7.4.7 The Security Impact of International Coercion

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/747a.htm)

International political leadership can be exerted by persuasion, using only the force of argument, but when it uses economic and military pressure it becomes what this book describes as a ‘coercive foreign policy’ (6.7.7.1).  In addition to the economic and political disadvantages of such a policy, there is a security impact:

  • Bullies are never popular, and unpopularity is costly. A habit of coercive behaviour encourages other countries to raise their own defences and, following the line that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, it motivates them to help others to resist coercion.  Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, saw it as being in his interests to help any country which opposed America – including Cuba and Iran, for example – as described in a Reuters article, Factbox: Venezuela’s ties with Iran:

“Both fierce anti-U.S.  ideologues, Ahmadinejad [in Iran] and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have become close political and commercial allies in recent years, to the annoyance of Washington.”

  • The use of coercion results in adverse propaganda (7.4.3), which increases the military threat.
  • The use of military force, by one country against another, is never like a cowboy film where the good guy shoots the bad guy and those on the good side live happily ever after. Imposed solutions are unstable (7.4.5), so problems will resurface.
  • It is risky to try to bring about political change in another country. Revolution, or very radical change, rarely brings about the intended political consequences (6.2.5) and the creation of a power vacuum gives an opportunity for tensions within the country to erupt into civil war – aided by terrorist organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, as was the case in both Iraq (7.4.3.1) and Libya (7.3.2.2).
  • Local people may not understand the political thinking of intervention by a foreign country, even if it is nominally for their benefit. Their reaction towards any interference is likely to be hostile, resulting in armed resistance (7.4.1.4).  Steve Chapman’s article, Burned in Afghanistan, made several powerful points for example:

“Many if not most Afghans have never heard of the 9/11 attacks.  Even the deputy chairman of the government’s High Peace Council told The Wall Street Journal he doesn’t believe al-Qaida destroyed the World Trade Center.

So what can we expect ordinary people to think when they see the country overrun with armed foreigners who sometimes kill and injure innocent civilians? Or when they hear that those infidels are burning Qurans?”

  • Any form of coercion can result in retaliation. Palestinians have resorted to Self-Protection, in response to Israeli building of settlements on the West Bank (7.4.4), with a campaign of terrorism – which is a tempting choice for those who are militarily weak.  The building of settlements has thus had the net effect of worsening Israel’s security situation.  A UN Resolution to prevent Israeli expansionism would probably be in the latter’s best interests, since its internal politics sometimes prevent it from taking the wisest course.

A country will have fewer friends, and will find it harder to protect itself, if it uses coercion – although Eliot A Cohen, for example, advocated it in his book: The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.  This was reviewed in John Hillen’s article in December 2016, The Return of Hard Power; it quoted Cohen as saying that “America needs a substantially larger military than the one it now has.”

This book, Patterns of Power, disagrees with Cohen’s recommendation.  It accepts that hard power remains necessary in practice (7.2.7), but argues that it has been used recklessly and too often.  It should only be used with careful planning and within the framework of a rules-based international order – which needs strengthening, as suggested in the last chapter (9.5).

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