Which is Better:  To Be Strong or Smart?

This post is prompted by an article by Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman, We’re Still Asking the Wrong Question about Biden and Ukraine.  He writes:

For once, can we confront a foreign policy challenge without obsession over whether the president is being “weak” or “strong”? … In any foreign policy challenge, understanding what goes into the decisions other countries will make is absolutely vital.  But if you’ve decided the only thing that matters is whether America and the American president look weak or strong, you’ve become willfully stupid and blind.   And in your desperation to show strength, you inevitably push toward the most belligerent choices, which can make armed conflict more likely.  The fetishization of strength has been the foundation of Republican foreign policy for decades – and all too often they succeeded in making everyone else focus on it.  Mostly this was just about attitude, the belief that nothing was more important than for the American president to pose and preen like an oiled-up bodybuilder.

Unfortunately, the fetishization of strength led the US into disastrous wars in Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as I described in this post.  In each of these wars, American political leaders made horrible decisions, assuming that the US could do whatever we wanted because of our overwhelming military power.  President Johnson escalated engagement in the Viet Nam War fearing the perception of weakness if we “lost” the war.

Political and opinion leaders should focus on whether our policies are smart, not whether we create the (possibly misleading) image of strength.

Being smart involves careful analysis of the extent and limitations of one’s power, recognizing that there are many forms of power and ways to exercise it.  Wisdom includes analysis of whether, when, and how to use one’s strength to accomplish high-priority goals.

It helps to understand the various stakeholders’ histories, perceptions, and interests, rather than being blinded by the naive realism bias of assuming that the world is just as one sees it.  For example, in the current crisis over Ukraine, it helps for Western leaders to understand the history of the Cold War and how President Putin views the world and Russia’s interests.

Sometimes it is quite appropriate for countries (as well as individuals and organizations) to use their power.  In the military context, it can be appropriate to fight when some countries invade others as Nazi Germany did in World War II and Iraq did when it invaded Kuwait.  Even when war is justified, countries may wisely decide that they can better exercise strength using tactics such as multi-national political and economic sanctions.  Sometimes, they may decide not to exercise military power based on an assessment of the likely consequences and costs.  Doing these difficult analyses is being smart in using one’s strength wisely.

By contrast, being strong includes no implication of wisdom.  Countries may use force wisely or not.  Before running for president, Barack Obama appropriately criticized “dumb wars.”  Perhaps surprisingly, he used his 2009 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to articulate his views about when it is appropriate to use military force.  He noted the concept of a “just war,” which suggests that “war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense;  if the force used is proportional;  and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”  He identified increased threats in recent years that may justify military action such as genocide and terrorism.  In his speech, which is well worth reading, he spoke a lot about the need for concerted actions to promote real peace, stability, and justice.

It is possible to increase both wisdom and strength.  Advice to “improve one’s BATNA” is a classic theory about increasing strength.  Getting stronger involves analysis of weaknesses, potential threats, options for addressing one’s vulnerabilities, and the will to take appropriate action.

Strong parties can become wiser by conducting such analyses.  Unfortunately, being very strong may lead to dumb decisions due to arrogant and ill-considered beliefs that one’s existing strength is sufficient to counter threats.

Hopefully, the US and NATO can wisely use their strength selectively to de-escalate the threats of war in Ukraine and to resolve some underlying issues.