the words of John Quincy Adams, supports free peoples and liberty everywhere but is the defender only of its own? The answer to this question it seems might be shaped more by strategic realities than by decisions in Washington.

One is left feeling that Preble would like to see a return to the pre-1941 idea of the United States acting as the world’s “arsenal of democracy”; supporting allies around the globe but only rarely getting involved itself. Indeed, this is persuasive argument – and one that many American’s would love to embrace. But again, one wonders if the reality would be quite different. Firstly, such a premise suggests that US allies would be willing and able to bear bigger defence and security burdens in their respective geographical ‘spheres of influence’. Although the recent example of Libya, where the US ‘led from the back’ may be a useful model, the idea that the US can stand back more generally would appear to have several main problems, notably that key US allies are neither politically willing nor militarily able to increase their particular burden. Irrespective of this, whether it is politically possible for the US to realistically ‘step back’ from many international problems in an age of globalisation and global terror – where the US is arguably the main target, and whether it likes it or not ubiquitously connected - remains to be seen.

Ultimately, it is difficult to disagree in principle with Preble’s assertion that the US military is big, expensive, and often quite ineffectual – and that at times US power has decreased rather than increased national security and international stability. That said, it is equally difficult to see any near-term alteration to this ‘power problem’. As long as the US remains the world’s foremost military power, it will be confronted with challenges across the globe that will be very difficult to ignore. Consequently, US policymakers will have to choose whether they can stand back and watch genocide, ethnic cleansing and other gross violations of the ‘universal’ principles that the US holds so dear. The political and moral cost of not getting involved will make this very difficult; on the other hand the strategic implications of getting involved may well include the possibility of making the problem far worse, and of course, sacrificing American lives for something that is not considered a direct threat to US national security. It is here that perhaps the greatest and most important insight of the book lies: more often than not when it comes to the use of military power abroad the US is damned if it doesn’t and damned if it does.

By Dragan Živojinović, University of Belgrade

Although published nearly three years ago, Christopher Preble’s book The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance make us less safe, less prosperous, and less free, is in a number of respects more relevant in early 2012 than when it first appeared. For example, the "Strategic Defense Guidance" that the Obama administration published earlier this year, opens similar questions to those raised in this book. Also the ongoing debate on U.S. defense spending and huge military force shape the realities and perception of overall U.S. power and its position in the world. This has become increasingly important in light of the economic crisis after 2008. When these arguments are all mixed together in the Obama administration's attempt to lead a rational, realistic and pragmatic foreign policy (like the one led by George H.W. Bush, who Obama once named a role model in the conduct of foreign affairs), the importance of this kind of practical guidebook for political decision-makers becomes greater.

Besides its practical potential, the book also has an outstanding theoretical importance since it considers one of the most important problems in the discipline of international relations and political science in general, and that is the problem of power. Although the book is mostly about the only one of a kind of power (which is military might) even in the 21st century, it, according to many, remains the main source of state power. Perhaps because in terms of military power the United States does not have a serious contender, at least in the foreseeable future, discussion on this topic is important not only for the United States, but also for the world as a whole.

One of the virtues of the volume is that its key messages and lessons are given through very simple and lively examples, easy to understand and even easier to remember. The now legendary dialogue between Ms. Madeleine Albright, at that time U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Colin Powell, who at that time Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been taken as a book motto. It concerns the dilemma of when to use military force and what it is actually aiming for: is it a deterrent and hence should be used carefully, or should it be used whenever the need, that is the opportunity, arises. A second core message of the book is Preble’s argument that the sheer scale of U.S. military power actually become a problem rather than an advantage, and so "we should reduce our military power in order to be more secure." While this may seem like the theater of absurd, in reality it is exactly so. There are situations, as international relations in the past seventy years aptly demonstrates, in which security does not increase with the increase of investments put in it. On the contrary, it is even counterproductive.

Preble finds the recipe for treating the problem of power, in altered foreign and security policy of the United States, in more restrained conduct when it comes to use of military force, and higher degree of self-control in general. And exactly here is where the major drawback of the book lays. Despite the strong but justified criticism of excessive U.S. reliance upon military power, the psychological aspect remains unexplained - a sense of insecurity which the United States and its political decision-makers are exposed to living in, what Gideon Rachman called "Zero Sum World." While other countries are arming themselves, particularly those with fast growing economic power, it is very difficult to resist the fear that one day these weapons will be used against you. The age-old security dilemma reigns.

Books like this, which straightforwardly and paradigmatically unravel the maze of American military power and all the illusion and absurdity that follow the system, are rare and therefore valuable. Moreover, Preble has succeeded in explaining in a relatively small number of pages what some have spent decades and years researching. Whether the United States embarks on a proposed Preble path, is open to question. What is certain is that consideration of a book such as this by future strategists at the Pentagon and the White House can only enhance the validity of their decision-making.

By Dan Plesch, SOAS University of London

Christopher Preble is a critic of the use of American military power. He argues that it is too costly overused and while dominant, not all powerful. The description of the strategic impact of the use of US military power most indicative of his approach is that of a bull in china shop, crashing about when a group such as Al Qaeda runs in waving a red flag.

He approves broadly of the Weinburger/Powell limitations on the use of US military power-though not on the scale of the military required for their global role. He is most scathing of what he sees as the overuse of military power starting with George H.W. Bush and continuing unabashed with the leadership of Madeleine Albright at State under President Clinton. The argument for indispensible US power to create global public goods became ever more powerful after 9/11, becoming indistinguishable from the desire to use preventive war to stop what might be called global public bads.

The argument is attractive and familiar, but overall rather superficial. He argues that the Clinton Administration inadvertently circumvented the UN Charter with the 1998 Desert Fox missile attacks on Iraq and the launching of the war on Serbia in the Kosovo crisis in 1999. However, an informal and unattributable paper from the US Mission to NATO distributed in the mid 1990s was explicitly preparing the ground for this type of situation as I and my fellow authors of ‘NATO, Peacekeeping the UN’, argued at the time, making full use of the document entitled, ‘With the UN whenever possible, without the UN whenever necessary’. A theme developed separately and rather more fully in ‘First Do No Harm’ by David Gibbs.

The idea that the U.S. had a powerful interest in preventing either the EU or the UN emerging as significant providers of military security is a stranger to these pages. Whereas in my experience of these events viewed from the comfort of the NATO press room such as dynamic was clear. An examination of the reporting of NATO ministerial meetings through readings of the New York Timesand Washington Post of the 1990s shows that two themes, rarely connected, dominated the coverage. The ineffectiveness of the EU and the UN (where the US was not providing assets in the manner seen recently in Libya) and the outright opposition of the US to the development of any EU military capable of acting without the US-run NATO are recurrent. Indeed the US refused to allow NATO assets to support EU operations in the Balkans.

But Preble is by no means alone in his blindness to this dynamic. Robert Kagan never seriously recognises that Mars throws a tantrum anytime Venus looks like picking up a bow and becoming Diana. The last twenty years of security policy debates at the inter-state level are strewn with the confetti of papers proposing non-US centric military proposals that Mars has sliced to shreds. Be it ‘the separable but not separate’ forces discussed in Warren Christopher’s day or innumerable proposals for stronger, readier, permanently supported UN Forces. The free rider argument at the heart of Preble’s book appears best ignorant of these dynamics in Brussels or New York. While Preble seeks others to look to their own security and hopes for a stronger UN, he and most others are unaware of Winston Churchill’s 1946 endorsement of a UN Air Force using British squadrons under UN rather than British mandate.

Preble is not opposed to all US use of force overseas but it should be done in a far more precisely defined national interest. This includes proper Congressional Authority, but not much else concrete that this author could perceive. The idea, promulgated by Alan Greenspan that the Iraq war was fundamentally about oil is not addressed: spurious or not it is popularly held. Nor does Preble engage with the doctrine promulgated by Jimmy Carter amongst many that the US had a vital interest in Middle East oil and should be prepared to control this interest militarily – harking back to the Carter Doctrine (1980).

Preble is on sound ground in pointing to the overspend on irrelevant military projects, but at least since the early 1980s when Mary Kaldor’s Baroque Arsenal and Gordon Adams’s Iron Triangle, the Politics of Defence Contracting, developed this argument has been developed in a sophisticated manner. The point is that thirty years on we are no closer to developing a counterweight in Congress. And Preble does not offer a new strategy for summoning the political will to change this. Coming from the Cato Institute he might well argue for tax cuts from reduced military spending. An insight that pollster Mark Mellman once told me would be a sure electoral winner were any politician independent enough to put it forward.

Preble rightly points to the negative impact of military intervention to protect oil and shrugs off the idea of oil embargos and shortages by what he calls, ‘the iron laws of supply and demand’. Here too for someone imbued with Beltway politics the analysis is all too superficial. What used to be taught in political economy is that markets tend to be controlled by cartels over time. As the landmark Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation into Multinational Corporations in the mid 1970s, demonstrated with respect to the oil industry, a key driver has long been to keep cheap oil in the ground to keep prices up. A practice most effectively implemented by Saudi Aramco. Such control is by extension are a mean of exercising influence on powers that do not themselves have such access. Any analysis of the use of US power and its relations to the Middle East needs to tackle rather than ignore this dimension.

Preble is prepared to countenance the use of military force by the US under UNSC mandate in furtherance of a strict interpretation of R2P. It is though unclear whether he regards the regimes of the likes of Bush and Blair regimes that abuse their own people as likely to create a security threat to the US, or that he endorses the global application of Human Rights as a US vital interest when it amounts to genocide.

Emboldened by his analysis Preble is unabashed in proposing to halve the number of US Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups, and replace them with non-military means of power. This is laudable to anyone agreeing with his accurate criticisms of the use and misuse of US military power. But without a strategy for non-military power or a frank assessment of what is needed to counterbalance US domestic interests then these arguments amount become posturing rather than policy. Happily, if Preble is indeed not the isolationist he denies, help is at hand. The forgotten but triumphant development of soft power by Roosevelt, Franklin and not Teddy, during WW2 is there for all who wish to look.

By Ashley Cox, University of Leicester

The core argument in Chris Preble’s The Power Problem is that the United States is not made more secure by the vast amounts of money it spends. In short the author’s argument at its core is that less is more. He argues that if the U.S. government were to follow his advice then the U.S. would increase its security and cut the budget deficit simultaneously.

In his first chapter Preble lays out a comprehensive discussion of the role the United States plays in the world and the vast scale of the United States military spending compared to the other nations of the world. This level of spending is often hard to put into perspective, Preble does this with great success, highlighting the gap between the United States and the next highest spending nation, (I use the term next highest spending nation because Preble makes a solid case that there is no direct competitor to the U.S. in military sphere) and it is this argument that forms the basis to showing why the U.S. is overspending on defense.

Preble progresses in a logical fashion to show exactly how much the U.S. spends. He highlights that that the real cost of such a vast military, is not limited to the annual appropriations bill or the Department of Defense budget. John McCain, by most accounts a member of the fiscal conservative groups that would welcome tax reductions gained from cuts in U.S. defense spending, commented in Foreign Affairs that ‘we can also afford to spend more on national defense which currently consumes less than four cents of every dollar’ this indicates a perception that although costs are high in dollar amounts they still do not represent an unsustainable burden to the United States. Preble makes a strong argument that the real costs are much higher than the Department of Defense budget. When one factors in the costs of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror he shows the real costs are greater than a cursory glance would show.

Although it has been shown that this is lower than it had been during the Cold War, standing at four and a half percent of GDP, Preble contests that given the wealth of the United States and its geographical position it should be to be lower still. There is no reason, according to Preble’s argument, to spend more than other nations as a percentage of GDP. Given that the US does spend more than other nations, in fact a lot more, even as a percentage than other states of a similar level of development or those in more dangerous regions of the globe Preble suggests that this is evidence that the U.S. could reduce its spending.

Preble’s argument in this case is that the U.S. spends as much as it does not for its own security concerns but to protect its allies. Further he argues that these allies are free loading on the American taxpayer, that the U.S could substantially reduce the cost of defense if these Allies would pay their fair share. Not only that but the reason America’s allies do not spend their fair share is that they see no reason to as long as the United States remains so overwhelmingly dominant. That as there are no credible threats to U.S. dominance and they themselves do not feel threatened by the United States power, the U.S has discouraged her allies from defending themselves. By creating a system where there is no benefit to a nation defending itself because it has a U.S. guarantee and can thus reallocate these resources or by creating a paradox where those that do increase defense spending will be less secure because the U.S. may reallocate the resources previously defending them to an ally that is less capable of defending itself. Preble believes that the only solution to this circle is that the U.S. must reduce spending so that these nations will see a need to increase spending.

It is also possible that these nations, rather than increasing spending themselves will seek other providers of security and if the price of that guarantee is an increased hostility, either economic or politically to the U.S then we must address how much the U.S. will really save by reducing the security guarantee.

It is important to note that Preble does not argue that the U.S. government should be reallocating the resources from defense to other projects. But that the U.S. government could stop this spending entirely, thus appealing to the fiscally conservative. That the money would go back into the economy as the federal government could reduce the tax burden on individuals and they could use it to purchase goods and services.

Preble’s argument goes beyond the economic benefits to the United States to cutting defense spending but also contends that American democracy would be better protected by reducing the power and influence of the military. Preble argues that by constructing an apparatus that can strike anywhere on the globe at any time the power of the congress to curtail the president’s use of the military has been severely impinged. With the rapidity of events the executive can present the congress with a fait accompli. Further that by maintaining the global presence of the United States as a global police force presidents often do not need to ask if an intervention is in the best interest of the United States. Although there is discussion of the framers intentions especially the role of Madison and Jefferson in the foundation of the constitution and their commitment to the legislature overseeing matters of war. We should not forget that Jefferson himself sent the U.S. navy to war against the Barbary pirates in 1801 without a congressional declaration of war.

Preble concludes that the only course for the United States is to shrink its military and its global presence. Not only would this reduce international resentment of the U.S. but because the U.S. has less capacity to act there will be less calls for it to act and that regional powers will deal with the issues themselves. Meanwhile if a president believes it will be difficult to act they will be less inclined to, keeping America out of wars that do not serve the national interest and large deficits to pay for them certainly don’t.

Preble’s position that the U.S. needs to be less militarily active in the world is not without its detractors. Most vocally from those associated with the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom argue that the cuts Preble suggests would be both bad for America’s position in the world and the American economy. Mackenzie Eaglen writing for the AEI as recently as January 30th argues that defense cuts would undermine America’s industrial base. Further writing with Donnelly and Schmitt they argue that with the rise of China the United States must ensure its superiority or cede Asia to another great power. Preble also faces resistance from the neo-realist school; Mearsheimer has argued that the U.S. must maintain its military lead if it wants to maintain security.

In conclusion, The Power Problem presents a cogent and convincing argument that the United States does not need to maintain its current military position to remain secure and that a new more cost effective strategy may lead to a more secure United States. Preble’s work is a well written piece that presents an important argument for students of United States Foreign Policy to understand concerning the options for the United States in the future. And in an election year, this has global ramifications, whoever is successful in November.

By William C. Wohlforth, Dartmouth College

In The Power Problem, Christopher Preble argues that U.S. military preponderance actually makes Americans less secure. The country would be safer (and richer and freer) with a dramatically scaled down military posture and a restrained grand strategy to match. With precision and passion, Preble tots up the costs of America’s massive military establishment. The gargantuan sums involved – some $800 billion annually, if you count correctly – are only a small part of the story. Other costs loom large: free-riding by allies who have no incentive to provide fully for their own security as long as Washington foots the bill, resentment by other societies at America’s overweening power, and, most important of all, the constant temptation to use the matchless military capacity at the White House’s disposal.

The United States has been at war for over half the years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Preble’s key claim is that U.S. leaders decided on these wars not because they had to but just because they could. Because it possesses such awesome military might, and the globe-girdling power networks needed to deploy it just about anywhere, Washington periodically feels obligated to intervene militarily where there is no national interest (e.g., Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya) or adopts radically exaggerated military responses to comparatively insignificant security threats like terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq). If the United States cut its military in half or more, the twin problems of the perceived obligation and the repeated temptation to use military force would vanish. And, of course, money would be saved, freedoms secured, and allies would step up to the plate with their own enhanced capabilities.

It’s a strong argument – indeed, it seems stronger now than when it was published in 2009 – richly deserving the praise that adorns the book jacket. But it is really just the beginning rather than the end of the debate over U.S. grand strategy. For this is an attempt to clap with one hand; a solo dancer trying to tango. One needs to assess not just the costs but also the benefits of military dominance. And it is necessary to reckon not only the observable costs of dominance and engagement but also the expected costs of military downsizing and withdrawal. To perform such an analysis, scholars need to take seriously and evaluate rigorously the reasons U.S. policy makers offer for their current grand strategy of global engagement and the big military it seems to need.

Preble makes no serious attempt at this admittedly tough task. Like similar arguments put forth by such U.S. realists as John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Chris Layne, Preble’s book makes a massive puzzle out of American behaviour under unipolarity. If states generally respond more or less rationally to systemic constraints and inducements, then why are American leaders so congenitally delusional? For Preble, the answer is a messy combination of inertia, nefarious domestic interests and elite intoxication with power. Again, seriously to make the case the U.S. foreign policy is such a spectacular anomaly for realist theory would require real engagement with the reasons U.S. policymakers advance for their strategy. Consider just a small sample.

Does the massive U.S. military deter entry by potential peer rivals? That is, is the Pentagon now doing what Britain’s Royal Navy accomplished for two centuries: sustaining dominance so formidable that no other country is likely to try to create commensurate power? This was the original claim made by notorious 1991 Defense Planning Guidance. Preble dismisses it, noting that other countries are increasing their capabilities. But that’s not the point. Current great power military expenditures as a percentage of GDP are at historical lows, and thus far other major powers have shrunk from taking a direct run at headline U.S. military capabilities. In addition, they have so far been careful to avoid attracting the “focused enmity” of the United States. The question is whether they would create more formidable capabilities and become more adventuresome if they could rationally expect to match or exceed the United States. While I do not know the answer with certainty, there are serious reasons to think it might be yes. The Power Problem does not seriously engage them.

Is the current U.S. grand strategy and the military power that undergirds it all that stands in the way of a nuclear proliferation cascade? Washington conventional wisdom is that U.S. security alliances and assurances prevent a range of actors (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia) from choosing to create nuclear forces. Pulling back a la Preble would involve revoking those assurances or rendering them incredible. In a paragraph, Preble dismiss these concerns, arguing that Japan’s culture of antimilitarism would stay its hand and the international community would dissuade others. According to many experts on Japanese security policy, Washington’s reluctance to bank on Japan’s antimilitarism may not be entirely irrational. And a leaderless international community might end up being a pretty thin reed. Preble himself invokes collective goods theory to argue for the salience of the free rider problem. If that theory applies, then the collective good of counter-proliferation is unlikely to be supplied without a hegemon.

The other prong of U.S counter-proliferation strategy is to raise the expected costs for would-be proliferators. As the case of Iran shows, the cost the US and its posse of allies have to pay on each case seem very high. But Iran is not just about Iran. It’s about all the other states that might be thinking of going down the nuclear weapons path. While America might be secure in a world of a dozen nuclear states, as the numbers go up, so does the probability of something very bad happening. Costly episodes like Iran might be examples of the logic in the famous chain store paradox. It might just be rational to pay huge up front costs to prevent a cascade of costly decisions by competitors. But deterring such a cascade is only credible if the US maintains the military capabilities and globe girdling alliance relationships that Preble so wants America to shed.

In another case, does the global U.S. security presence underwrite the open international economic order? Even more, does it allow Washington to shape that order to fit its preferences? U.S. officials argue that the engagement grand strategy buys leverage on economic issues. As is the case with all these arguments, the leverage claim involves a counterfactual. Even though we observe many negotiations not going Uncle Sam’s way, the argument is that it would be a lot worse if Washington lacked all those security levers to pull to induce other governments to bend to its view of things. And the governments concerned naturally would be reluctant to talk about such influence, making the claim that much harder to validate. The fact that U.S. officials believe the argument hardly makes it true, but neither can it be so easily dismissed.

Is U.S. leadership underwritten by major league military power necessary to foster multinational cooperation to solve problems beyond the capacity of any one state? U.S. leaders believe it is – and so do many scholars. This is the gist of hegemonic stability theory. And while Robert Keohane and others showed that institutionalized cooperation might outlive the hegemony that originally fostered it, most scholars probably agree that continued hegemony makes such cooperation more likely than its absence.

The debate about U.S. grand strategy implicates many more such questions. They all revolve around the issue of whether global order requires globally engaged and militarily powerful leadership – even leadership as flawed and fallible as that provided by the United States – and how much U.S. security and prosperity depend on such a global order. I don’t have answers to most of these questions, and neither does Preble. While these are not the kinds of questions that will succumb to precise scientific inquiry, we can know a lot more about them than we do now. Ultimately, what The Power Problemrecommends is that the United States undertake a massive social science experiment: let’s see how the world works without a globally engaged U.S. No one can know with certainty how such an experiment would turn out. But many may want more evidence and analysis than this book provides before they vote for leaders inclined to try.

The Author's Response

By Christopher Preble, The Cato Institute

I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to participate in this roundtable discussion, and humbled that these five scholars – Andrew Futter, Dan Plesch, Dragan Živojinović, Ashley Cox, and William Wohlforth – have taken the time to consider in some detail the arguments that I present in my book, The Power Problem. I can’t address everything that they have written, but I will do my best to respond to the few comments that seem to strike at the heart of my thesis, or that raise important questions for future consideration. I close with some thoughts on the durability of the current global order, constructed as it is on a presumption of nearly omnipotent American power.

At the outset, I should say that I believe that hegemonic stability theory is the key driver of U.S. foreign policy, not the ‘messy’ confluence of domestic factors loosely known as the military-industrial complex. When William Wohlforth faults me for failing to ‘take seriously and evaluate rigorously the reasons U.S. policy makers offer for their current grand strategy,’ he really seems to be objecting to the fact that I consider their claims to be false, and their strategic vision flawed.

In particular, I identify three core assumptions underlying U.S. foreign policy, assumptions informed by hegemonic stability theory, that I find wanting: first, that alliances distribute defense burdens rather than adding to them; second, that the international economy depends upon a single global policeman to enforce the rules of trade; and third, and related, that international order is best achieved under the watchful eye of a protective hegemon. I have chosen to focus most of my comments here on the first of these, the relationship between U.S. primacy and the behavior of key allies, and have incorporated along the way the comments of the other four reviewers.

The Power Problem sets out to show that the free-riding behavior of America’s allies results in the underprovision of a genuine global public good -- namely, security. I object that this underprovision imposes costs on U.S. troops and U.S. taxpayers, and risks to the global order. I also warn that it is unsustainable over the long term. If there truly is no acceptable alternative to U.S. hegemony, as some have alleged, then we should be working doubly hard to create such an alternative.

Why? Because the current system is constructed on a flimsy domestic consensus in the United States, one that often conceals the true purpose of American power from the people who actually foot the bill. It is not technically true that U.S. military spending is economically unsustainable. The United States has supported even higher levels of spending as a share of GDP in the past, and it could do so in the future. But the American people are not enamored of being the world’s policeman. They are prepared to do so if they believe it essential to advancing U.S. security. If such a posture seems aimed chiefly at defending the security of others, however, and of relieving other countries from their core obligation to defend themselves and their citizens, then many Americans will see those policies for what they are: a massive wealth transfer, a particularly costly form of foreign aid.

Or consider the issue from a somewhat different perspective. U.S. foreign policies might not meet the textbook definition of a public good, but advocates of U.S. global hegemony often argue that because the United States is the leading beneficiary of the international economic system, Americans have both a special obligation and a unique interest in maintaining that order. Americans have performed this service, the defenders of these policies claim, because the costs of doing so are relatively small, and are largely incidental to actions that we take mostly for our own benefit. The counterfactual would ask whether those same benefits might continue, but at less cost to U.S. taxpayers, if the United States were to shed some of its obligations, and call on other countries to assume more responsibility.

Leaving aside the ever elusive question of fairness – Why should American spend four or eight or ten times more, on a per capita basis, than citizens of other advanced industrial economies? -- I am particularly concerned about the underprovision of global security goods in the aggregate.

To be clear, I want other countries to be able, and willing, to address global security challenges. Andrew Futter wonders whether the book is ‘premised on a too-narrow reading of what future wars will look like’ (Futter) or, more provocatively, on the notion that war has ceased to exist? Far from it. The Power Problem is predicated on the notion that threats do still exist in the international system, and that people in other countries, and not just Americans, have an interest in stopping them at the local or regional level, and before they spiral into a global conflagration.

Indeed, I think it wise to continue to prepare to fight wars -- major or otherwise -- even if they seem extremely unlikely. The question then becomes one of determining who is best positioned to deal with distant threats. Even if I were correct that others should address them, the prudent course, as far as many Americans are concerned, is generally ‘better safe than sorry.’ In that respect, Dragan Živojinović is correct: ‘The age-old security dilemma reigns.’

The free-rider problem does as well. Indeed, it is a recurrent condition predicted by the economic theory of alliances. Basic common sense also teaches that individuals are generally not inclined to pay for things that others are willing to buy for them. Ashley Cox summarizes the matter quite succinctly: ‘the reason America’s allies do not spend their fair share is that they see no reason to as long as the United States remains so overwhelmingly dominant.’

Those who celebrate the United States’ role as the world’s policeman do not dispute this, but most are convinced that other countries simply won’t defend themselves or their interests, meaning that distant conflicts will eventually and always reach our shores. This particular logic calls for the U.S. military to be forward-deployed, poised to stop bad things from happening.

Other advocates of U.S. hegemony attach a higher value on discouraging other countries from sharing in the burdens than in encouraging them to do so. They assume that others might be more likely to try to defend themselves if the United States were to adopt a less obtrusive military posture. Wohlforth seems particularly worried about a nuclear proliferation cascade, beginning with Japan.

But it seems curious to assign so much value on the extent to which a massive and costly U.S. military, including a large U.S. nuclear arsenal, slows the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. It might be true that a world with fewer nuclear weapons would be safer than one with many. As a practical matter, however, U.S. counter-proliferation policies have stimulated proliferation among potential adversaries, including North Korea and Iran, and stifled it chiefly among allies.

In conclusion, William Wohlforth believes that I dwell too much on the costs of U.S. foreign policy, and too little on the benefits. To the extent that that is true, I am hardly alone. The unhappy experience in Iraq, and the deepening gloom associated with the war in Afghanistan, has reminded many Americans of something that Futter notes in passing: ‘the political and moral cost of not getting involved’ in foreign disputes must be weighed against the ‘possibility of making the problem far worse.’

A hegemon is expected to deal with any threat, anywhere in the world, otherwise allies and adversaries alike will begin to question its resolve. But though its military power is unmatched, the United States isn’t powerful enough to address every crisis, to police every transaction, or to enforce every rule. Like it or not, the United States must and does choose.

The United States will need to become even more discriminating if it reduces its military power in the coming decade, as seems likely. To be sure, it will still retain the ability to intervene in distant conflicts. Please do not exaggerate the force structure changes that I have in mind. To his credit, Dragan Živojinović recognizes that I am not calling for the United States to become a second-rate power. I do not call for cutting military spending in half, or more. Nor do I claim, as Wohlforth suggests, that ‘the twin problems of the perceived obligation and the repeated temptation to use military force would vanish’ if the U.S. military were to become much smaller.

My aims are more modest: I contend that the ability to intervene (‘can’) should not imply an obligation to do so (‘ought’). I seek to shift the burden of proof to those making the case for intervention, and away from those who are opposed. And while I would concede that it is difficult to ignore distant challenges, it is not impossible. Policymakers in Washington could help themselves by adhering to some identifiable criteria that inform their decisions on whether or not to become involved in foreign disputes. I lay out one set of criteria for the use of force in the book.

They include the requirement that there be a compelling national interest at stake; that the mission enjoys the support of the American people, ideally as expressed in a formal declaration of war; that there is a clear mission, and a clear exit strategy, both of which will help to establish the likely costs; and, lastly, though it might seem banal, I think it bears repeating that war is and should be a last resort -- just because the United States has the ability to wage war at any place, and at any time, does not mean that we should or must.

Dan Plesch deems these criteria insufficiently ‘concrete.’ Fair enough. I encourage him or other critics to come up with their own. The true ‘power problem’ is that there appear today to be no criteria at all. As a result, the United States is seen as wandering from crisis to crisis: damned when it does intervene, but also damned when it doesn’t.

Dr J Simon Rofe, one of Argentia’s founding editors, has moved on from his position at the University of Leicester, to the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. His research interests continue to lie in the fields of US Foreign Relations in the twentieth century with a specific focus on Presidential peacemaking and post-war planning. He is busy with his Leverhulme Trust Fellowship project entitled ‘Presidential Peacemaking in the twentieth Century’ (2010-2013). He took up his new post in late 2011 and his new email address is

Matthew Hill