One Arm Tied behind Our Backs? Assessing the Power of the United States to Combat Global Threats

By: Dr. Leo Blanken , US Naval Postgraduate School

Dr. Jason Lepore, California Polytechnic State University


Americans were left bewildered in the wake of the Vietnam War (1964–1975). "How is it that the ‘greatest power in the world' could suffer defeat at the hands of… [bandits] ‘in black pajamas?'" 1 A phrase, both explanatory and palliative, was often proffered for this puzzle: We fought with one arm tied behind our backs. The imagery of this term is compelling: a pugilist who is struggling not only against an opponent but also against unfair constraints has the weapons he needs to win but cannot bring them to bear. Over the last decade, many Americans have found themselves dealing with similarly overwhelming feelings of frustration. The United States currently spends massive amounts of money on national security to produce the most professional and technically advanced force the world has ever seen.2 Why, then, does this colossal investment seem unable to produce desired outcomes against barely trained, meagerly resourced, seemingly ad hoc opponents around the world? Does the country indeed fight with one arm tied behind its back?

In this article, we postulate that liberal states are increasingly bound by normative limitations on the acceptable uses of force3 and that this effect is exacerbated in discretionary wars (i.e., wars of choice). In other words, a state may have a fully "combat effective" national security apparatus that it cannot bring to bear due to socially constructed norms of acceptable behavior.4 If these points are valid, then they have enormous implications for the strategic assessment efforts undertaken by a liberal democratic nation engaged in a landscape that consists of noncritical threats. A state may have an exceedingly impressive national security apparatus that remains "tied behind its back." Therefore, we suggest that anyone tasked with analyzing US power in the current global threat environment must be very sensitive to these points and temper their analysis of US capabilities accordingly.5

We develop this argument in three parts: First, we critically examine the literature that links investment in military forces to the concept of national power. Second, we look at the "arm tied behind the back" puzzle more closely by identifying increasingly constraining normative expectations on the use of violence. Third, we describe the implications of this argument for making realistic assessments of US capacity to successfully engage the current global threat environment. In doing so, we show that any net assessment of non-state actor threats must be reconsidered to take into account normative constraints on force and avoid the danger of miscalculating capacity. We conclude by linking this discussion to specific policy concerns and call for new approaches to operations planning.

Military Force and the Concept of Power

As a starting point, we need to discuss why some nations are regarded as "powerful" and why this concept is considered by many theorists to be paramount to the functioning of the international system. It is standard to assume that the international system is anarchic.6 If it is true that no higher authority exists above system actors, then these actors must secure themselves to survive. The common narrative for this process is that states—the key actors in the global system—maintain sovereignty over a given territory and population, from which they extract resources and build a military force.7 This ability to leverage authority and resources thus determines the relative power of the actors in the system.8 The question then is, how is military force linked instrumentally to the political fortunes of the state? Despite the myriad weapons and tactics that have been utilized across time and space, most scholars agree that actors get utility out of military forces through two basic means: their actual use (fighting) or their potential use (threatening). In other words, actors either wage war to achieve desired outcomes, or they engage in bargaining with implicit or explicit threats of war in the background as leverage.9 In fact, for those who profess the worldview known as Realism, it is the underlying distribution of military power that provides the structure necessary for the international system to function at all.


Lurking behind the scenes, unstated but explicit, lies the military muscle that gives meaning to the posturing of the diplomats. … Coercion, therefore, is to a political framework what a political framework is to a market: the necessary but not the sufficient precondition for its effective functioning.10


Furthermore, this is frequently assumed to be a positive relationship: "the more a state allocates to the military, the stronger it becomes ceteris paribus and the more likely it is to prevail in any conflict." 11 For the Realist, investment in military forces promises both victory in war and successful negotiation in peace. If this line of reasoning is valid, then the United States today should be able to prevail over almost any threat it confronts.12

Does this parsimonious model seem sound? Or are there conditions under which increasing the allocation of resources to the military fails to increase the power potential of the state? Critics such as David Baldwin argue that military forces are often unable to shape outcomes in the system due to the fact that military forces are far less fungible than is commonly believed. This goes beyond the argument that resources are being allocated inefficiently ("using the wrong strategy") but says that the instrument of military might itself is simply unusable in many arenas of competition. Offering a simple but evocative analogy to illustrate his point, Baldwin observes that it is not a case of "‘he had the cards but played them poorly,' but rather, ‘he had a great bridge hand but happened to be playing poker.' " 13 In other words, weapons and soldiers do not radiate an intrinsic and inexorable "power" but are instruments whose utility is extremely context-dependent. We agree with Baldwin's assessment and focus in the next section on one emerging aspect of contextual constraint: norms of acceptable behavior.


Normative Constraints on the Use of Force

The Realist argument sketched in the previous section is predicated on military force being used without constraint, a condition that accords with a strict adherence to the assumption of anarchy. Carl von Clausewitz's early thinking on the topic emphasized the unlimited nature of war in an anarchic environment where, all things being equal, the more extreme application of violence would prevail: "The impulse to destroy the enemy … is central to the very concept of war. … War is an act of force, and there is no limit to the application of that force."14 This position was articulated almost comically by the colorful Victorian British Admiral Sir John "Jacky" Fisher:

The essence of war is violence! Moderation in war is imbecility! … If you rub it in both at home and abroad that you are ready for instant war … and intend to be first in and hit your enemy in the belly and kick him when he is down and boil your prisoners in oil (if you take any) … and torture his women and children, then people will keep clear of you.15

This quote is striking in its anachronistic feel. Such an idea simply could not be articulated today by any type of democratic state official (who intends to keep his or her job). Why is this the case?16

The "Liberal Dilemma" is a well-documented phenomenon: nations that nominally abhor war as a tool of policy must at times engage in it because "the role of enlightened reason will not be disseminated throughout the world through the peaceful operation of some hidden hand. It needs muscle behind it."17 This tension lies in the liberal state leadership's need to accomplish policy goals while maintaining the popular support necessary to stay in power.18 Thus, these leaders must consider the opportunity costs of any potential military action. Undertaking military actions that contravene accepted norms can create substantial costs and undermine the fortunes of political leadership by (1) alienating the global community and inciting international disapproval, and/or (2) raising domestic disapproval and lowering domestic political support. In the first case, a state that is highly integrated into the global community in terms of economic activity and international security must consider these international norms very carefully because transgressions affect international relationships. In the words of political scientist Martha Finnemore, "Force must be coupled with legitimacy for maximum effect. … The goal must be seen as legitimate, and force must be viewed as a legitimate means to that goal."19 In the second case, the internal political institutions of the democratic state are paramount to policy makers. Democratically elected leaders are highly sensitive to maintaining a foreign policy that is palatable to their domestic constituents.20 Under such circumstances, it follows that norms will be more constraining in liberal states.21


Constraining norms become even more difficult to observe in discretionary "wars of choice." Lawrence Freedman, a foreign policy and defense expert, explains why this is the case.

When the security of the state is threatened by a large and self-evidently hostile enemy, then all social and economic resources can be mobilized in response. When, by contrast, there is a debate to be had about the nature of the threat and whether matters are made better or worse by direct military action, military operations appear to be more discretionary and national mobilisation on even a modest scale becomes more difficult.22

In other words, when threats are seen as nonexistential, normative constraints loom larger. Domestic constituents are willing to bear fewer direct costs, and critics at home and abroad are less circumspect in their censure:

The intervening states' apparent sympathy for the population should lead them to take extra precautions to protect it during the prosecution of the war... On the other hand, if the political leaders justify the wars by reference to altruistic motives rather than to national interest, they may find it difficult to permit any unnecessary risk to their own country's soldiers.23


Thus, liberal countries' wars of choice generate contradictory pressures: the need to minimize target nation casualties while simultaneously minimizing their own forces' casualties, all while executing complex and demanding missions against a relatively unconstrained enemy. This point of view is expounded most directly by Gil Merom, an international security specialist who argues that "democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory." 24 If this is true, then we can expect that liberal states faced with nonexistential threats will find it increasingly difficult to gauge their ability to apply adequate resources and affect outcomes in the international system. We now turn to the difficulties of assessing threats and outcomes for liberal democracies.



The Challenge of Assessment

The ability to realistically assess potential outcomes is a fundamental requirement for actors in an anarchic system because bargaining over any issue is done with the specter of conflict, however remote, in the background. Each actor must regularly calculate how its forces would fare in a prospective conflict, a reality that conditions the scope of national ambitions, the weighing of recalcitrance and acquiescence, and the ultimate choice of whether to resort to violence. These positions can be founded only on assessments of each actor's relative power.25 Combined with the normative constraints on policy described in the previous section, it follows that creating a valid assessment scheme for the United States in its current threat environment is going to be difficult in the extreme.

Some areas of competition are relatively symmetric and straightforward; others can be more complicated. The naval arms racing of the pre-carrier capital ship era, for example, provided relatively straightforward metrics of national power.26 As strategist Emily Goldman points out, however, when competitors choose to offset, rather than match, their opponent's investments through asymmetric weapons and tactics, things become more complex.27 The current global security environment, characterized as it is by fluid networks of nefarious non-state threats, epitomizes such "off-setting" strategic contests. Fringe actors seek to dethrone the liberal world order in a number of arenas—political, social, cyber, and cultural—yet not in battlefield dominance, where US strength lies. This profound asymmetry makes assessing relative power problematic. In the parlance of net assessment, the relevant attributes of "red" (the opponent) are not easy to compare to those of "blue" (ourselves).28

The difficulty of measuring this environment goes beyond mere complexity, however. Building on our preceding discussions, the capacities of liberal states are further limited by their inability to bring their military investments to bear on many types of threats. This problem is compounded by the fact that wealthy liberal states, such as the United States, have increasingly relied on advanced technology and stand-off weaponry to dominate battlefields, but wars are being fought in cities and villages, not on traditional battlefields.29 Current internal assessments of military capability are skewed to heavily weight such expensive platforms and their supporting systems. As we noted earlier, however, such weapons can play only a minor role against the security threats that liberal democracies currently face. Therefore, standard assessment frameworks may be heavily biased toward overestimating the capacity of such states to effect outcomes in the international system, and lead to overly ambitious policy and the ready resort to force.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The United States finds itself in a world full of concerns, none of which currently threatens the existence of the nation. Our discussion highlights the fact that, ironically, the lack of an existential threat creates its own host of problems for policy makers. More specifically, in such an environment, a "powerful" liberal nation, such as the United States, may be essentially powerless to bring its national security investments to bear on the existing threats. We demonstrate that the militarily most powerful nation in the world is indeed struggling with one arm tied behind its back, a fact that policymakers and planners must bear in mind. What are some of the implications of this situation?

First, the constraint of social and political norms on military execution is a fundamental consideration in any decision regarding the discretionary uses of force. Simply basing decisions on the array of impressive assets available to policy makers has and almost surely will lead to grief. Normative constraints should be acknowledged at the outset of mission planning, yet the nuts and bolts of operations are normally developed in a vacuum, divorced from the broader social and political context. This situation needs to change.

Second, if, after careful consideration, military force remains the best option, then the types of units selected for missions are critical. On the one hand, conventional military forces are purpose-built to effectively destroy enemy units in an unconstrained environment. But on the other hand, the current array of irregular conflicts is not merely a "lesser included" subset of such missions. Small packages of specially selected and trained forces may not only be more effective than larger conventional units at operating in complex "human terrain" but also are less likely to garner the media attention that mobilizes normative critics.

Finally, using military force as a policy tool in today's threat environment requires a fundamental reworking of our outdated, Cold War–legacy planning mechanism. A new perspective on military planning is necessary to build and equip forces that can operate in politically constrained settings against non-state opponents. Such a new approach should consider combat effectiveness as only one attribute of a viable force structure, while simultaneously taking into account normative political constraints. In doing so, we can avoid building expensive arms that remain tied behind our back.

About the Author(s):
Dr. Leo Blanken associate professor in the Defense Analysis department of the US Naval Postgraduate School.

Dr. Jason Lepore associate professor of economics at California Polytechnic State University.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. David A. Baldwin, Paradoxes of Power (New York: Blackwell, 1989), 132. go back up
  2. For the global context of US defense spending, see the descriptive analyses produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: go back up
  3. We follow Michael Doyle's treatment of the concept of liberalism. See Michael W. Doyle, "Liberalism and World Politics," American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (December 1998): 1151–69. go back up
  4. This is distinct from arguments that are commonly put forward regarding strategy choice. See, for example, John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). go back up
  5. The problem with overestimating force capabilities is further exacerbated by the problem of incentive misalignment and conflict assessment in wars of choice. For a treatment of this issue, see Leo J. Blanken and Jason J. Lepore "Performance Measurement in Military Operations: Information versus Incentives," forthcoming (n.d.) in Defence and Peace Economics: . On metrics challenges across a broader array of conflict environments, see Leo J. Blanken, Hy Rothstein, and Jason J. Lepore, eds., Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2015). go back up
  6. For critical assessments of this assumption, see David A. Lake, "Anarchy, Hierarchy, and the Variety of International Relations," International Organization 50, no.1 (Winter 1996): 1–33; and Alexander Wendt, "Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics," International Organization 46, no. 2 (1992): 391–425. go back up
  7. See, for example, Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: Free Press, 1994). go back up
  8. See Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979). go back up
  9. The classic treatment is still Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966). go back up
  10. Robert J. Art, "The Fungibility of Force," in The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics, 7th ed., ed. Robert J. Art and Kenneth N. Waltz (Lanham, Mass.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 4–5. go back up
  11. Robert Powell, In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 4–5. go back up
  12. Recent work by Blake Allison suggests that military power has less impact on outcomes than previously believed. Specifically, a marginal increase in military capabilities may have no impact on the outcomes of noncooperative bargaining games. See Blake A. Allison, "Do Players Prefer to Bargain Noncooperatively in the Shadow of Conflict?" (lecture, University of California, Irvine, Department of Economics Theory, History, and Development Seminar Series, Irvine, Calif., 13 October 2014). go back up
  13. Baldwin, Paradoxes of Power, 133. go back up
  14. Quoted in Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 225. Clausewitz's later work, however, emphasized that most wars are limited in nature. For a detailed analysis of this tension, see R. Harrison Wagner, "Bargaining and War," American Journal of Political Science 44, no. 3 (July 2000): 469–84. go back up
  15. Quoted in Diana Preston, A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 18. go back up
  16. We neglect international law here, though there is reason to link it to our discussion of norms, since international law has no third-party enforcement mechanism. See Michael Howard, "Constraints on Warfare," in The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World, ed. Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995). go back up
  17. Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978), 6. See also John M. Owen, Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000). go back up
  18. On this assumption, see Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003). go back up
  19. Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), 16–17. go back up
  20. See Michael W. Doyle, "Three Pillars of the Liberal Peace," American Political Science Review 99, no. 3 (August 2005): 463–66. go back up
  21. On this point, see the concluding chapter of Leo J. Blanken, Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). go back up
  22. Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs (London: IISS, 2006), 7. go back up
  23. Matthew Evangelista, Law, Ethics, and the War on Terror (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2008), 131. go back up
  24. Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 15. go back up
  25. See Branislav L. Slantchev, "The Principle of Convergence in Wartime Negotiations," American Political Science Review 97, no. 4 (November 2003): 621–32. go back up
  26. See John Jordan, Warships after Washington: The Development of the Five Major Fleets, 1922–1930 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2012). go back up
  27. Emily O. Goldman, Power in Uncertain Times: Strategy in the Fog of Peace (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010). go back up
  28. For a detailed discussion of the "color" metaphor in national security, see Lawrence A. Kuznar and Carl W. Hunt, "The Blue-Green-Red Metaphor in the Context of Counterterrorism: Clarifications and Anthropological Emendations," in this issue of CTX. go back up
  29. See Michel Fortmann and Stéfanie von Hlatky, "The Revolution in Military Affairs: Impact of Emerging Technologies on Deterrence," in Complex Deterrence: Strategy in the Global Age, ed. T.V. Paul, Patrick M. Morgan, and James J. Wirtz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).go back up
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