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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Coercive Military Strategy
Stephen J Cimbala

(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1998)
229pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $39.95; ISBN 0-89096-836-5.



Given the ongoing (at time of writing) American and British bombing of Iraq and NATO bombing of Yugoslavia this is a very timely book. As the name suggests Stephen Cimbala gives a detailed analysis of how military force can and, perhaps more importantly, can not be used as a tool of international coercion (that is to get another to do what you want it to do). This book is a must read for policy makers in the West and anyone else who sees the application of military force as a quick, easy, and relatively bloodless means to punish 'rouge' states. The main message in this book is that coercive military strategy may be successful in inter-state conflict where objectives can be readily identified they are less applicable to intra-state conflicts, especially in regards to western interventions within these types of conflicts.

The purpose of the book is to argue that the mastery of coercive military strategy is necessary for successful war or diplomacy at an acceptable cost. Coercive military strategy is important to Cimbala, as he claims it to have the 'potential to contribute to the best, and worst, results in war and policy; the skill of the swordsmith cannot be separated from the sharpness of the blade'(p. 3). A coercive military strategy is where deliberate use of force is applied to achieve policy objectives, on an adjustable scale relevant to the evolving situation or context. Cimbala argues that coercive military force will be a necessary part of any diplomatic-strategic recipe for American military success in the post-Cold War world.

The fist chapter of the book outlines the evolution of coercive military strategy in the US during the Cold War. In this the US did not develop this strategy as a result of learning from their experiences in its limited wars of the period but from concerns of nuclear war and escalation; thus the US was as unsuccessful in apply coercive military strategy in Vietnam as they had been in Korea. The next three chapters explore specific case studies: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1990-91 Gulf War and Vietnam. In regards to the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States all but stumbled into an effective coercive military strategy while the Soviets were unable to counter the American actions giving Khrushchev no option but to back down. In the Gulf War the limited war aims (i.e. liberating Kuwait) of the US matched those of the coalition and were well suited to the use of military force to achieve the objectives. By contrast, in Vietnam it was not so much the gradualist approach to the use of military force that was problematic but the fact that US policy vacillated among conflicting objectives that were not easily achieved using military coercion.

In the final two chapters Cimbala moves beyond the Cold War (and end of the Cold War) conflicts to address the use of coercion in Collective Security structures and in its utility in operations other than war. In terms of Collective Security, coercive military strategy is useful only so long as a coalition of the willing is stronger than the revisionist powers. In regards to operations other than war, Cimbala is less optimistic that coercive military strategy can play as useful a role. These operations, Cimbala argues, 'are dependent upon the willingness of the parties to settle sooner or later. If there is nothing about which to compromise, there is little prospect for agreed ... solutions.' (p. 155). Ethnic, racial and religious conflicts tend not to have many options for compromise and as such any coercive military force used in an attempt to resolve these conflicts will have to be bloody and violent in the extreme.

This is a very well researched and written text that will be of interest to any student of international politics in general, and of great power intervention in particular.


Craig Snyder,
Deakin University, Australia




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