AIr & S pace Power Journal

Coercive Military Strategy by Stephen J. Cimbala. Texas A&M University Press, John H. Lindsey Building, Lewis Street, College Station, Texas 77843-4354, 1998, 240 pages, $39.95.

The United States is no longer fighting the cold war, and the strategies of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and strategic nuclear deterrence are no longer sufficient. With military operations in the post-cold-war era more likely to fall into the category of military operations other than war (MOOTW), including counterdrug and peacekeeping operations, we need a new strategy. In his book Coercive Military Strategy, political scientist Stephen Cimbala argues that this new face of war requires a different way of looking at strategy. Cimbala recognizes that MAD is not a strategy for the future, and he introduces the concept of “coercive military strategy” to replace those strategies prevalent during a time when everyone assumed that the use of nuclear weapons was inevitable.

Coercive military strategy, as Cimbala defines the term, employs specific, graduated means to achieve policy objectives while adjusting the means and ends to the particular conflict or situation. Since the possibility of total war is now remote, policy makers need a tool that is more compromising than the threat of total nuclear annihilation. He promotes this idea successfully because he has accurately assessed a void that we need to address. Although coercive military strategy may not be a new idea, Cimbala articulates it in such a way that it becomes newly relevant.

It is not surprising that the author argues so effectively for the need of coercive military strategy since he has written almost two dozen books on international strategic issues. As in many of these other works, Cimbala uses historical examples of successes and failures of coercive military strategy to create a prescription for its use in the future. This method of using historical examples to support his point is effective because it compels the reader to reach the only sensible conclusion—that coercive military strategy is a necessary tool for future strategists because, without it, they will find themselves stymied in their attempts to craft a policy of diplomatic suasion (that is, convincing others to do, or not to do, something). Having coercive military strategy as a potential bargaining tool will effectively increase the negotiating ability of policy makers.

Cimbala did not set out to draft a guidebook for negotiation. What he does is present the idea of coercive military strategy and place it in its appropriate historical context. He examines the spectrum from the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis to Operation Desert Storm and collective security operations. In each example, he looks at how coercive military strategy was—or was not—used. During his discussion of the Vietnam War—a time during which, according to many commentators, coercive military strategy was used but failed—he argues convincingly to the contrary. In his conclusion to this chapter, he states that coercive strategy could have been successful had the United States been willing to use more decisive means to pursue its goals. Because it did not do so, coercive military strategy did not have the backing of the people in power, which would have made it an effective tool.

A willingness to use military coercion is central to Cimbala’s theme, and the logical way he sets out to present military coercion as a strategy is noteworthy. Starting with the cold war and ending with the current trend towards collective security, Cimbala presents coercive military strategy in its earliest form (when the idea was better known as “coercive diplomacy”) and then develops it, looking at different conflicts and ways the strategy has been applied in each. In his chapter on Desert Storm, he asserts that “the Gulf crisis and war in 1990–91 may seem an inappropriate venue for demonstrating the military relevancy of coercive strategy” (69). However, he goes on to show that it is in fact appropriate within the context of political and military constraints. Because the United States was successful, coercive military strategy, rather than being inapplicable to this example, was actually the linchpin for the coalition’s success.

Although Cimbala’s work is balanced, well developed, and convincing, it is not without flaws. Most significantly, he seems to have difficulty tying the concept of coercive military strategy into MOOTW. His chapter on this subject contains good information about concerns the United States will face when confronted with the need to conduct these other operations; unfortunately, he does not convincingly introduce the usefulness of coercive military strategy. This is not because it is not useful, since having a credible threat backed up by the willingness to follow through has the potential to be an effective deterrent. The problem is that Cimbala neither effectively establishes a connection nor provides solid historical examples to show how coercive strategy has worked in MOOTW. This weakness, however, does not significantly detract from the overall impact of the book.

Saying that Cimbala breaks revolutionary new ground with Coercive Military Strategy would be going too far because that is not what he intended to do with this book. Rather, he examines historical examples of the employment of coercive military strategy in an attempt to offer an option to policy makers in the current environment, which seems to favor collective security, peacekeeping, and peace-enforcement operations. Coercive Military Strategy is an important work in the field of international strategy and is a useful tool for students and policy makers alike.

Maj Bridget Powell, USAF
March Air Reserve Base, California


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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